Man of Steel
Mark Brunell was super in engineering the NFL's biggest playoff upset since 1969 as the Jaguars beat the Broncos
Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:15PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:36PM
This story was originally published in the Jan. 13, 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Someday, 4 1/2-year-old Caitlin Brunell will understand what her father did last Saturday, how he got 75,678 people at Mile High Stadium to open their mouths wide and yet not make a sound, how he cut Denver Bronco John Elway's dream into little paper dolls and how he carved his own legend out of the most staggering NFL playoff upset in three decades. Not now though. Now she just wants to know why he isn't home more. "Daddy," she says, "don't go to football again."
Well, Caitlin, your daddy is going to football again this week. Your daddy goes to football better than anybody in the league right now. Your daddy is quarterback Mark Brunell of the expansion (cough, cough) Jacksonville Jaguars, and right now he is turning the game upside down and shaking out its change. He has become the most dangerous weapon in the sport, which is nothing to be afraid of, unless you happen to be New England Patriots defensive coordinator Al Groh. Groh has to figure out a way either to stop Brunell or to get him arrested before this Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Foxboro Stadium.
One thing is for sure: The folks in Denver will never forget Brunell, not for years and years. He and his Jaguars not only shocked the Broncos, the best team in the AFC, 30-27, but they also ruined what might have been Elway's last chance for a Super Bowl victory and possibly wrecked Denver owner Pat Bowlen's plans for the city to build him a new stadium. All in one unforgettable, giant Orange Flush.
"I'm sick to my stomach," said Denver running back Terrell Davis afterward. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called it "the toughest loss I've ever faced." Elway had awakened with a start every night last week worrying about Jacksonville, and now his nightmare was real. "This is my worst disappointment," he said. And remember, Elway has lots of disappointments to choose from. All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe was inconsolable. "If I had a thousand tongues, I couldn't describe how bad I feel inside," he said. "I feel like I let John down. I think the team let him down. I don't know if I'll ever get over this. It will be until the turn of the century, at least, before this franchise gets over this."
It was really not supposed to be this way for Brunell. In mid-November the Jaguars were a harmless 4-7, and Brunell must have thought he would be spending the holidays at home with Caitlin. But then the Jaguars started beating everybody in sight. And in the last minute of the last game of the regular season, the world's best field goal kicker, Morten Andersen of the Atlanta Falcons, missed a 30-yard field goal, and all of a sudden Jacksonville was in the playoffs.
The Jaguars went to Rich Stadium in Buffalo for a wild-card game, banked in a field goal off an upright and won a playoff game where no visitor had ever won a playoff game. Now they have gone to Denver and brought home the most morning-coffee-spilling upset since Joe Namath and his New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Brunell is no Namath. He is more like Elway. He has Elway's magic cleats and Elway's Hollywood escapes and a touch on the football that took Elway 10 NFL seasons to learn. Brunell, 26, is only in his second year as a starter, but he did a better Elway than Elway on Saturday. Every time two Broncos looked as if they had him smooshed, he would squirt away or would leave them smashed into one another like cartoon bad guys as he sprinted for another first down or threw across his body to a receiver who didn't even realize he was open. "He was putting the ball on the money," Elway said afterward. "He just made huge plays all day. You don't see a lot of guys who can make things happen like he can."