Missing Rings: 1993 Houston Oilers

Everyone can tell you when an era ends but when was its zenith?? The truly great teams burn bright for some time while winning championships. Others burn almost as bright for a long time but memory fades on those that don’t bring home Super Bowl rings. When it comes to the case of the Houston Oilers between 1987-1993, the zenith came at the end and the fall was so dramatic it killed the franchise.

Warren Moon was building his Hall of Fame resume with Pro Bowl performances 8 straight years.

Warren Moon was building his Hall of Fame resume with Pro Bowl performances 8 straight years.

Yet as we look back at the Houston Oilers of 1993, you have to stretch back a little further and remember what happened during the playoffs of 1991 and 1992.

The Oilers had become one of the most talented teams in football. They were the vanguard of the teams that ran the Run & Shoot offense. Their trigger man, Warren Moon had made it into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. He had orchestrated the league’s #1 offense in 1990 and 1992. in 1991 they dropped to second in the league behind the K Gun of the Buffalo Bills.

Moon was starting at a time when African American quarterbacks were just getting their start in the NFL on a league wide basis. Yet despite those pressures he approached Dan Marino’s passing records with 4,689 yards in 1990, and 4,690 yards in 1991. However his team coming up short in the playoffs was starting to become an issue. Similar to what was once a concern of Peyton Manning and continues to dog Tony Romo, Moon had only won 1 playoff game between 1987-1990. In reality, the Oilers were expected to ascend to be the best team in the AFC as they stockpiled talent around him. Make no mistake Moon was playing to erase the stigma that a black quarterback could lead his team to a championship. It hadn’t been done since Doug Williams in 1987.

He had diminutive and quick receivers in Ernest Givins, the late Drew Hill, Curtis Duncan, and a tall wideout in Haywood Jeffires. In 1991, 4 yards kept Moon from having 3 – 1,000 yard receivers as the Oilers opened 7-1 and looked like the AFC’s best rival to knock off the defending champion Bills.  However they ran into John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisional Playoff. On a mission they ran out to a 21-6 lead in Mile High Stadium. However Elway rallied his team back to a last second 26-24 win that sent the Oilers home after a total collapse. A team with 7 Pro Bowlers and 3 All Pros was sent home by a hodgepodge rebuilding Denver team that hadn’t made the playoffs in 1990 and wouldn’t in 1992.

Andre Reed scores the go ahead touchdown in the greatest comeback in NFL history.

Andre Reed scores the go ahead touchdown in the greatest comeback in NFL history.

The team was still in it’s prime as they approached 1992. Age was becoming a factor as the 36 year old Moon missed 6 games during the middle of the year. Houston entered the playoffs with a 10-6 record courtesy of a 27-3 win over Buffalo in a Sunday night finale. It set up a rubber match at Rich Stadium in a wild card game against the two time defending AFC Champion.

Not only were the Bills without future Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, they would be without Pro Bowlers Cornelius Bennett and Thurman Thomas as well. Moon had a first half for the ages as he went 18 of 22 for over 220 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first half. At an 81% completion rate, broadcasters Charlie Jones and Todd Christensen waxed philosophical about the possibility of breaking the record of 88% Phil Simms had accomplished in Super Bowl XXI. Houston was up 28-7 at the half and then SS Bubba McDowell returned an interception to give the Oilers a 35-3 lead in the 3rd quarter.  They had outscored the Bills 62-6 in 6 quarters in less than a week. They were hitting on all 8 cylinders.

Then came the greatest collapse in the history of the NFL. A 32 point lead was washed away as Buffalo just put on a performance for the ages in a 41-38 win. Once the Bills took the momentum from the shell-shocked Oilers the game was almost inevitable. Moon’s crispness in the first half, where he led the Oilers to touchdowns on all four of their drives, went 3 and out on the first four of the second half. Also completely befuddled was defensive coordinator Jim Eddy, who never changed the nickle package or calls for the entire second half of that game. Bills receivers and backup QB Frank Reich knew exactly which plays would work and kept waiting for adjustments that didn’t come.

If the Oilers would have won a Super Bowl between 1987-1993, would Ray Childress be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame??

