BACK IN THE GROOVE
"You want to see it?" Mark Brunell said last Saturday, a
mischievous twinkle in his eye. Yes, the visitor wanted to see
it, so Brunell closed the door to a room beneath ALLTEL Stadium
and pulled down his shorts. The upper half of his buttocks was
purple. The deep bruise ran down his left leg, and the blood
from the injury had settled along his hamstring.
What a strange season this has been for the 27-year-old Brunell.
The bruised butt, the result of a fall during a Nov. 9 win over
the Chiefs, followed a major knee injury--the tear of his right
medial collateral ligament and partial tear of the anterior
cruciate ligament--and the dislocation of the middle finger on
his passing hand. When he woke up on Sunday, a week after the
Kansas City game, the finger was throbbing and his rear end
ached. But the knee didn't bother him a bit. All things
considered, Brunell says, it was the best he had felt all year.
Consider the range of emotion that Brunell and his 8-3 Jaguars
have experienced this season. Returning from an exhibition game
against the Giants on Aug. 9 after suffering what coach Tom
Coughlin believed was a season-ending knee injury, Brunell
remained optimistic. And when doctors performed arthroscopic
surgery, they found the ACL was only partially torn, and they
decided not to repair it. Six weeks later Brunell took the field
and beat the Steelers.
He muddled through a pedestrian October and early November,
injuring the finger during a loss to Pittsburgh in the rematch,
and his completion percentage is down five points from his .634
figure of last year. But he had thrown 15 interceptions through
nine starts a year ago; this season he has thrown only four
picks in nine starts.
On Sunday, in a 17-9 win over Tennessee, he was vintage Brunell.
He put up his most impressive numbers of the season (22
completions in 30 attempts, 267 yards, one touchdown), and he
was at his best in the big spots. Getting sandwich pressure from
two rushers late in the second quarter, he threaded a 17-yard
touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell. He has scrambled rarely this
year, but facing a third-and-10 in the third quarter, he dashed
for 12 yards and a first down. On the next play, a moment before
getting blasted by defensive end James Roberson, he lobbed a
perfect pass 35 yards downfield to wideout Jimmy Smith. Two
plays later Natrone Means scored the touchdown that put
Jacksonville up 14-3.
"The difference," Brunell said afterward, "is that today I never
thought about my body. Every player will tell you that if you
have your health, you can play to your fullest. I finally felt
like the old Mark Brunell."
That could spell trouble for the rest of the AFC. The addition
of defensive depth--rookie tackles Renaldo Wynn and Seth Payne
helped limit Tennessee running back Eddie George to 49
yards--makes the Jaguars Super Bowl contenders. A loss by Denver
on Sunday left Jacksonville one game out of the race for home
field advantage in the playoffs, and the Jaguars, who are tied
atop the AFC Central with the Steelers, have a favorable
schedule: at Cincinnati, at home against Baltimore and New
England, then at Buffalo and Oakland. For the second straight
year Jacksonville should have January football on its calendar.
LIFE WITH MIKE
Would anyone care remotely about the 4-7 Saints if Mike Ditka
weren't in charge? He humiliated his team last month while doing
a skit on Saturday Night Live and has provided innumerable sound
bites. On the field he's a one-man Broadway show. He has spiked
his gum in a sideline rage, paid off a $25 bet to defensive
coordinator Zaven Yaralian at the end of the Nov. 9 win over the
Raiders with TV cameras trained on him (he wrote a letter of
apology to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and won't be fined)
and chewed out quarterback Heath Shuler. "I love it," general
manager Bill Kuharich says of Ditka's emotion. "Against the
Raiders, Mike willed our team to a win."
Three things have surprised Ditka.
1) The poor play of his offense in general and Shuler in
particular, both ranked 30th in the league. The jury remains out
on Shuler, but regardless of who's at quarterback, Ditka knows
the offense won't go anywhere until shortcomings on the line are
addressed in the off-season.
2) The atmosphere in the Saints' locker room. "These are great
guys," Ditka says. "They're just awfully quiet. Nobody talks.
I've used all of my speeches, all my Knute Rocknes, but I don't
know if they're working."
3) The amount of energy he has exerted. I didn't realize how
tired I could get mentally," he says.
Despite whispers around the league that frustration would lead
him to call it quits after this season, Ditka will be back for
Year 2. Three weeks ago he and Kuharich spent four hours
formulating off-season plans.
Mike Shanahan has won more regular-season games than any NFL
coach over the past two seasons, but one battle he feels he'll
never win is a financial dispute with his former boss, Raiders
owner Al Davis. That's why Shanahan, coach of the 9-2 Broncos,
has given up trying to collect the $250,000 he says Davis owes
him under the contract Shanahan signed to become the Raiders'
coach in 1988. Though the league has ruled in his favor,
Shanahan this week will ask that Davis instead donate the
money--plus interest--to the Oakland Unified School District.
"It's a lot of money, but I'd rather see it go to the
schoolchildren of Oakland," Shanahan says. "It's time to move
The $250,000 is what Shanahan says he was due when Davis fired
him four games into the '89 season. According to Shanahan, Davis
told him the money would be forthcoming--unless Shanahan took a
job with the Broncos, for whom he had worked as an assistant
before being hired by Davis. When Shanahan objected, he says
Davis told him, "If I don't want to pay you, it'll cost you more
money going through the court system than the money you'll get
from the contract."
