April 21, 2012

1995: Jaguars Obtain Mark Brunell from Packers

On April 21, 1995 the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars swung the first trade in franchise history. With the NFL draft looming, they dealt their third and fifth round selections to the Green Bay Packers for QB Mark Brunell.

The 24-year-old Brunell had played collegiately at the University of Washington, where he was successful until suffering a knee injury as a junior. Losing his starting job to Billy Joe Hobert, he regained it when Hobert received an NCAA suspension, but the injury damaged his draft status – he lasted until the fifth round in 1993. Behind the durable Brett Favre, Brunell saw no action as a rookie and appeared in two games in ’94. While there were concerns regarding his size (6'1”, 217) and passing accuracy, the mobile lefthander was considered a good prospect and was compared to San Francisco’s star QB Steve Young.

A restricted free agent, the Packers had been in negotiations with the Philadelphia Eagles during the week prior to the draft. The Eagles offered a four-year, $3.8 million deal but the quarterback’s agent rejected it and Green Bay then swung the trade with the Jaguars, pending Brunell’s acceptance of a three-year, $3.1 million pact that offered incentives, which came about quickly.

Brunell joined Steve Beuerlein and Andre Ware on the roster as quarterbacks for Jacksonville, and USC’s Rob Johnson was drafted in the fourth round to add to the mix. Ware ended up being the odd man out, but it was the 30-year-old veteran Beuerlein behind center as the inaugural season got under way. The Jaguars had invested heavily in free agents (as had that year’s other expansion club, the Carolina Panthers) and expectations were higher than usual for a team in its first season. Following a disappointing 1-4 start, Brunell was inserted into the lineup.

The Jaguars, under tough Head Coach Tom Coughlin, were in flux during their first season. The receiving corps was uninspiring, but Brunell’s performance was impressive. He completed 58.1 % of his passes for 2168 yards with 15 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions. His passer rating was a solid 82.6 and he ranked fourth in the AFC with a 2.0 interception percentage. In addition, Brunell’s mobility paid off as he rushed for 480 yards and four TDs, averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Things improved dramatically for both the young quarterback and the team in 1996. It didn’t start out that way – the Jaguars won only four of their first 11 games and Brunell had difficulties, throwing bad passes and giving up too many interceptions. But things came together in a 5-0 surge to finish off the regular season and qualify for the playoffs as a 9-7 wild card entry. RB Natrone Means played a big part in the winning streak, rushing for 364 yards and taking some of the pressure off of the quarterback. In addition, disappointing veteran WR Andre Rison was let go and replaced by Jimmy Smith, who paired with WR Keenan McCardell to provide a formidable pass receiving tandem. Brunell passed for a league-leading 4367 yards and 7.8 yards per attempt. He also led NFL quarterbacks with 396 rushing yards even though he also was sacked a league-leading 50 times. While he threw fewer touchdown passes (19) than interceptions (20), most of the pickoffs came when the club was struggling in the first half of the season. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl and also received a contract extension.

Jacksonville continued its streak into the postseason, stunning Buffalo in the Wild Card round and Denver in the Divisional playoff before finally succumbing to New England in the AFC Championship game.

The Jaguars followed up with a better record in 1997 (11-5) but didn’t get as far in the postseason, losing to Denver in the Wild Card playoff. Brunell suffered a knee injury in the preseason, missed two games, and had difficulty when he returned due to the diminished mobility. Still, he led the AFC in passing (91.2 rating), threw for 3281 yards with 18 TDs to just 7 interceptions, and again gained selection to the Pro Bowl.

The ’98 Jaguars benefited from the arrival of rookie RB Fred Taylor (1223 rushing yards) and put together another 11-5 record, advancing to the Divisional round of the playoffs. However, Brunell again missed time with injuries and his numbers slipped, although not badly – he ranked fourth in the conference with an 89.9 rating and had 20 touchdown passes to 9 interceptions.

The 1999 season marked a major high point for the club, as it put together an AFC-best 14-2 tally and reached the AFC title game. Brunell missed one game, threw for 3060 yards and was selected to his third Pro Bowl. But with expectations high for reaching the top in 2000, the team slipped badly to 7-9. While Brunell had another fine season statistically (3640 yards, 20 TDs), he was also sacked 54 times as the line sprang leaks due to injuries.

Things did not get better in 2001 and ’02 as salary cap problems and attrition overtook the club, with key offensive performers such as McCardell and OT Tony Boselli departing. Brunell’s numbers remained strong but his mobility was significantly diminished and he continued to take many sacks. Jacksonville posted back-to-back 6-10 records and Coach Coughlin was let go. Brunell lasted one more season (and went into it having been told by the front office that he would not receive a contract extension), giving way to rookie QB Byron Leftwich, the team’s first round draft pick, and moved on to Washington where he briefly enjoyed a resurgence before retreating to journeyman backup status.

In nine seasons with the Jaguars, he completed 60.4 % of his passes for 25,698 yards with 144 touchdowns and 86 interceptions. He also rushed for 2219 yards in 429 attempts (5.2 avg.) and exhibited outstanding leadership and toughness. The team’s record in his starts was 63-54, with the bulk of the wins coming from 1996 to ’99, although with somewhat disappointing results in the postseason.

As a footnote, Green Bay used the third and fifth round draft choices they received for 1995 to draft, respectively, North Carolina FB William Henderson and RB Travis Jervey out of The Citadel. Henderson played 12 years for the Packers, caught 320 passes out of the backfield, and was an All-Pro in 2004. Jervey made his mark on special teams in four years with Green Bay before moving on to the 49ers - he went to the Pro Bowl following the ’97 season as a Special Teams player.