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Back in the Groove
Peter King
November 24, 1997
Mark Brunell showed some old magic in a win over the Oilers, Ditka's dog days, Shanahan's parting shot
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November 24, 1997

Back In The Groove

Mark Brunell showed some old magic in a win over the Oilers, Ditka's dog days, Shanahan's parting shot

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Young Man's Game

Niners quarterback Steve Young is on track to win his sixth NFL passing championship, tying Sammy Baugh for the league record, an accomplishment that would be impressive considering what Young is up against this season. He's 36, he's without all-world wide receiver Jerry Rice (sidelined since suffering a knee injury in the season opener), and he may have his weakest supporting cast yet. To show what an outstanding year Young is having, we compared 1997 with each of the years he won the passing title, looking at his statistics, the number of his offensive teammates who went to the Pro Bowl and the production he got from his top two wide receivers.

YEAR

QB RATING

COMP. PCT.

TD-INT.

WIDEOUTS CATCHES-YARDS/GAME

PRO BOWL PLAYERS

1991

101.8

.645

17-8

Rice-John Taylor, 9.0-138

2

1992

107.0

.667

25-7

Rice-Mike Sherrard, 7.6-113

5

1993

101.5

.680

29-16

Rice-Taylor, 9.6-153

6

1994

112.8

.703

35-10

Rice-Taylor, 9.6-127

5

1996

97.2

.677

14-6

Rice-Terrell Owens, 8.9-111

1

1997

104.0

.668

14-5

Owens-J.J. Strokes, 7.0-101

"You want to see it?" Mark Brunell said last Saturday, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Yes, the visitor wanted to see it, so Brunell closed the door to a room beneath ALLTEL Stadium and pulled down his shorts. The upper half of his buttocks was purple. The deep bruise ran down his left leg, and the blood from the injury had settled along his hamstring.

What a strange season this has been for the 27-year-old Brunell. The bruised butt, the result of a fall during a Nov. 9 win over the Chiefs, followed a major knee injury—the tear of his right medial collateral ligament and partial tear of the anterior cruciate ligament—and the dislocation of the middle finger on his passing hand. When he woke up on Sunday, a week after the Kansas City game, the finger was throbbing and his rear end ached. But the knee didn't bother him a bit. All things considered, Brunell says, it was the best he had felt all year.

Consider the range of emotion that Brunell and his 8-3 Jaguars have experienced this season. Returning from an exhibition game against the Giants on Aug. 9 after suffering what coach Tom Coughlin believed was a' season-ending knee injury, Brunell remained optimistic. And when doctors performed arthroscopic surgery, they found the ACL was only partially torn, and they decided not to repair it. Six weeks later Brunell took the field and beat the Steelers.

He muddled through a pedestrian October and early November, injuring the finger during a loss to Pittsburgh in the rematch, and his completion percentage is down five points from his .634 figure of last year. But he had thrown 15 interceptions through nine starts a year ago; this season he has thrown only four picks in nine starts.

On Sunday, in a 17-9 win over Tennessee, he was vintage Brunell. He put up his most impressive numbers of the season (22 completions in 30 attempts, 267 yards, one touchdown), and he was at his best in the big spots. Getting sandwich pressure from two rushers late in the second quarter, he threaded a 17-yard touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell. He has scrambled rarely this year, but facing a third-and-10 in the third quarter, he dashed for 12 yards and a first down. On the next play, a moment before getting blasted by defensive end James Roberson, he lobbed a perfect pass 35 yards downfield to wideout Jimmy Smith. Two plays later Natrone Means scored the touchdown that put Jacksonville up 14-3.

"The difference," Brunell said afterward, "is that today I never thought about my body. Every player will tell you "that if you have your health, you can play to your fullest. I finally felt like the old Mark Brunell."

That could spell trouble for the rest of the AFC. The addition of defensive depth—rookie tackles Renaldo Wynn and Seth Payne helped limit Tennessee running back Eddie George to 49 yards—makes the Jaguars Super Bowl contenders. A loss by Denver on Sunday left Jacksonville one game out of the race for home field advantage in the playoffs, and the Jaguars, who are tied atop the AFC Central with the Steelers, have a favorable schedule: at Cincinnati, at home against Baltimore and New England, then at Buffalo and Oakland. For the second straight year Jacksonville should have January football on its calendar.

Life with Mike

Would anyone care remotely about the 4-7 Saints if Mike Ditka weren't in charge? He humiliated his team last month while doing a skit on Saturday Night Live and has provided innumerable sound bites. On the field he's a one-man Broadway show. He has spiked his gum in a sideline rage, paid off a $25 bet to defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian at the end of the Nov. 9 win over the Raiders with TV cameras trained on him (he wrote a letter of apology to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and won't be fined) and chewed out quarterback Heath Shuler. "I love it," general manager Bill Kuharich says of Ditka's emotion. "Against the Raiders, Mike willed our team to a win."

Three things have surprised Ditka.

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