These may be the most tension-filled days of Mark Brunell's career, and the regular season has yet to begin.
Brunell finished the preseason Thursday night with his worst performance of the four games. He completed just four of 11 passes for only 33 yards. Brunell's 44.9 passer rating left him at 54.1 for the preseason, and left his coach in a state of shock about the performance of his first-team offense.
"I'm sure it's confidence. Mark was falling away from the throw instead of stepping up (in the pocket)," coach Tom Coughlin said following the Jaguars' 28-25 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, which left the Jaguars at 1-3 for the preseason. That marked the Jaguars' first losing mark in the preseason since they were 2-3 in 1995, the team's inaugural season.
Brunell was clearly the main topic of the postgame interview session. He was the player around whom Coughlin planned to rebuild his team. Now, there are those who would replace Brunell with rookie quarterback David Garrard, who led the second-team offense to three touchdowns in rallying the Jaguars from a 21-2 deficit at halftime.
Here are the numbers for Brunell and the first-team offense:
Against the Cowboys, the first-team offense gained only one first down in five possessions. All five possessions ended in punts, which is how 16 of the first-team offense's 17 possessions in the preseason ended. In four preseason games, Brunell and company scored just three points.
Meanwhile, Garrard was 15 of 25 for 167 yards and a 79.9 passer rating last night, and under his guidance the Jaguars totaled 341 of their 384 total net yards.
"In the first half I didn't like the way our offense played, again. We went the wrong way on an audible and had a dropped ball. The second group of kids played hard and made some things happen," Coughlin said.
"Fred (Taylor) wasn't sharp; Mark wasn't sharp. I think the first receivers were in position to make plays. I just believe somehow, some way Mark will snap out of this and play with his old confidence and fire," Coughlin added.
The evening began with a rare drop by tight end Pete Mitchell. Brunell threw a wild incompletion over the middle on a play during which he moved his eyes from downfield and looked directly at a pass-rusher. Brunell threw two passes behind wide receiver Patrick Johnson, and running back Fred Taylor didn't help matters by making a half-hearted attempt to catch a swing pass in the face of on-rushing Cowboys defenders.
When a reporter asked Coughlin about the possibility of making a change at the starting quarterback position for the regular season opener, Coughlin answered more directly than expected.
"I'm not going to do anything right now, but there's got to be a turnaround. I let Mark go a little longer tonight," Coughlin said.
Brunell's confidence did not appear to be frayed during his interview session with the media.
"As difficult as this has been, it's still the preseason. It still doesn't matter. I do feel confident we will execute," Brunell said.
Also at issue was the ongoing state of star wide receiver Jimmy Smith's holdout. Brunell was direct in his response to a question about the effect Smith's holdout has had on the offense.
"The Jimmy Smith thing has been hanging up there since day one. It's frustrating. We're not supposed to talk about it, we don't talk about it, but everyone knows it's there. He's one of our best players, he's one of our leaders and he's not here and he should be here. It was easy two or three weeks ago to say, hey, it's going to get resolved, but that's one area right now that I don't have confidence in that it will be resolved. He is the best and we could use the best right now," Brunell said.
These are tough times for a player who has been this team's heart and soul since it won its first game on Oct. 1, 1995, when Brunell came off the bench to lead a fourth-quarter rally in Houston. Then, he was a brash, young scrambling quarterback with stardom written across the front of his uniform. Now, he is a source of worry for those who can't imagine Jaguars football without him.
"What happens in these next nine game days is very important. Our starters are going to be on the field the entire game," Brunell said of the regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts at Alltel Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 8. "You can get into a rhythm and stay out there and find out what's working and what's not working and go win football games. I feel confident we will execute. We have enough good players out there that if we come to play we can do some good things," Brunell added.
Identifying those "good players" will be the job of Coughlin and his coaching staff over the next couple of days, as final cuts must be made by four p.m. on Sunday. The Jaguars must cut 20 players, but that number is likely to increase since the team is expected to make a couple of waiver-wire claims.
First-round draft choice John Henderson is certain to make the team. In fact, Henderson may have won a starting defensive tackle job with his performance against the Cowboys, which included three knockdowns of passes and a sack in the end zone for a safety.
Stacey Mack is clearly the backup to Taylor at running back. Mack gained 100 yards on 12 carries against the Cowboys and scored the Jaguars' first touchdown on a 61-yard run up the middle. Mack is the Jaguars' leading rusher in the preseason with 194 yards.
Wide receiver Jimmy Redmond led all Jaguars receivers with four catches for 58 yards. Redmond was thought to be in a battle with Henry Douglas, Micah Ross and Corey Parchman for the fifth wide receiver job.
Cornerback Damen Wheeler made a strong bid for a roster spot with a couple of impressive plays, one of which was a diving interception.
And kicker Hayden Epstein booted his kickoffs to the goal line, though he didn't have a field goal opportunity. Coughlin could sign a veteran placekicker and keep Epstein on as a kickoff specialist.
Defensive end Tony Brackens played for the first time in the preseason. Though Brackens made no tackles, it was encouraging he was able to play without further incident to his knee. Hopes were he would not experience swelling in his knee as a result of his activity Thursday night.
Coughlin expressed satisfaction with the performance of his draft class. "I'm pleased with Henderson, Pearson, Ayodele, (Wali Rainer) the acquisition in the third round, and the two kids in the fourth round," he said.
Coughlin desperately wants to be able to say the same of his starting quarterback following the season-opener against the Colts.