Five short years ago, Mark Brunell and the Jaguars were cheered as they left the field following a shocking upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The date was Oct. 8, 1995, and the Jaguars were a satisfying 2-4.
Sunday night, Brunell was removed from the game and replaced by Jamie Martin, and the smattering of people left in Alltel Stadium derisively cheered coach Tom Coughlin's decision. For the next nine minutes, Brunell stood along the sideline feeling as though his heart had just been cut from his body. You could see the glaze on his face; feel his numbness.
The guy was hurting, and it made a lot of fans happy. They were the same fans who cheered Brunell on that day in '95 when the Jaguars beat the Steelers, and in the '96 playoffs when Brunell was the hot-new quarterback in the league, and in the summer of '97 when Brunell signed a big-money deal everyone said the Jaguars had to get done.
On this night, which ended in the final minutes of Oct. 8, 2000, almost no one was left in the stands when the Jaguars left the field following a 15-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Just as on the same date five years previously, the Jaguars were 2-4, but there were no cheers.
"I was surprised," Brunell said in the postgame locker room, when asked about being removed from the game in the fourth quarter, following his second interception. "(No explanation) was offered. I haven't talked to coach, yet. We'll talk tomorrow," Brunell added.
There was hurt in his eyes; deep hurt. For the second consecutive Sunday, Brunell had been benched, and Martin came on to lead the Jaguars to their only touchdown. A few years ago, it would've been the unthinkable. Brunell had always been the heart and soul of the franchise. He was its quarterback and its identity. Now, he is its subject of controversy.
They will line up this week on the radio talk shows to back the man, or stab the man. Mostly, it will be the latter, judging by the reaction of the few thousand who remained in Alltel Stadium for the fourth quarter of the Jaguars' most recent loss.
These are the worst of times for the six-year-old professional football experience in Jacksonville. There is disappointment and frustration and anger and hurt. It has become a vicious cycle. Each week begins and ends this way.
"This is new territory for me," Brunell said, when asked if this was the toughest time in his career. "What do you do? You have to have a good attitude about it."
Always, Brunell has a good attitude. You will never compromise his dignity. Boos won't do it. Derisive cheers won't do it. He has learned to stand tall in defeat. Two AFC title game losses, and nights like this past Sunday have taught him how to do it.
A reporter, attempting to cheer the mood of an interview that had become depressingly uneasy, attempted to introduce a few "bright side" comments. Brunell looked the reporter in the eye. "There was no bright side tonight," Brunell said.
There will be damage control on Monday. A positive spin would be put on the matter, however, as late night turned into early morning, and hurt billowed from the shower room, there was only the truth. The quarterback had been benched. Long live the quarterback.
His teammates came to Brunell's emotional rescue. They know what he's meant to this team, going back to those days in Oct. of '95. The fans know, too.
"It's unfair," Jimmy Smith said of Brunell's benching. "I think it's unfair that the crowd cheered like it did. I just think it's unfair to him. You really just can't point the finger at the quarterback."
Even Martin attempted to back Brunell, though Martin had to be careful not to betray Coughlin's decision. "I was a little surprised," Martin said of being summoned to replace Brunell. "Obviously, we were still in the game."
The inevitable question came. Would there be a quarterback controversy in Jacksonville this week?
Martin looked the reporter in the eye. "I'm the backup quarterback. I'm the number two guy," Martin said.
The same question was posed to Keenan McCardell, and McCardell did not look the reporter in eye. McCardell rolled his eyes and tilted his head, then in a low voice: "How can you even ask a question like that?"
A little later, with only a few players and reporters remaining in the locker room, Brunell's best friend, Tony Boselli, said loudly: "There's no quarterback controversy. Let's get that straight."
They rushed to their quarterback's defense. It was them and their quarterback against the world. It was the best thing that had happened in their locker room in a long time.