Someday, 4 1/2-year-old Caitlin Brunell will understand what her
father did last Saturday, how he got 75,678 people at Mile High
Stadium to open their mouths wide and yet not make a sound, how
he cut Denver Bronco John Elway's dream into little paper dolls
and how he carved his own legend out of the most staggering NFL
playoff upset in three decades. Not now though. Now she just
wants to know why he isn't home more. "Daddy," she says, "don't
go to football again."
This is an article from the Jan. 13, 1997 issue
Well, Caitlin, your daddy is going to football again this week.
Your daddy goes to football better than anybody in the league
right now. Your daddy is quarterback Mark Brunell of the
expansion (cough, cough) Jacksonville Jaguars, and right now he
is turning the game upside down and shaking out its change. He
has become the most dangerous weapon in the sport, which is
nothing to be afraid of, unless you happen to be New England
Patriots defensive coordinator Al Groh. Groh has to figure out a
way either to stop Brunell or to get him arrested before this
Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Foxboro Stadium.
One thing is for sure: The folks in Denver will never forget
Brunell, not for years and years. He and his Jaguars not only
shocked the Broncos, the best team in the AFC, 30-27, but they
also ruined what might have been Elway's last chance for a Super
Bowl victory and possibly wrecked Denver owner Pat Bowlen's
plans for the city to build him a new stadium. All in one
unforgettable, giant Orange Flush.
"I'm sick to my stomach," said Denver running back Terrell Davis
afterward. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called it "the toughest
loss I've ever faced." Elway had awakened with a start every
night last week worrying about Jacksonville, and now his
nightmare was real. "This is my worst disappointment," he said.
And remember, Elway has lots of disappointments to choose from.
All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe was inconsolable. "If I had a
thousand tongues, I couldn't describe how bad I feel inside," he
said. "I feel like I let John down. I think the team let him
down. I don't know if I'll ever get over this. It will be until
the turn of the century, at least, before this franchise gets
It was really not supposed to be this way for Brunell. In
mid-November the Jaguars were a harmless 4-7, and Brunell must
have thought he would be spending the holidays at home with
Caitlin. But then the Jaguars started beating everybody in
sight. And in the last minute of the last game of the regular
season, the world's best field goal kicker, Morten Andersen of
the Atlanta Falcons, missed a 30-yard field goal, and all of a
sudden Jacksonville was in the playoffs.
The Jaguars went to Rich Stadium in Buffalo for a wild-card
game, banked in a field goal off an upright and won a playoff
game where no visitor had ever won a playoff game. Now they have
gone to Denver and brought home the most morning-coffee-spilling
upset since Joe Namath and his New York Jets beat the Baltimore
Colts in Super Bowl III.
Brunell is no Namath. He is more like Elway. He has Elway's
magic cleats and Elway's Hollywood escapes and a touch on the
football that took Elway 10 NFL seasons to learn. Brunell, 26,
is only in his second year as a starter, but he did a better
Elway than Elway on Saturday. Every time two Broncos looked as
if they had him smooshed, he would squirt away or would leave
them smashed into one another like cartoon bad guys as he
sprinted for another first down or threw across his body to a
receiver who didn't even realize he was open. "He was putting
the ball on the money," Elway said afterward. "He just made huge
plays all day. You don't see a lot of guys who can make things
happen like he can."
Who can believe anything they see from the Jaguars? Three years
ago this team didn't exist, and now it's 60 minutes from the
Super Bowl. Exactly how Jacksonville is doing it, nobody really
knows, not even Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' sorcerer of a coach,
a guy with snow-white hair and a bright red face and more tricks
than Heidi Fleiss. He stood in front of his bunch of no-name,
never-heard-of players five days before this game and said,
"Men, we can win this game. I just don't have any idea how."
The Jaguars don't worry about "how." They have this divine itch
that keeps getting scratched. Maybe it was because the equipment
manager played the theme song from Rocky in the locker room that
guys started to think they could upset Denver. Jacksonville's
outrageous defensive tackle, sixth-year veteran John Jurkovic,
got up at a send-off pep rally and said, "Everybody in this
country gives us the chance of a one-legged man in an
ass-kickin' contest. Well, we're going out there kickin' anyway."
Somebody very high up seems to have jumped on the Jagwagon. Last
Friday night at a Renaissance hotel in Denver, the Jaguars'
6'7", 325-pound left tackle, Tony Boselli, the rock of the team,
was sprawled out on his bed, sick to his stomach, horrible
headache, throwing up. At about 9:30, a handful of teammates
came into his room, surrounded his bed, knelt and prayed for his
recovery. Fourteen hours later, bingo! "God actually healed me,"
said Boselli, who held one of the AFC's leading sack men, Alfred
Williams, to no sacks and one tackle while serving him about a
dozen mouthfuls of turf.
And then on Saturday morning Jacksonville got this terrific bit
of help from an out-of-shape, cigarette-tokin' Denver Post
sports columnist named Woody Paige. About 75 copies of
Saturday's Post were delivered to the Jaguars' breakfast room so
that the players could read how Paige called them the
"Jacksonville Jagwads" and "a USFL team," and went on to say,
"Can we get a legitimate NFL team in here next Sunday?"
Inspiration, at only 25 cents a man.
The whole day just seemed Jagwired. First of all, it was sunny.
The Jaguars are the only team in the league that packs its own
sun. When they won at Buffalo, it was 49[degrees]. It's not even
49[degrees] in Buffalo in July. In Denver it was 46[degrees] at
kickoff. No snowdrifts, no avalanches, nothing.