If the Oilers would have won a Super Bowl between 1987-1993, would Ray Childress be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame??

Psychologically, the jury was in on the Houston Oilers of that era for many pundits. They just couldn’t win the big game despite the talent they had on the field. Pro Bowl defenders Ray Childress, Al Smith were possibly tarnishing Hall of Fame careers at this point. Former Pro Bowl talents such as CB Cris Dishman, DE Willam Fuller, and DE Sean Jones were all on the field in Buffalo and none could make a play to turn that game around. Just as they hadn’t in Denver the year before.

Owner Bud Adams had seen enough and decided the defense was the reason for the collapse and hired Buddy Ryan. That’s right the same Defensive Coordinator of the 1985 Bears and former Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Adams did this and forced him onto then Head Coach Jack Pardee. Ryan had total autonomy just as he had in Chicago. In fact he was able to hire his own assistants and player requests. In came former Ryan disciple Wilber Marshall, a fiery linebacker that was one of the unsung performers on that ’85 Bears team.

Ryan also forced the team to draft a MLB in Miami Hurricane Michael Barrow and draft a tight end in John Heny Mills. With a defense that had 6 former pro bowlers on it and a soon to be Pro Bowler Lamar Lathon at that point, this was going to be a sight to behold. Ryan resurrected the 46 defense deep in the heart of Texas yet how much of the leadership of that team was stripped of Pardee?? 1993 looked like the last year for the Oilers to make it to the Super Bowl or the team would be broken up. All or nothing.

When Buddy Ryan brought in former All Pro Wilber Marshall, the defense took on a totally different tone.

When Buddy Ryan brought in former All Pro Wilber Marshall, the defense took on a totally different tone.

The preseason began with Ryan firing off comments about Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride and the Run & Shoot offense. The “Chuck & Duck” Ryan scoffed at the high penchant for passing and not running the football and prone to turnovers.

The team however sputtered out of the gate as the defense had some growing pains and the offense started slow.

In fact, a 1-4 start to the 1993 season looked similar to the Houston Texans of this year. A lot of talent, although a little old and they should be able to turn it around. That fourth loss came in a return trip to Buffalo. With Warren Moon’s benching, it looked to all the world this era of Oilers football was about to come to a crashing end.

However the defense not only grew into it’s shoes, it became the scourge of the league. Gone was the passive 4 man rushes of the Jim Eddy defense and in was the confusing blitz packages Ryan had made famous in Chicago. His Philadelphia Eagles didn’t use as many packages as he did in Houston. Over the next eight games they had 35 sacks, 30 takeaways and had knocked 5 quarterbacks from the game. A defense full of star quality talent left opponents without a focal point to game plan against. The league hadn’t seen heavy focus on the 46 defense in over 5 years. They also hadn’t played against this personnel in these new positions. Teams were thoroughly over matched as the last 11 opponents never scored beyond 20 points.

As the defense helped turn the season around Warren Moon came off the bench when his backup Cody Carlson was injured in week 6. His play was more efficient than it was spectacular as defenses had caught up to the Run & Shoot by ’93. However the Oilers were running the ball more and inserted a bigger back to try and wear down defenses. Former special teamer Gary Brown took over due to injuries and rushed for 1,002 yards on 195 carries. He was the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards while only starting half the season. Gone was the scat back presence of Lorenzo White and Allen Pinkett and a bruiser was now running the football in the Run & Shoot. Now teams couldn’t go with pass specialists at linebacker with a hammer in the backfield.

However all wasn’t rosey.

The team operated in the awkward vacuum of two camps within a football squad. Buddy Ryan had complete autonomy with his players and coaches. The season long tension was always there as Ryan said what he wanted to at press conferences, even if it wasn’t supportive of the offensive side of the ball or the team as a whole. Head Coach Jack Pardee and Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride acquiesced some of their game planning to accomodate Ryan. Think not?? Brown in half of the ’93 season carried the ball nearly 200 times where in 1991, Allen Pinkett started all 16 games and only ran it 171 times.

