REALITY BITES UPSTART JACKSONVILLE LEARNED HOW CRUEL NFL LIFE CAN BE WHEN MARK BRUNELL WENT DOWN

August 24, 1997

The picture almost hung from the sky, a reminder of how
important Mark Brunell is to the fortunes of the Jacksonville
Jaguars. Turn to catch a pass, look up to field a punt, just
stare straight ahead and daydream--and there he was. Thirty feet
above the end of the practice field. Twenty feet tall. Maybe
even larger.

"The picture last year was of [linebacker] Jeff Lageman," a man
said last week, pointing at the Mao-sized billboard action shot,
part of a shoe advertisement that hangs on the back of one of
the scoreboards at ALLTEL Stadium in Jacksonville. "But there
wasn't any doubt about who would be there this year. I mean,
Mark Brunell owns this city."

Brunell. Brunell. Brunell. The name of the Jaguars' 26-year-old
quarterback, the man who led them to the AFC Championship Game
in only the franchise's second year, was everywhere last week.
The daily mood of the city he owned slid between panic and funk.
The idea that he could be injured--his right knee was twisted in
an Aug. 9 exhibition game by blitzing New York Giants linebacker
Jessie Armstead--was startling. The idea that he could be back
in just eight weeks, the verdict after arthroscopic surgery at
Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute last Thursday , was only
partly reassuring.

For followers of this young and almost instantly successful
team, this was a first glimpse of how quickly NFL fortunes can
change. "I think everyone was in shock for a couple of days,"
Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin says. "We, the coaches, were in
shock, too. You don't prepare for something like this, losing
your starting quarterback. You might think about it every now
and then, but when you're preparing for a season, you're
preparing to play with the players you have in your lineup. When
you lose someone like Mark, well, that's when you have to think
about it."

The Florida Times-Union printed illustrations of the medial
collateral and anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments in the
human knee and explained their functions in detail. Every radio
station on the dial seemed to have its own giant GET WELL,
BRUNELL card to be signed by the public. ("I always thought the
three worst letters in the alphabet were IRS," said a disc
jockey on station WQIK. "Now I find out they're MCL.") There
were theological discussions about Brunell's claim, "I'm
believing that God is going to heal my knee," which was followed
by the doctors' welcome report that he would not be out for the
season.

"You have to remember that everyone here is pretty new to this,"
says Jaguars manager of publications Rick Korch. "This is the
only major league franchise in Jacksonville. These people are in
love with this team. When we came back from beating Denver to go
to the AFC championship, over 40,000 people were waiting for us
in the stadium. Some of them had watched the game on the
scoreboard in the afternoon, then just stayed, 12 hours in the
stadium."

The irony, noted often, was that 12 days before his injury
Brunell had signed a five-year, $31.5 million contract
extension, which included a $10 million signing bonus. Wasn't
money like that supposed to make a man invincible?

The job of replacing Brunell fell to Rob Johnson, the third-year
backup from Southern Cal. Their gap in experience is
astonishing. Brunell was the only NFL quarterback to play every
down last season. Johnson was the only backup quarterback not to
play a down.

"That wasn't something we planned," Coughlin says. "We wanted to
get Rob some work. Every game simply came down to the fourth
quarter. I was criticized after the Pittsburgh game [a 28-3 loss
on Nov. 17] for not using Rob, but even then I thought we had a
shot in the fourth quarter. The Steelers weren't doing much on
offense, and I thought if we could just get something going...."

Once the shock of losing Brunell wore off, Coughlin tried to put
the best spin on the situation. He pointed out that Brunell did
not play a down on defense in '96 and did not play a down on
special teams. Two thirds of Jacksonville's operation was
untouched. Coughlin did not point out that Brunell led all
quarterbacks last season in passing yardage and rushing yards,
becoming the first player to do so since Johnny Unitas with the
'63 Baltimore Colts.

"Have you called any of the veteran quarterbacks who are
available?" a reporter asked Coughlin. "Someone like Sean
Salisbury?"

"No, but every Sean Salisbury in the world has called us," the
coach replied.

Coughlin's decision was to stick with Johnson, especially after
Brunell's return became probable rather than possible.
Seven-year veteran Todd Philcox, the Jaguars' third quarterback,
became the backup. "We have confidence in Rob," Coughlin says.
"We're not going to change the offense much, except maybe cut
the game plan down a little, give Rob a little more help. He'll
make some mistakes because he hasn't played much, but this is
his chance. He's a unique sort of guy. And he can throw the
ball. We've liked him since he came here."

Johnson, a fourth-round pick in the Jaguars' inaugural draft in
'95, brings a different look to the offense. For starters he is
righthanded, while Brunell is lefthanded. ("The spin of the ball
is different right there," tight end Pete Mitchell says.
"Different directions. It shouldn't be a problem, though. Most
of us have played with righthanded quarterbacks for most of our
lives.") Also unlike Brunell, a married father of two and a
proselytizing Christian, Johnson is an unmade-bed sort of
bachelor, living in a rented apartment, rolling into work each
day in shorts and an old T-shirt, often needing a shave. The
phrase laid-back is often used to describe him.

"Except when he's on the field or in the classroom," Coughlin
says. "There's nothing laid-back about him then. He's very
competitive."

On the surface, at least, Johnson seemed to be the character
least shaken in last week's melodrama. His father, Bob, who
coached him at El Toro (Calif.) High, points out that he was a
three-sport athlete, "not some guy stepping off a curb to play
quarterback. This kid was pitching in Anaheim Stadium when he
was 14." Football? This is his job. This is what he has been
trained to do.

"I was ready to play every week last year," Johnson says. "I had
butterflies every week, just like I was going to play. I just
stood on the sidelines and watched Mark. I saw every hit he
took. A bunch of times I thought I was going in--against
Houston, I remember, I thought he had a concussion--but he's a
strong guy. He just kept going."

The minute he saw Brunell go down in the Aug. 9 game against the
Giants, Johnson put on his helmet. He was taking practice throws
before the Jaguars' medical staff reached the middle of the
field. Only this time he followed the doctors out there. "I was
nervous, but that's normal," Johnson says. "The thing about
playing is that you have a chance to get rid of your
nervousness. If you stayed as a backup on the sidelines for your
entire career, it'd be a great way to develop an ulcer."

It was a comfort that on his third play in the game Johnson
threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to wideout Jimmy Smith. He led
the team to two more touchdowns and a 38-16 win. More comfort.

"We're over the shock," Coughlin said before taking the Jaguars
to San Francisco for a preseason game--and Johnson's first
start--against the 49ers on Monday night. "I've seen our team
come back, day by day. This is a good football team. We have
more players who can play in this league than we've ever had.
For the first time, we're going to cut players who will go
somewhere else in the NFL and play."

With a couple of exhibition starts under his belt, Johnson hopes
to feel comfortable for Jacksonville's Aug. 31 opener against
the Baltimore Ravens. The Jaguars hope Brunell returns for their
fifth game of the season, on Oct. 5, against the Cincinnati
Bengals. The fans hope having their franchise quarterback go
down is not the way this NFL stuff usually works.

They had forgotten that fairy tales have scary parts, too.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The only backup quarterback not to play a down in '96, Johnson is set to take the Jags' first snap of '97. [Rob Johnson in game]

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