Jaguars enter season with Brunell on the run
By Eddie Pells, Associated Press, 08/29/00
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Remember the good old days, when Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell ran for his life, threw with abandon and tried everything he could to keep his struggling team in games?
Those days could be back in 2000, but not by choice.
Jacksonville entered the preseason a Super Bowl favorite, with a seasoned roster and plenty of motivation from last year's three losses to Tennessee, including the clincher in the AFC title game.
The Jaguars come into the regular season with the same goals, but not as many players. Summer has been cruel to the AFC Central champions.
"We had a lot of guys who haven't played together," Brunell said. "It's something we'll have to build upon as the season progresses. Those guys will be fine."
In the past month, the Jaguars have lost running back Fred Taylor (knee) for the opener against Cleveland, maybe beyond. He'll be replaced by a tandem of Stacey Mack and Chris Howard.
Pro Bowl defensive end Tony Brackens reported to camp during a detante in his contract negotiations, then promptly went to the sidelines with a sore hamstring. He played last week against the Falcons and then signed a six-year contract.
Safety Carnell Lake, the mature leader of the secondary, was lost for the season when he chose to undergo surgery on his left foot.
Then, there's the offensive line, the unit that has kept Brunell scrambling -- and his running backs from running -- all preseason.
Leon Searcy (quadriceps) is out until at least November. Tony Boselli promises to return from offseason knee surgery by the opener. Center John Wade (foot) is gone for the foreseeable future. The rest of the line consists of journeymen and youth, most of whom haven't played in the NFL, or beside each other, very long.
"We better figure it out quick, and if we do, everyone will forget about the preseason," Boselli said. "If not ... well, we better do something."
The Jaguars have the feel of a team that knows it's running out of time to win a championship. Brunell, receiver Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell and Searcy will all have turned 30 by the time the season is over.
And though they're not turning into the next 49ers, the Jaguars will be $30 million over the salary cap after this year and will have to make some tough roster decisions.
"We know what the goal is," Smith said. "This is a team in a hurry to win a title."
Why else would their only major offseason acquisition be a 35-year-old linebacker, Hardy Nickerson?
Of course, Nickerson plays like a player 10 years younger. He gives the Jaguars more speed at middle linebacker and improves their nickel package because both he and Kevin Hardy -- the Hardy Boys -- can stay on the field on third down.
Brackens' return also helps. He had 12 sacks last year and made the Pro Bowl.
"He flies around and gets to the ball," cornerback Aaron Beasley said. "He's one of the best in the league."
The defense might have to hold Jacksonville in games until the offense figures things out.
With Taylor out, the Jaguars will depend on Smith, who won the NFL receiving title last year with 116 catches, and McCardell, who is still a great possession receiver, even though his production has declined slightly since his Pro Bowl year of 1996.
"It would be great, me and Jimmy would be really happy," McCardell said. "We've done it before. We also know now that you need a valid running game to win a championship."
Still, they came close to winning without one in 1996. That year, Brunell played behind a shaky line, but showed the swashbuckling style that led the Jaguars to an improbable spot in the AFC title game. He threw for a career-high 4,367 yards.
His mastery in the playoff upset over the Denver Broncos gave him the title of the best quarterback of the next generation. Indeed, he enters the season with the fifth-best quarterback rating in NFL history.
But it's hard to remember him winning a game single-handedly since that magic day in Denver.
Even though he took a beating, Brunell is coming off the best training camp of his eight-year career -- one of the few good signals that came out of the summer for the Jaguars.
"Mark knows he has to continue to get better for us to get better," coach Tom Coughlin said. "We all have to get better."
In a hurry.