What bothered Ryan the most was the offense continuing to pass the football at the end of halves when they should have run the football and gone into the locker room. This resulted in two of his starting defensive backs being lost for the season on meaningless plays right before halftime. So when starting FS Marcus Robertson was injured with just seconds left before the half in the last game, Ryan exploded and threw a punch at Gilbride. Now heading into the NFL playoffs he would be missing 3 of his 4 starters in the secondary.

The Oilers of 1993 were a lab experiment about how a team with such disjointed chemistry could actually band together to be the tough minded team no one thought of them as. They survived “Baby-gate” when OT David Williams missed a game early in the season to witness the birth of a child. Media scrutiny was less intense and more forgiving when DT Jeff Alm committed suicide before their week 14 match-up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dedicating the game ball to his parents and their fallen teammates memory, they went on the road and whipped the Steelers 26-17 to capture the AFC Central.  Ten months after a collapse branded this team as one of the psychologically weak teams in modern history, they had forged an identity tougher than any could remember.

Houston concluded the regular season 12-4, finishing on an 11 game winning streak. Which had only been equaled by the ’72 Dolphins, the ’69 Minnesota Vikings, and the 1934 Chicago Bears in all of NFL history. No question did they look across state and see a possible match-up with the defending champion Cowboys. When they went out and hit Steve Young so often in a 10-7 win out in Candlestick on Christmas Day, league wide fear of this team only grew. This was not going to be the same team that wilted under playoff pressure come playoff time in 1993.

The Chiefs defense matched the physicality of the vaunted Oiler defense.

The Chiefs defense matched the physicality of the vaunted Oiler defense.

Everyone feared this group except one team, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Oilers had run over the Chiefs 30-0 early in the season and had talked a big game while doing it. As the AFC Divisional slate put these two together again, talk of knocking out Chief quarterback Joe Montana drew the ire of Chief defenders. The late Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith talked about their knocking Moon out if Montana left the game simiarly. What hadn’t been thought of was beating the bully at their own game.

The Chiefs came into the game as a team that didn’t blitz a lot. They stayed with bookend pass rush All Pros Smith and Thomas and played coverage behind them…or so the Oilers thought. The Chiefs threw blitzes at Warren Moon tying an NFL playoff record with 9 sacks and knocking the offense out of continuity from the very start. They held the Oilers to only 277 yards of offense. Their season low?? 246 yards ironically against the Chiefs in their 30-0 loss to the Oilers at the beginning of the season.

It was Joe Montana and moving on half rollouts away from the blitz that kept him upright in this game. A veteran of 20 previous playoff games, with a 15-5 record that featured 4 Super Bowl championships, he may have played his best game at 37 years of age. He completed 22 of 38 passes for 299 yards 3 TDs and 2 interceptions. Once he adjusted to the Oilers and their fleet of second string people in the secondary, he and Marcus Allen kept the ball away from Moon in the second half. The 28-20 win by the Chiefs came at great delight to both Buffalo and Dallas who no longer had to think of facing this monster team from Houston. They would go on to play each other in a second straight Super Bowl once Buffalo DID knock Montana from the AFC Championship Game.

As for the Oilers, they were broken up after 1993. Gone was Warren Moon who went on to sign with the Minnesota Vikings. Buddy Ryan received another Head Coaching position in Arizona taking Wilber Marshall with him. The defense was turned over to Ryan disciple Jeff Fisher, who would succeed Jack Pardee once he was fired in week 10 of 1994. Present Titans coach Mike Munchak played his last game for the Oilers in that 93 playoff loss and began his coaching career that same year. Former Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride was let go once Pardee was dismissed. They had been the men responsible for bringing the Run & Shoot to Houston and it left with them.

Ironically the offense that didn’t win it all as a complete scheme lived on in offenses around the league. It was Gilbride teaching some of the Run & Shoot principles to New York Giant receivers as they have won Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. Even the team of the 2000’s, the New England Patriots run variations of offensive principles that were a staple of Gilbride’s down in Houston. Especially the screen plays that Gilbride designed. Below is a copy of one of the pages from the Patriots Super Bowl playbook of 2003 and you can clearly read “Run and Shoot screen”. 

