You are the quarterback, and this is your vacation of choice: sand in your toes, the Caribbean in view, nobody in your business. You have an ample supply of sunblock—not to mention the companionship of one of the NFL's best blockers—yet you are about to get burned.
You are Mark Brunell of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a 26-year-old whirlwind who has been anointed as pro football's next great star. You and your wife, Stacy, are lounging on a resplendent St. Thomas beach with two close friends—Tony Boselli, the Jaguars' Pro Bowl left tackle, and his wife, Angi. A boy, maybe 15, approaches the 6'7" 323-pound, chiseled-like-Mount-Rushmore Boselli and asks for his autograph, and as Boselli signs, he nods toward you and says, "You might want to get his autograph, too."
You have mixed emotions about this. You're no fan of the limelight, but you do have an ego; you would never have made it this far were it not for your profound faith in your abilities. Besides, if the kid snubs you, Boselli will ride you mercilessly for days.
Finally, the boy answers Boselli. "Why would I want to get his autograph?" he says with a sneer. "It'd be like him asking for mine."
Here's one difference between Brunell and the kid on the beach: Five months later, Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver asked Brunell for his autograph, and the quarterback signed a five-year, $31.5 million contract extension that made him one of the league's highest-paid players. A revelation during last year's playoffs, when he carried the Jaguars, in just their second year, past the Buffalo Bills and the AFC-favorite Denver Broncos and into the conference championship game, Brunell has value that extends far beyond Jacksonville. You can bet there were huge smiles at NFL headquarters in New York City when, after Brunell injured his knee during an Aug. 9 exhibition game against the New York Giants, it was announced he would not require reconstructive knee surgery and could return by early October. Think about it: With John Elway, Dan Marino and Steve Young all at least 35, Troy Aikman a weathered 30 and even Brett Favre settling into adulthood (he turns 28 in October), the NFL is counting on Brunell to lead a new generation of marquee quarterbacks into the 21st century.
It's a titillating time for pro football fans, and much of the excitement is clustered in one division. In addition to Brunell, the division includes three young, mobile, strong-armed, African-American quarterbacks—the Cincinnati Bengals' Jeff Blake, the Tennessee (né Houston) Oilers' Steve McNair and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Kordell Stewart—as well as Vinny Testaverde, a 33-year-old Heisman Trophy winner whose career was reborn with the Baltimore Ravens last season.
This quiver-inspiring quintet includes three men who have been to the Pro Bowl: Testaverde and Brunell, both of whom played for the AFC in February (Brunell was the game's MVP), and Blake, a selection the previous year. Then there is Stewart, who already owns the longest touchdown run by a quarterback in NFL history (80 yards). He and McNair, the third pick in the '95 draft, are brimming with potential as they approach their first year as starters.
Each quarterback, even the deceptively agile Testaverde, supplements a strong arm with a scrambler's flair. "It's nice to catch a breather during the season, but the way this division is now, there aren't any," says Carnell Lake, the Steelers' Pro Bowl strong safety. "If you let down your guard for a moment, you get beat. All these guys can move, so you've got to be fast, and you've got to be in shape."
Just ask the Jaguars, whose 1996 season included a 34-27 loss to the Oilers; a 30-27 victory over the Bengals in which Blake and Brunell each threw for more than 300 yards; and a pair of wild wins over the Ravens during a 14-day stretch in November that featured 1,279 combined passing yards by Brunell and Testaverde and Jacksonville comebacks from deficits of 11 and 15 points. In October, Houston beat Cincinnati 30-27 in overtime. The Oilers ended their season with a 24-21 win over Baltimore in which McNair was 19 of 24 for 238 yards with one touchdown pass and one rushing score. Testaverde was 23 of 32 for 307 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's amazing how a few years ago everyone said the weakness in our division was at quarterback," says Michael Huyghue, the Jaguars' senior vice president of football operations. "Now we're where the action is."