The Jacksonville Jaguars have long been a franchise defined by firsts.
They were the first of the three major sports leagues (NFL/NBA/MLB) to come to Florida's largest city. Their first head coach, Tom Coughlin, is still a giant in the community and the best coach in franchise history. The team's first draft pick was Tony Boselli, who would go on to become arguably the best player to ever don a Jaguars uniform.
But there is another first that changed the trajectory of the Jaguars as a franchise. Not its first coach or draft pick, but the franchise's first-ever trade, a deal that would land them their first franchise quarterback.
On the eve of the 1995 NFL Draft (another first for the Jaguars), Coughlin and the team made an aggressive move to nab a young quarterback before the expansion team's inaugural season, a move which would help define the franchise's first several years.
The quarterback? Green Bay Packers backup Mark Brunell, whom Green Bay selected out of the University of Washington with the No. 118 overall pick in 1993.
The compensation? Two draft picks in that year's draft, with one in the third round and another in the fifth. In return, Jacksonville got its eventual franchise leader in all major passing stats.
"I was one of Brett Favre's backups, so I was expendable. I surely was never gonna be the guy there for obvious reasons," Brunell told JaguarReport this week.
"I was a fifth-round pick that they were hoping they could get something for, and a trade was good for them and obviously was good for me because I certainly wanted an opportunity to play somewhere."
In two seasons in Green Bay, Brunell appeared in just two games and threw 27 passes. With Favre beginning to hit the peak of his career in 1995, it seemed certain Brunell would have to leave the Packers if he wanted to see the field.
Originally, Brunell thought his exit would come via a different path. Former Packers assistant Jon Gruden was the new offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Brunell initially thought he'd be joining the NFC East.
It wasn't until later that the Jaguars struck a deal with the Packers instead, but Brunell is happy the expansion team and Coughlin saw something in him to bring him onto the team in its infancy.
"I actually was thrilled about it. I thought that I was going to end up in Philly because Jon Gruden, who was the receivers coach while I was in Green Bay, became the offensive coordinator," Brunell said.
"That didn't work out and then Jacksonville entered the picture. Honestly, I didn't know a lot about Tom Coughlin. I don't think I could have found Jacksonville on a map. All I knew was that it was a new team and it was in Florida. That is all I knew, but it was an opportunity. Even though I didn't know a whole lot about it, I was pretty excited about it."
And with that, the first trade in franchise history was complete. Brunell would join the upstart Jaguars team and begin a new phase of his career. And while Brunell knew then that he was facing a good opportunity, it wasn't known in April 1995 just how profound of an impact the first Jaguars trade would have on him.
"It changed my life. I still live in Jacksonville. And I think the good thing about it—the best thing for me was that it was an expansion team," Brunell said.
"And so at that time, at least with expansion teams, you know, the expectations aren't that high. People don't expect you to win. People don't expect the team to really do anything right away, and that was good for me because I was pretty raw."
Sans Brunell's final season in Jacksonville in 2003 in which he started three games before being benched for Byron Leftwich, 1995 would be the fewest amount of games (10) he started for the Jaguars in his nine-year tenure. And while Brunell started the majority of the games for the first-ever Jaguars team, he didn't kick off his tenure in Jacksonville as the starting quarterback.
Like Brunell, the Jaguars were young, developing and looking for opportunities to prove themselves in 1995. In a lot of ways, this made Jacksonville the perfect landing spot for the then-25-year-old gunslinger.
"The early teams were a collection of draft picks, some older free agents, a lot of guys that, you know, the other teams really didn't want around. So we were just a group of a bunch of guys that were happy to be on a team and it was fun being able to win some games early, but it was just a good spot for me because I got a chance in those first couple of years to really develop," Brunell said.
"I think I had been around long enough where I knew that I had an opportunity to see the field. Now when I got there, Steve Beuerlein was the starter. At that time, I think Steve was a nine-year vet and they got him through the Expansion Draft and he was the guy," Brunell explained. "I didn't know how that first year would look. You know, I thought maybe Steve would start the first year, maybe the first couple of years and [then] I would have had an opportunity to play."
Beuerlein would start six games in 1995, but Brunell saw the majority of the reps for the 4-12 squad by the end of the season. Jacksonville didn't win much in their first year, but the quarterback they had acquired just months previously from Green Bay had flashed enough to give Coughlin an idea that he could be "the guy" moving forward. In his first year in Jacksonville, Brunell completed 201-of-346 passes (58.1%) for 2,168 yards along with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But more importantly, Brunell's early starts with the Jaguars helped build his confidence. He not only had to prove to the league that he was a starting quarterback, he still had to prove it to himself at the time.