RunAndShootScreen

The largest fall had been with the fan base that was there from the Luv ya Blue days through this era of Oiler football. The heart of the fan base drained drastically as the team fell to 2-14 in 1994. Within two years, Bud Adams moved the team to Tennessee and renamed the franchise the Titans. It was a sad and sudden end to the Oiler franchise but it came off the heels of promise that was the best team in Oiler history that didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

CoachP.LLathonandChancellor

Met Lamar Lathon with Coach Petrillo at 2016 HoF party for KG

Missing Rings: The 1987 Cleveland Browns

When it comes to talking about Super Bowl Rings of NFL champions gone by, we think of great teams. Yet within each team, there are individuals who have their own story to tell. If becoming a champion is the crowning jewel for a lifetime achievement then how monumental is the chase itself?? Enter Marty Schottenheimer and the 1987 Browns.kevin-mack-earnest-byner

It all began on a dark foreboding afternoon on January 11, 1987 in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. After holding the Denver Broncos to only 216 yards of offense and 13 points in the first 55 minutes of the game, scored to take a 20-13 lead, then pinned the Broncos to their own 2 yard line after the kick. The crowd was rocking as Browns fans were throwing confetti and were just a series or two away from Super Bowl XXI. Decades of NFL futility were about to come to a close as John Elway and the Bronco offense took the field.

Yet in one of the NFL’s greatest ever playoff drives, John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards to the tying touchdown. Then the game winner in overtime. The 23-20 thriller ended a season that had been the most accomplished in the modern history of the franchise.

Denver Broncos Mark Jackson, 1987 AFC Championship

Mark Jackson celebrates the touchdown at the end of “The Drive”in the ’86 AFC Championship Game.

In 1985, the Browns were a limited team that was easing their prized rookie quarterback, Bernie Kosar, into the game plan. This earthbound run oriented outfit was the first division winner in NFL history with a .500 record. Both Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack rushed for 1,000 yards during the season. These shortcomings came back to haunt them in a 24-21 loss to Miami in the playoffs. A game in which Cleveland was up 21-3 at one point. Once the Dolphins focused on the ground game, Kosar was ineffective in his first road playoff game.

So in 1986, third year Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer brought in passing guru Lindy Infante to open up the offense and personally develop Cleveland’s kid quarterback. Kosar developed into an upper level quarterback throwing for 3,500 yards and 17 touchdowns. Along with the Dawg defense they paced the conference and wrapped up home-field advantage with a 12-4 record. As the playoffs neared, pundits were mixed with what they expected of Bernie. Although he finished with the NFL’s lowest interception ratio per pass attempt, many felt a 23 year old quarterback would fold under pressure.

Marty Schottenheimer

Marty Schottenheimer

In the AFC divisional playoff contest with the New York Jets, Kosar completed 33 of 64 for an NFL playoff record 489 yards in a come from behind 23-20 win. The game went to double overtime before Mark Moseley kicked the Browns to a victory. Then came the loss to Denver and depression set in state wide. It wasn’t the fact the Browns lost, it was the heartbreaking way they lost it. Yet with a developing quarterback and one of the AFC’s best defenses, they vowed to make amends the following season.

Going into 1987, Cleveland started tinkering with their defense. They parted ways with high profile linebacker Chip Banks and altered their 3-4 defense in the early portion of the season. With two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, the Browns could go man to man against anyone. Results were mixed as Cleveland had issues rushing the passer. Minnifield and Dixon started in the Pro Bowl for the 2nd straight year, so coverage wasn’t the issue.

The offense continued to diversify as Kosar elevated his game to a higher degree. In 1987 he had the second lowest interception percentage  of all NFL quarterbacks (2.3%) as he threw for 3,033 yards, 22 TDs with only 9 interceptions. His 62% completion percentage (241 of 389) was among the best in pro football. Although he was a bit awkward as a quarterback he started to win some acclaim. He made the Pro Bowl and was voted the People’s Choice MVP that year. Keep in mind these numbers came from only 12 games thanks to the players strike that year.

He still had future Hall of Fame TE Ozzie Newsome to go with his receivers Webster Slaughter (47 rec./ 806yds / 7 TDs) and Reggie Langhorne. However third receiver Brian Brennan (43 rec/ 607 yds / 6TDs) out of the slot was Wes Welker before Wes Welker. Running backs Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack were no longer the 1000/1000 tandem. Mack was the straight ahead freight train and Byner became a combination runner and receiver out of the backfield.