Second of all, Denver seemed to suddenly forget how to catch,
kick and run off the field. You figure the Broncos might have
forgotten a few things, seeing as how they hadn't played a game
that meant anything since the first day of December, when they
clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Yeah,
they rested that whole time. They also rusted. One Bronco,
defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, was still strolling to the
sideline as Jacksonville punted late in the third quarter and
got called for being a 12th man on the field. "Petty," said
Perry. "First down," said referee Red Cashion. Given new life,
the Jaguars drove for a field goal.
Rust never sleeps. Denver's flawless kicker, Jason Elam, missed
an extra-point try, his first botch in 47 attempts this season.
After the Broncos' second touchdown, Sharpe dropped a baby pass
from Elway on the two-point conversion.
Still, it looked like a Denver blowout when, with the Broncos
leading 12-3 in the second quarter, cornerback Tory James
intercepted a Brunell pass near the Jacksonville 25. Except for
the pass interference flag. "That was a f----- up call," said
James. "First down," said Cashion. Jacksonville retained
possession and set off a Natrone bomb (Natrone Means: 140 yards
on 21 carries) with an eight-yard touchdown run. Suddenly the
Jaguars were in the game, 12-10.
And then, even more suddenly, they were in the lead, when the
unquenchable Brunell marched them 65 yards in 47 seconds, with
no timeouts, for a field goal. Out of nowhere the USFL Jagwads
led the supposedly unbeatable Broncos 13-12, and you could've
sworn you heard a Rocky mountain crumble in the background.
From then on, Brunell was unbelievable, not to mention unafraid,
uncanny and untouchable. About a half-dozen times BrunElway was
on the verge of being sacked, and about a half-dozen times he
turned those sacks into whiffs. He made linebacker Bill
Romanowski look as if he were diving at snipe. "I could never
get my hands on him," Romanowski groaned afterward, looking like
a man who needed a chiropractor. In the third quarter Brunell
scrambled left to throw a perfect spiral on the run 45 yards to
wideout Keenan McCardell in the back of the end zone for a
31-yard touchdown. In all, he drove the Jaguars to a score on
each of their last six drives--FG, TD, FG, TD, FG, TD. He never
threw an interception, never fumbled, never got flustered. "We
never faced a quarterback like that before," said Williams.
Amazing how few people really knew about him. NBC's Cris
Collinsworth asked him on-air this season if it felt good to
have one of the NFL's best left tackles, Boselli, protecting his
blind side. Uh, Cris, Brunell is lefthanded. Shanahan knew. He
put together a horror reel of Brunell's amazing plays for his
players to watch. It didn't seem to take. Even Brunell doesn't
know how good Brunell is. When told that he is the first player
since Johnny Unitas in 1963 to lead NFL quarterbacks in both
rushing and passing yards, he said, "Really? Johnny Unitas?"
And yet Denver still had a chance to make Caitlin happy. Elway
started one of his copyrighted fourth-quarter comebacks, driving
for a touchdown and a two-point conversion to make it 23-20 with
7:37 left. All the Broncos needed was one stop--one stop. "We
looked over at the sideline," said Jurkovic, "and I told the
guys, 'Be careful. Elway's still got some magic left in him.'"
So did Brunell. He got in the huddle before the first play of
the biggest drive of his life and said, "One more, we've got to
have one more score," and then he delivered it. He danced away
from Romanowski for a 12-yard gain. He kept handing the ball to
the human bone-crusher, Means. He appeared caught again by
Romanowski in the backfield and again left him looking like a
yard sale on the midfield grass, taking off on a circus run for
29 yards. And then, facing a third-and-five at the Denver 16
with 3:44 to play, when all sanity implored him to simply get
the first down and keep the clock rolling, he went for the whole
"If he presses you," Brunell said to wideout Jimmy Smith in the
huddle, "run a fade." When Smith, split left, got to the line, a
star-crossed James was up on him, pressing him, and so Smith
sidestepped James to the left and ran his fade toward the corner
of the end zone. Not that Smith was ever open. James was on him
like eczema. It's just that Brunell threw the prettiest little
pass you've ever seen, one inch past James's fingernails and
right into NFL history. "All I had to do was hold my arms out,"
said Smith. "It was perfect." Touchdown. Ten-point lead.
Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver once made $40 a week selling
women's shoes, but the slipper doesn't fit Cinderella anymore.
This is Godzilla. This is a team with destiny, luck and a good
pass rush. This is a team with terrific wideouts and a running
back who can't be stopped with a court order. This is a team
playing on house money. Most of all, this is a team with a
quarterback who shreds defensive game plans. "Mark Brunell,"
said Smith afterward, "is going to be a household name."
The future king wasn't letting himself believe it, not here, not
in the home of his hero. Of all the quarterbacks he watched
growing up, his favorite was Elway. In fact, he thought about
getting a football and asking Elway to sign it after the game.
Figuring it might not be exactly the right time, considering
that he single-handedly had ruined Elway's season, he changed
his mind but not his devotion. "I still think Elway is the
best," Brunell said. "I didn't outdo Elway. I don't think that's
These are home wreckers, these Jaguars. In fact, in its last two
games Jacksonville has eliminated teams with eight Super Bowl
appearances between them. "Eight Super Bowls, huh?" sneered
Jurkovic. "Any wins in there?"
Cruel. And if you think the Broncos looked shocked, you
should've seen Woody Paige. Within two hours after the game, the
Post had taken hundreds of angry calls about his column, and
somehow his E-mail address appeared on local TV and on the
JumboTron at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, where 5,600 fans
watched the game. "God," Paige said, "I don't even want to check
Jacksonville is a true wild card now. Anything can happen and
probably will. In fact, Means was smiling hugely in the
sorrowful light of a faint Denver moon when he said, casually,
"Well, we've got nothing else to do. We might as well go win a
If that happens, Brunell will be going to football for a whole
Bad news for Caitlin. Great news for the rest of us.