"At that time too, I didn't know if I was any good. I didn't know how long I could, you know, I could last," Brunell said. "I knew I wanted to play but I didn't know if I was good enough to play. But I think that Tom Coughlin was looking for a young quarterback and it helped that I could run around a little bit.
"I knew I had the chance to compete and get on the field. I just didn't know how early or how often."
Following the 1995 season, Brunell would become the new mainstay behind center for the Jaguars and Coughlin. Brunell got valuable experience both behind Beuerlein and on the field in Jacksonville's first year, and the flashes he showed following the trade helped convince the team brass to turn to him as their signal-caller of the future.
"Steve was a good quarterback and had a good career up to that point and continued to have a good career. So, you know, he was a better quarterback at the time," Brunell said.
"But it was just one of those scenarios you see a lot where there's an older guy and a younger guy. The team's not winning, they're struggling, you know what, we might as well put the young guy in. That benefited me greatly. I mean in '95, I think my numbers were pretty good. You know, I made good decisions with the ball. I struggled a little bit, but you know, '96 or next year, you know, I went into the season as the starter so things happened quickly for me. I was real fortunate."
As the years would go on, Brunell, Boselli and then-unknown wide receiver Jimmy Smith would be joined by players such as Fred Taylor, Keenan McCardell, Kyle Brady, Leon Searcy and countless others. Something special would be brewing in Jacksonville, and the 1995 trade for a backup quarterback for two picks outside the top 50 of the draft helped drive it.
The upstart team Brunell grew with in 1995 would improve each year, going 9-7 in 1996 and making the first postseason appearance in franchise history. That year, Brunell completed 63.4% of his passes and threw for 4,367 yards, a career-high and the most in the league. The Jaguars would advance to the AFC Championship game following upset victories at Buffalo against Jim Kelly and at Denver vs. John Elway, with Brunell earning the first of three career Pro Bowl trips in the process.
From 1996-1999, the Jaguars would go 45-19 and make four playoff appearances, along with two division championships and two trips to the AFC Championship. Jacksonville never got to the Super Bowl, but they had one of the best first few years of any expansion team in any professional sport in recent memory, and the trade for Brunell was a major reason why. Coughlin had his quarterback, a mobile, strong-armed passer who could deliver strikes to Smith and McCardell and keep the offense on schedule.
"First of all, I think most of the credit needs to go to the coach who really brought us all in there. You know, I think it starts with the leadership. It starts with coach. It's really, you know, Coach Coughlin and assembling a bunch of guys and seeing something in us that other teams perhaps didn't see, if that makes sense," Brunell recalled.
"Because the early years, listen, we weren't all that talented. You know, obviously we had some talent but early on it wasn't talent as much that made us win and have early success. There's something about certain teams, a certain quality and there's a lot of words for this camaraderie, chemistry, whatever it is. But when we played, we fought hard, we competed and never quit."
Brunell would eventually be traded to Washington for a third-round draft pick following the 2003 season. Coughlin was gone, replaced by Del Rio. As were Boselli, McCardell and countless others. Change was inevitable, and it came for Brunell in the same fashion in which he was brought to Jacksonville in the first place.
For the Jaguars, the first trade in franchise history gave them the all-important quarterback they needed to help engineer their offense. For Brunell, it gave him a life-changing opportunity he still remembers fondly today. The one-time backup to Favre was "the guy" in Jacksonville for nearly a decade, and no other quarterback in team history has since been as successful.
"It wasn't anything I expected. You know, I can remember getting drafted by the Packers and thinking 'Gosh, if I could just play in the NFL one year that would just be awesome.' Just to say I've been able to do it," Brunell said.
"Being given a chance to play nine seasons in Jacksonville, it's a dream come true. I mean, this has become our home. We still live here. We're part of the community. We got a bunch of friends and we go to the games. We're huge Jaguar fans. I mean, it's just been amazing. I would have never imagined how our lives are played out. My kids have grown up here for the most part. My wife and I were not going anywhere. I mean, the day I got traded from Green Bay to Jacksonville, I had no idea the impact it would have on my life. I really thought I was just going to another team and see if I could play some day and I never imagined I would get to stick around for this long and have the success that we had."