RIGHT ON THE MARK THE JAGUARS ARE MAKING A PLAYOFF RUN BEHIND THE NFL'S PASSING-YARDAGE LEADER, MARK BRUNELL

December 09, 1996

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."

If so, Brunell may turn out to be a doozy. Trailing the Bengals
20-19 late in the third quarter, he was flushed out of the
pocket and all the way to the left sideline. Instead of
hightailing it out-of-bounds, he slipped between three charging
Cincinnati linemen as if he were executing a square dance move
and launched a rocket to wideout Keenan McCardell, who
tightroped down the chalk line for a 48-yard TD.

Brunell then took a two-step drop and fired the conversion to
Willie Jackson to make it 27-20. And on Jacksonville's final
drive, Brunell connected with wideout Jimmy Smith on a 41-yard
crossing route (the ball bounced off Bengals cornerback Jimmy
Spencer and right back to Smith) to set up Mike Hollis's
franchise-record fifth field goal, which made the score 30-20
with 2:04 left.

"With our passing game we can run the table in the rest of our
games," said McCardell, looking ahead to the Jaguars' last three
opponents: Houston, Seattle and Atlanta. "You never know. That
crystal ball might come up at the end of the season and say,
'Jaguars in the playoffs.'"

That would sweeten the pot only further for Brunell. The
league's second-lowest-paid starting quarterback in 1995, he's
making a base salary of $800,000 this fall (which might explain
the second job as a pitchman) but will be a free agent after the
'97 season. This is one mass marketer, however, who will
probably not be allowed to auction his arm on the open market. A
clause in Brunell's contract specifies that he must discuss a
new salary with the Jaguars this off-season, and Jacksonville
will most likely sign him to a blockbuster deal.

And, says Rison, if Jets quarterback Neil O'Donnell is worth $25
million in today's market, then "Mark will be worth 50."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Despite the rain, Brunell passed for 356 yards, the 15th game in a row he has thrown for more than 200. [Mark Brunell and others in game]

COMING UP

BRONCOS AT PACKERS

The last time Denver was 12-1, in 1977, the Broncos journeyed to
Dallas for what proved to be that season's Super Bowl
preview--and lost. Keep in mind, too: Green Bay has yet to lose
a game at Lambeau Field in December under coach Mike Holmgren.

PANTHERS AT 49ERS

To the victor goes the NFC West lead. In their three previous
meetings, Carolina has forced almost twice as many turnovers
(7-4) as San Francisco and won twice. Niners quarterback Steve
Young must avoid interceptions--and sackmeister Kevin Greene.

JAGUARS AT OILERS

Oilers rookie Eddie George rushed for a game-breaking 143 yards
the last time these two met, in Week 2; another such effort
should keep Houston in the AFC wild-card hunt, but only if the
Oilers' pass defense can contain Mark Brunell.

CHARGERS AT STEELERS

It's last-gasp time (again) for San Diego, which has never won a
regular-season game in 10 tries at Three Rivers Stadium.
Pittsburgh's physical secondary will harass Chargers wideout
Tony Martin, so San Diego must run the ball effectively in order
to win.

CHIEFS AT RAIDERS

Oakland is 5-3 in its last eight games, with two defeats in OT
and the third a one-point loss to Denver. But the K.C.
secondary, which has scored a TD in each of the Chiefs' last
four meetings with the Raiders, could spell the difference.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)