Each side presented its case at an arbitration hearing conducted
by the NFL in Los Angeles in 1990, and the league ruled in
Shanahan's favor. Davis appealed, and last week the league said
it was still awaiting a reply from Shanahan's lawyers.
"This is a new twist, and it's as ridiculous as all the others,"
Raiders chief executive Amy Trask says of the coach's demand.
"Mr. Shanahan had his day in court, so to speak, where we found
proof that [Shanahan and the Broncos] had perjured themselves."
Trask declined to elaborate on the perjury accusation, other
than to say, "Since we presented proof that he and the Broncos
perjured themselves, we haven't heard a peep from Shanahan, the
Broncos or the NFL." Asked on Monday about the Raiders' charge,
Shanahan laughed. --MICHAEL SILVER
Eagles quarterback Bobby Hoying was terrific in his first NFL
start, a 10-10 tie against the Ravens. Despite being sacked nine
times, he completed 26 of 38 passes for 276 yards and looked
like a leader. "I was amazed that a guy that we've been talking
about as the quarterback of the future could be such a great
quarterback of the present," Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said....
Playing for Philadelphia, defensive end William Fuller had more
sacks (35 1/2) from 1994 to '96 than Bruce Smith or Reggie
White. The Chargers thought they had a steal when they signed
Fuller to a two-year, $5.6 million deal in the off-season. But
Fuller has only two sacks in 11 games, and he thinks the slump
may be because AFC West teams focus on pass protection while NFC
East teams are obsessed with run blocking....
One AFC scouting director says Florida State's Andre Wadsworth
is the best pass rusher he has seen this decade. Wadsworth could
fall in behind two quarterbacks--Tennessee's Peyton Manning and
Washington State's Ryan Leaf--atop the 1998 draft.
THE END ZONE
Five days before the Jets played the Bears, oft-beaten New York
cornerback Otis Smith said he was being benched. Two days later
he reearned the starting job, which led reporters to ask him
about his earlier statement. "I don't believe I said that,"
Smith replied. "If I said that, I misquoted myself."
Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more Dr. Z at
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Bouncing back from a series of injuries, Brunell had his best game of the year against the Oilers. [Mark Brunell in game]
COLOR PHOTO: TOM STRATTMAN/AP Blanchard knocked off another Super Bowl champ. [Cary Blanchard]
YOUNG MAN'S GAME
Niners quarterback Steve Young is on track to win his sixth NFL
passing championship, tying Sammy Baugh for the league record,
an accomplishment that would be impressive considering what
Young is up against this season. He's 36, he's without all-world
wide receiver Jerry Rice (sidelined since suffering a knee
injury in the season opener), and he may have his weakest
supporting cast yet. To show what an outstanding year Young is
having, we compared 1997 with each of the years he won the
passing title, looking at his statistics, the number of his
offensive teammates who went to the Pro Bowl and the production
he got from his top two wide receivers.
QB COMP. WIDEOUTS PRO BOWL
YEAR RATING PCT. TD-INT. CATCHES-YARDS/GAME PLAYERS
1991 101.8 .645 17-8 Rice-John Taylor, 9.0-138 2
1992 107.0 .667 25-7 Rice-Mike Sherrard, 7.6-113 5
1993 101.5 .680 29-16 Rice-Taylor, 9.6-153 6
1994 112.8 .703 35-10 Rice-Taylor, 9.6-127 5
1996 97.2 .677 14-6 Rice-Terrell Owens, 8.9-111 1
1997 104.0 .668 14-5 Owens-J.J. Stokes, 7.0-101
1. FINER-NINERS San Francisco loses Jerry Rice, the premier
player of his day, in a season-opening loss, runs off 10
straight wins and, by virtue of Sunday's 27-19 victory over the
Panthers, clinches the NFC West with five games left on the
schedule. It's official: This is a pretty good franchise.
2. SUPERBUCS The last time Tampa Bay didn't finish with a losing
record was 1982, when the Buccaneers went 5-4 during a
strike-shortened season. Until now. Sunday's 27-7 win over New
England--the Bucs held the Patriots without a first down in the
first half--was Tampa's eighth win and broke the Bucs' 14-year
string, ending the longest active losing-season streak (shared
with the NBA's Kings) in pro sports.
3. LOMBARDI.COM The Packers put untradable stock that pays no
dividends on the Internet for $200 a share. The Web site had
four million hits seeking info in the first four days the stock
was offered, and the club could raise the $80 million it seeks
by week's end.
4. TEENY LITTLE SUPERGUY Doug Flutie was not too small on Sunday
to be the best football player in the Canadian Football League,
which he has been for most of the last decade. His 352 passing
yards, three touchdown passes and one scoring run lifted Toronto
to a 47-23 win over Saskatchewan in the Grey Cup.
5. DOLTS NO MORE The Colts have beaten the defending Super Bowl
champs three straight years, the latest win a 41-38 thriller
over the Packers on Sunday. That's odd. This is bizarre: Cary
Blanchard booted four field goals in each of those wins,
including the game-winner with less than a minute left. --P.K.