Ancient Cleveland Municipal Stadium was remembered fondly by those from Ohio. Yet to the outside world it was an antiquated unattractive place.

Ancient Cleveland Municipal Stadium was remembered fondly by those from Ohio. Yet to the outside world it was an antiquated unattractive place.

To the casual football fan this team was put together in a hodge-podge sort of way. Very few of the Cleveland Browns were blue chip players. Kosar and Mack were supplemental selections. Inside Linebacker Mike Johnson and All Pro Cornerback Frank Minnifield came from the USFL. Spot time starter Felix Wright #22, came from playing several years in the Canadian Football League. The year before, the Browns brought in former Ohio St alums LB Anthony Griggs and SS Ray Ellis. Each of which were let go by the Philadelphia Eagles when Buddy Ryan took over. Starting DEs Al “Bubba Baker” was a former Cardinal and Carl “Big Daddy” Hairston was in his 12th year was a former Philadephia Eagle from an even earlier regime than Ellis and Griggs.

Now Pro Bowl Cornerback Hanford Dixon and Pro Bowl Linebacker Clay Matthews were 1st round selections fully entrenched as starters.Yet it was this unlikely group that fought as a unit to bring prestige and respectability to Cleveland. Their stadium was ancient and unattractive when you compared it to other teams around the league. Yet all of this fueled the furnace that was the spirit of those 1987 Browns. It fueled the fans as well. Hanford Dixon coined the “Dawg Defense” and the bleacher zone the “Dawg Pound” and that took on a league of it’s own. People dressed in dog masks, chewing on dog biscuits, throwing them on the field. In fact, in 1989 playing the Denver Broncos, the fans were so rowdy throwing biscuits on the Broncos huddled in the endzone, the referees switched sides. It was the first time in NFL history that had happened.

Did I just mention the Broncos?? Well back to 1987…

Wide Outs Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne embodied the spirit of the Browns of that era.

Wide Outs Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne embodied the spirit of the Browns of that era.

After posting a 10-5 record and winning the AFC Central, the Browns beat Eric Dickerson’s Indianapolis Colts 38-21 to set up the rematch they had waited for all year with Denver. This time the AFC Championship would be held in Mile High Stadium. Yet the Browns didn’t care. They had to exorcise the demons from “The Drive” and losing the AFC Championship the year before to the Broncos. When in fact it was a morality play when you thought of the two cities and the two teams. Cleveland was the unattractive “Mistake By the Lake” and Denver was the sprawling western urban city with mountains to ski off in the distance.

Even the quarterbacks took on the embodiment of their towns. John Elway was the prototypical glamour quarterback. First round draft pick with a rocket right arm who was on the cover of magazines and gained much of his fanfare from the previous year’s championship game. Where Kosar was the physically awkward antithesis to Elway’s athleticism, he didn’t have John’s polished ready for television demeanor and looks either. However there was an assassin beneath the surface. This was the kid who won the 1983 National Championship at the University of Miami (The [[_]]) as a redshirt freshman. The 31-30 upset of the #1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers that were averaging 52 points a game. So Kosar didn’t shrink under intense pressure.

How about the Head Coaches??

Well in one you had the polished, always in a shirt and tie Dan Reeves v. the bland “V-Necked”sweater or brown overcoat wearing Marty Schottenheimer. Reeves came up as a golden child on one of the NFL’s glamour teams playing for Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. Then coming up through the coaching ranks and winning a ring as a coach (Super Bowl XII) just as he had as a player in Super Bowl VI. He was a highly sought coaching commodity when Denver hired him in 1981.

Schottenheimer?? He had been a back-up linebacker and special teams player for the Buffalo Bills over in the “other league” known as the AFL. He had been a mid-season replacement for embattled coach Sam Rutigliano for whom he coached the defensive backs in 1984. In ignominious fashion it was his secondary who gave up one of the Browns biggest gaffes ever in 1980 when they allowed a Hail Mary to Ahmad Rashad in the final seconds to the Minnesota Vikings.

