Brunell's optimism in spring put to test during difficult fall

After promising start, Jaguars lose 3 straight, QB suffers concussion

NFL Week 7

October 28, 2001|By Bart Hubbuch | Bart Hubbuch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - This isn't exactly what Mark Brunell had in mind last spring.

The Jacksonville Jaguars' Pro Bowl quarterback thought his club would be gearing up for another playoff run - and perhaps a shot at a Super Bowl appearance - when he re-signed for four years and $30 million (including an $8 million signing bonus) in the off-season.

Brunell, in fact, felt so confident of the Jaguars' chances this year that he took far less money in March to remain in Jacksonville than he probably could have commanded elsewhere.

Seven months, three losses and one concussion later, few would blame Brunell for regretting his decision as the slumping Jaguars prepare to face the Ravens today at PSINet Stadium.

"We have an enormous amount of talent here, so to look at our statistics, it's surprising," said Brunell, incredulous at the once high-flying Jaguars' plunge to 28th in the NFL in total offense. "It's very surprising."

That's about as close to a controversial comment as the unflappable Brunell will get, but it is clear all is not well with the Jaguars or their veteran quarterback this season.

Jacksonville opened with consecutive victories over AFC Central rivals Pittsburgh and Tennessee, then suddenly fell off the table with successive losses to Cleveland, Seattle and - in easily the season's low point - previously winless Buffalo.

The Cleveland loss started the slide for Brunell and the Jaguars in more ways than one. Brunell was blindsided on Jacksonville's first play with a helmet-to-helmet hit from Browns tackle Gerard Warren, resulting in the first concussion of Brunell's football career.

Warren was fined $35,000 by the league, but his hit has proved far more costly to Brunell and the Jaguars. Brunell was forced to leave the Cleveland game in the first half and hasn't looked the same since.

Although Brunell's overall passing numbers aren't bad (850 yards and five touchdowns, with three interceptions and a 58.4 percent completion rate), it's clear he's not the versatile threat to opposing defenses that he once was.

"We've had some inaccurate throws," Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said. "There's an unsettled nature about the players on offense. There's no display of continuity or execution."

That would be Coughlin's thinly veiled assessment of Brunell's play - thinly veiled because the two continue to share an uneasy coexistence.

Although both continue to deny reports of friction between them the past two years, it is apparent the tension between Coughlin and Brunell is rising with each loss.

But while Coughlin isn't pleased with the recent play of his quarterback, much of the problems don't appear to be Brunell's fault.

The Jaguars are without All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli for the rest of the season because of shoulder surgery, and no one in the organization knows for sure when injury-prone running back Fred Taylor (strained groin) will be back.

As a result, Brunell has been forced to run for his life on many occasions, and he isn't getting much help from a dismal running game or a receiving corps led by Jimmy Smith that's starting to show its age.

Not that the lack of a supporting cast matters to Jacksonville's fans, though. They booed Brunell twice during the 13-10 loss to Buffalo on Oct. 18.

"That was tough to hear, especially in your own stadium," Brunell said. "We just have to play better offensive football. We need to be on the top of our game, especially against a team like Baltimore. I'm confident we'll get this turned around"

Maybe then Brunell can start feeling better about his decision last spring.

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