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. In 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 the one 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.
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
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