The picture almost hung from the sky, a reminder of how important Mark Brunell is to the fortunes of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Turn to catch a pass, look up to field a punt, just stare straight ahead and daydream—and there he was. Thirty feet above the end of the practice field. Twenty feet tall. Maybe even larger.
"The picture last year was of [linebacker] Jeff Lageman," a man said last week, pointing at the Mao-sized billboard action shot, part of a shoe advertisement that hangs on the back of one of the scoreboards at ALLTEL Stadium in Jacksonville. "But there wasn't any doubt about who would be there this year. I mean, Mark Brunell owns this city."
Brunell. Brunell. Brunell. The name of the Jaguars' 26-year-old quarterback, the man who led them to the AFC Championship Game in only the franchise's second year, was everywhere last week. The daily mood of the city he owned slid between panic and funk. The idea that he could be injured—his right knee was twisted in an Aug. 9 exhibition game by blitzing New York Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead—was startling. The idea that he could be back in just eight weeks, the verdict after arthroscopic surgery at Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute last Thursday, was only partly reassuring.
For followers of this young and almost instantly successful team, this was a first glimpse of how quickly NFL fortunes can change. "I think everyone was in shock for a couple of days," Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin says. "We, the coaches, were in shock, too. You don't prepare for something like this, losing your starting quarterback. You might think about it every now and then, but when you're preparing for a season, you're preparing to play with the players you have in your lineup. When you lose someone like Mark, well, that's when you have to think about it."
The Florida Times-Union printed illustrations of the medial collateral and anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments in the human knee and explained their functions in detail. Every radio station on the dial seemed to have its own giant GET WELL, BRUNELL card to be signed by the public. ("I always thought the three worst letters in the alphabet were IRS," said a disc jockey on station WQIK. "Now I find out they're MCL.") There were theological discussions about Brunell's claim, "I'm believing that God is going to heal my knee," which was followed by the doctors' welcome report that he would not be out for the season.
"You have to remember that everyone here is pretty new to this," says Jaguars manager of publications Rick Korch. "This is the only major league franchise in Jacksonville. These people are in love with this team. When we came back from beating Denver to go to the AFC championship, over 40,000 people were waiting for us in the stadium. Some of them had watched the game on the scoreboard in the afternoon, then just stayed, 12 hours in the stadium."
The irony, noted often, was that 12 days before his injury Brunell had signed a five-year, $31.5 million contract extension, which included a $10 million signing bonus. Wasn't money like that supposed to make a man invincible?
The job of replacing Brunell fell to Rob Johnson, the third-year backup from Southern Cal. Their gap in experience is astonishing. Brunell was the only NFL quarterback to play every down last season. Johnson was the only backup quarterback not to play a down.
"That wasn't something we planned," Coughlin says. "We wanted to get Rob some work. Every game simply came down to the fourth quarter. I was criticized after the Pittsburgh game [a 28-3 loss on Nov. 17] for not using Rob, but even then I thought we had a shot in the fourth quarter. The Steelers weren't doing much on offense, and I thought if we could just get something going...."
Once the shock of losing Brunell wore off, Coughlin tried to put the best spin on the situation. He pointed out that Brunell did not play a down on defense in '96 and did not play a down on special teams. Two thirds of Jacksonville's operation was untouched. Coughlin did not point out that Brunell led all quarterbacks last season in passing yardage and rushing yards, becoming the first player to do so since Johnny Unitas with the '63 Baltimore Colts.