In short Cleveland was the antithesis of everything they felt the Broncos were not. Gritty, tough, fighting for respect from the establishment. It tapped into the inferiority complex of the Browns fans and together they lived with the pain of “The Drive” from 1986 ripping at their souls. As for the ’87 AFC Championship??

 

The largest come from behind game in NFL postseason history was the 20 point comeback by the 1957 Detroit Lions in a 31-27 win over the 49ers. At least up until that time. That was against a 49er team that couldn’t win the big game. This comeback by Cleveland, down 18 twice, was performed against the team with the best home record of any NFL team (75% 1960-1987) during those years. Against the backdrop of the emotion from the previous year?? It was the epitome of a never say die attitude that should be taught to kids everywhere.

To have such a monumental performance come up short like that doesn’t take away from it’s brilliance. Earnest Byner had rushed for 67 yards and caught 7 passes for an additional 120 and 2 touchdowns. Did you know this was only the 2nd time a team scored 30 points in any NFL championship game and lost?? The Browns scored 30 in just the second half!! They were down 21-3 at the half and lost 38-33. We’re talking 178 games of AFC /AFL Championships, NFC / NFL Championships and Super Bowls. The other times came when Dallas lost Super Bowl XIII to the Pittsburgh Steelers and when the 49ers lost XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens.

Yet the overwhelming feeling after Byner’s fumble was the best team didn’t win that day. All the media talked about was John Elway who passed for 14 of 26 for 281 yards 3 TDs and 1interception. When the best player on the field that day was Bernie Kosar who threw for 361 yards (26 of 41) for 3 TDs and 1 pick. Which was the record for any championship quarterback playing on the road.

Browns fans had to watch in disbelief when Washington blew out the Broncos 42-10 in Super Bowl XXII knowing their team was better. In fact the following year Cleveland won in Washington 16-10 on the road to knock them out of playoff contention in 1988. So could they have beaten them in a Super Bowl?? Probably. The year before when they lost “The Drive” to the Broncos, they had to watch the Giants pull away from the Broncos 39-20 in Super Bowl XXI. In 1985, the Browns beat the Giants 35-33 in the Meadowlands in the 13th week. Are we sure the Giants would have won at a neutral site Super Bowl?? Remember we’re talking about a pre- free agency NFL back then.

However for one magnificent evening, Marty Schottenheimer and the Cleveland Browns taught fans everywhere a lesson in not giving up. Working your way out of a hole borne from self induced mistakes and putting on a Herculean effort that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

rayellis

Missing Rings – 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars

Elusive Fred Taylor was one of the best running backs in the NFL.

Elusive Fred Taylor was one of the best running backs in the NFL.

There comes a point and time where your greatest effort is rewarded with your greatest prize. At least that is what we are all lead to believe. However that isn’t always the case and it’s what makes the NFL playoffs so compelling. To know that a one and done scenario exists in the playoffs, heightens pulses, nerves, and ultimately leads to the best and worst in players and coach alike. Jimmy Johnson before Super Bowl XXVIII asked his team “How would you feel if you lost the game and you had the best team in the NFL?? How sick would you feel??”

Enter the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars…

This was a team borne from expansion in 1995 along with the Carolina Panthers. Each team surprisingly made it to their conference championships in their second year. However the Jaguars were able to sustain their success. They honed and developed offensive talent that had been mired on NFL benches with QB Mark Brunell (Packers), WR Jimmy Smith (Cowboys), and Keenan McCardell  (Browns). In 1996 & 1997 both Smith and McCardell had over 1,000 yards receiving. In fact it’s debatable that Smith had become the NFL’s best receiver.

Through the 1999 season, Smith had averaged 90 receptions 1,346 yards and 6 touchdowns over those 4 years. He had been to the Pro Bowl in 3 of those 4 seasons. They had former Charger RB Natrone Means and James Stewart who teamed to run the ball with minimal effectiveness.

Brunell had made a name for himself playing like the AFC version of Steve Young. A gritty, mobile quarterback who could make every kind of throw. Yet his spontaneous scrambles unnerved defenses.  He also had been to the Pro Bowl in 3 of those 4 years. Mark came of age in the 1996 AFC Divisional Playoff upset of the Denver Broncos. Mark BrunellIn that game the 9-7 Jaguars made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.  After upsetting the Buffalo Bills on the road, it was expected their Cinderella season would end at the hands of the 13-3 Broncos in Mile High Stadium. Not only were they 8-0 at home but nationwide sentiment favored John Elway making it back to the Super Bowl with the NFL’s strongest team. Denver had rushed out to a 12-1 record wrapping up the AFC West and homefield advantage before resting their players.

After falling behind 12-0, Brunell engineered a comeback where he passed for 245 yards and 2 scores, but came up with timely scrambles that kept drives alive. Along with the running of Natrone Means (140 yds / 1TD), Brunell ran for 44 more as the Jaguars scored on 6 straight possessions in front of a shocked Denver crowd taking a 30-20 lead. The final 30-27 score stunned fans around the nation and everyone hailed the coming of Brunell and the Jaguars.

On the ground the Jags had a plodding rushing attack with RB James Stewart and Means. Two big backs with very little wiggle and no splash plays of any kind. They needed a spark. In 1998 the Jaguars addressed their running issues by drafting the electric but often injured RB Fred Taylor of Florida. He brought the big play from the backfield whether it was a spectacular run or pass reception. His 1,223 yards and 14 TDs should have landed him in the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

Brunell passed for 20TDs and only 9 interceptions in a season where he missed 3 games. Jimmy Smith exploded for 78 receptions 1,182 yards and 8 TDs and one of his Pro Bowl berths. As an offense they finally had everything and it looked like 1999 would be the year they would put it all together.

As a defense the Jaguars began to bring in blue chip players to replace those received in the expansion draft. In their 1995 they drafted linebacker Kevin Hardy and defensive end Tony Brackens. Over the next two years, these two matured into two of the AFC’s best as the Jaguars added blue chip draft picks S Donovin Darius & CB Aaron Beasley.

Free agency brought former Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Bryce Paup and perennial All Pro Carnell Lake formerly of Pittsburgh. Then they hired former Panther Coach Dom Capers to be the defensive co-ordinator and the team that finished 6th in the NFL in defense looked to improve in 1999.

The ’99 campaign began with a 41-3 devastation of the San Francisco 49ers at home. Hall of Famers Steve Young, Jerry Rice and the 49ers were still intact at the time. They started 3-1 before Young’s career ending concussion, but that one loss?? The Jags chased him all over AllTel Stadium. He was 9 for 26 while throwing for only 96 yards and 2 interceptions before getting benched.

They held Rice to only 2 receptions while Terrell Owens had 5. After giving up an early field goal, Jacksonville scored 41 unanswered points with the last touchdown being a 90 yard interception return by Aaron Beasley. This sent a shock-wave through the NFL.

Through the first 15 weeks of the season, the Jaguars looked like they were on a collision course with the St Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. They were 13-1 going into a game with the Tennessee Titans that could wrap up home-field advantage and the AFC Central Divsion Championship. They had only given up 169 points and were on pace to break the record of the ’86 Bears for fewest points in a season at 187. In fact they had a 6 game stretch where they held their opponents to 10 points or less.

They also beat the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos, who were the teams that knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Jimmy Smith was having a career year with 116 catches for 1,636 yards and 6 touchdowns. They had outscored their opposition 358-169 and were on an 11 game winning streak. What could go wrong??

Well early in September they lost 20-19 to the Tennessee Titans when Neil O’Donnell subbed for an injured Steve McNair at home. They were a 1 point loss from being 14-0 and now traveled to Tennessee to get revenge and ran smack into a buzzsaw. A division rival that had been chasing them all year had their number as Steve McNair, who was now healthy, threw for 5 touchdowns in a convincing 41-14 win. Surprise!

They now had been swept by their division rival who bullied and outhit them in that game. Not only was their confidence shaken, but questions about their Super Bowl legitimacy could be heard around the NFL and by fans. They did finish with a 24-7 win against the Bengals to finish 14-2, but they were going into the ’99 playoffs asking themselves two questions. Were they the team that was 14-0 against the rest of the NFL??Or were they the team that got swept by the Tennessee Titans??

First up came a game with in-state rival Miami in the AFC Divisional round. It would be the first time Jacksonville would have a home playoff game. How would they fare??

After the 62-7 trouncing of Miami, the Jaguars knew they had to go through the Titans again in the AFC Championship Game. The Jaguars had pulled off the most lopsided playoff game in modern (post 1960) NFL history. For one that was labeled a finesse team, they had been physical with their demolition of Miami and they flew into the AFC Championship Game. The question was: Were they physical enough to beat a true phyical team in the Titans??

At least it would be at home where they had gone 8-1 when you include their playoff game. Winner take all for the right to go to Super Bowl XXXIV. The story lines surrounding this championship was the relative health of both Mark Brunell (knees) and Steve McNair (toe) who were nursing injuries. Wouldn’t you know it was the turning point of the game.

Mark Brunell sacked for the safety which turned the momentum in the '99 AFC Championship Game.

Mark Brunell sacked for the safety which turned the momentum in the ’99 AFC Championship Game.

The AFChampionship was a hard fought affair that saw the Jaguars hold onto a 14-10 lead at the half. While driving for what would have been a momentum building score at the end of the half turned out disastrous for Jacksonville when Brunell was intercepted in the end zone by Marcus Robertson. The momentum switched from there…

McNair, whose foot finally responded, escaped Jacksonville’s defense for a 51 yard run down to the 1 yard line on the first drive of the second half. He scored on the next play to give the Titans a 17-14 lead. Brunell on the other hand was immobile wearing two knee braces. During the regular season where he escaped the pocket 47 time for 208 yards and a touchdown, he was uncomfortable all day and left the pocket once for -1 yard.

In fact after the Titans pinned Jacksonville to their own 3, the immobile Brunell was sacked for a safety by DT Josh Evans that helped break open the game at 19-14. The resultant free kick was then returned 80 yards by Derrick Mason and now the Titans were up 26-14. In less than half a quarter, the Titans scored 16 unanswered points and had a 2 touchdown lead. With their ears pinned back, the Titans pass rush forced Brunell into his roughest outing of the season. He went 19 of 38 for 239 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 costly interceptions. They lost 33-14.

Epilogue: For one brief moment in time, the Jacksonville Jaguars soared to new heights. Most people forget that they were the first to flirt with breaking the record for fewest points given up in a season and not the Ravens. It was Baltimore who broke it in 2000. They had the NFL’s best record (14-2) and finished the season scoring 396 while allowing just 217 which was the fewest.

That 179 point differential was 2nd only to The Greatest Show on Turf ’99 Rams that many wanted to see them play in Super Bowl XXXIV. They finished 4th in total defense, 7th on offense, and had 5 Pro Bowl performers in Brunell, Kevin Hardy, Tony Brackens, Carnell Lake, and Jimmy Smith. Yet they had to sit home and watch someone else represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in Atlanta.

The team would never be the same. Injuries and disappointment followed in 2000 as they went 7-9. In fact the Jaguars had 3 successive losing seasons which led to Tom Coughlin’s dismissal after the 2002 season.

Want some irony??

Fisher had some parting verbal shots at Jacksonville on the field after that ’99 championship. Coughlin gets fired a few years later. Fisher goes on to lose Super Bowl XXXIV to the St. Louis Rams. Now Jeff Fisher is the St. Louis Rams head coach after NOT winning a Super Bowl in Tennessee. Guess what Fisher did last February?? He sat his ass on a couch and watched Tom Coughlin win his second Super Bowl with the New York Giants to put his name on the short list of great coaches who have accomplished that.

Always be classy when you win…

The 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the best teams that didn’t win the Super Bowl

Searcy

Thanks for reading, please share the article.

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

For those avid readers of the Taylor Blitz Times, I would like to thank you for your continued patronage and we are growing in leaps and bounds. In the future we will have a new logo adorn the top of the website that reflects where we’re going. We have just been reached through specific searches in 100 different countries since February 25, 2011. Thanks again for reading and there are more changes to come to keep this the fun, informative site that it’s been.