In the 20 minutes it takes to travel between the airport and Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, sightings of Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell can climb into the teens. If you miss the magazine covers, the billboards and his ubiquitous number 8 jersey, you're certain to run across Brunell in some form or other on the local airwaves. Besides his weekly radio and TV shows, the guy is featured in all kinds of ads hawking everything from beepers and banks to burgers and burglar alarms.
But while the poor Floridians have been bombarded by Brunellmania, the rest of the country hardly knows this season's most prolific passer. Soon, though, it may be impossible to tune him out.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Brunell, 26, leads the NFL in passing yardage (3,742) and completions (301) and ranks seventh with 17 TD passes. In the pouring rain on Sunday the lefty led the Jaguars to their sixth victory of the season, a 30-27 home field win over the Cincinnati Bengals, by throwing for 356 yards and a TD. It was Brunell's sixth 300-yard game of the season and his 15th consecutive outing with more than 200 yards in the air, a feat never matched by some of his better-known contemporaries, such as John Elway, Brett Favre, Jim Kelly and Joe Montana.
"Mark Brunell is going to be the best quarterback in the league," said former Jacksonville wideout Andre Rison before he was waived and claimed by Green Bay last month. "Mark is going to be the man."
Perhaps he already is. Despite nagging knee and thigh injuries, Brunell is the only quarterback in the NFL who has taken every one of his team's snaps this season. If he continues at his current pace, Brunell will finish the year with 4,964 passing yards, the second-highest single-season total in history. (The Dolphins' Dan Marino threw for 5,084 in 1984.) "You may be looking at the next Steve Young," Green Bay's Pro Bowl safety Eugene Robinson has said.
Not too shabby for a guy who wasn't even the first quarterback drafted from his college team. As a senior at Washington in 1992 Brunell split time with Billy Joe Hobert, who was selected by the Raiders in the third round of the '93 draft while Brunell was the fifth-round pick of the Packers. Green Bay then sent Brunell to Jacksonville for a third-and a fifth-round draft pick in April '95. "His growth [last year] was as profound as anybody's I've been around," says Jacksonville's offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride. "He's trying to make a much more difficult development now, to be the kind of precise, mistake-free quarterback the greats are."
Since Brunell took over as the starter in Week 6 last year, Gilbride has spent up to eight hours a day during the season refining his quarterback's raw skills. Brunell came to the Jaguars—a team with a complicated, multifaceted system that Brunell calls a "melting pot of all the NFL's offenses"—having completed only 12 passes as a pro. And he still considered his 1991 Rose Bowl MVP performance, with two passing TDs and two rushing TDs, to be the model of a perfect game. He lived by the creed his father, Dave, taught him when he was a ninth-grader in Santa Maria, Calif.: "If it's not there, son, run it."
"I think he said that because he didn't want me getting killed in the pocket," says Brunell, who still needs to run for his life sometimes, having been sacked 82 times in his last 26 games. "I have had a kind of wild-man-on-the-field routine in the past. I took chances both throwing and running the ball. And my recklessness hurt the team."
On Sunday, Brunell showed that he has learned to harness his propensity to giddyap out of the pocket. And although he still leads the league in interceptions, with 20, he didn't throw a single one against a Cincinnati secondary that features cornerback Ashley Ambrose—the NFL leader, with eight. The win moved the Jaguars' record to 6-7 while inspiring the soaked crowd of 57,408 to chant, "Plaaaay...offs, plaaaay...offs."
"I'd give up all the stats in a second for more wins," says Brunell. "Just look at Dan Marino. All the stats he has, and now all he truly wants is to win a Super Bowl. Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback."