The new era in Jaguars football will officially begin with an "old" face at quarterback. Following the Jaguars' preseason finale tonight, coach Jack Del Rio announced that Mark Brunell will be the Jaguars' starting quarterback on opening day in Carolina.
"I think it was important for Mark to experience what he experienced the last couple of weeks. It'll prepare him for the onslaught he'll face this season. There's no avoiding it," Del Rio said of the intense debate that swirled about the quarterback position and Brunell's future with the team.
"I'm happy to know number eight will be behind center and leading us against Carolina," Del Rio added in announcing Brunell as his starting quarterback.
It was the perfect ending to the preseason. Their 17-15 win over the visiting Washington Redskins tonight left the Jaguars with a 3-1 record that'll take them into the regular season with some bounce in their step. The fan-pleasing Brunell announcement capped the evening.
"I'm the best guy. I just stood on that," Brunell said, following a week that began with rumors he had been offered in a trade, which led to intense speculation he would be cut. In the end, neither was true, which left Brunell and reporters to wonder why tonight's firm announcement of Brunell's status was withheld. Is it possible the decision hinged on Brunell's performance against the Redskins?
Brunell was lost for an answer. "You'll have to ask Jack. What's done is done. I was probably taken off guard. I didn't expect to go through something of this degree," he said.
"It's nice to have some closure and really focus on football. I'm going into my 11th season. I've gone through the onslaught. It was difficult. That's how it was. Fortunately, we can move on," Brunell said.
Brunell was cheered as he trotted onto the field for the initial offensive series of the game. And he was cheered even more heartily when he threw a four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Brady on Brunell's second and final series of the night.
His five completions in seven pass attempts for 36 yards and a touchdown left Brunell with a 122.6 passer rating. Byron Leftwich was impressive in completing 11 of 14 passes for 100 yards, no touchdowns and a 96.4 rating, while David Garrard was four of eight for 29 yards, no touchdowns and a 58.9.
"I think we're capable of doing some good things. Time will tell. We have to find out how we measure up against the Panthers. That'll be a real good measuring stick," Brunell said of the season opener on Sept. 7.
So it is that the player who has been the identity of the Jaguars franchise since its first-ever win in 1995, maintains that lofty status. Leftwich, the seventh pick of this year's draft and the Jaguars' quarterback of the future, is waiting in the wings and will pose a distinct threat to Brunell's starter's status, but, for now, this is still Brunell's team.
"Both Byron and David are talented young guys. We're very fortunate to have three guys who are very talented at that position," Del Rio said.
Last night's postgame announcement certainly took a lot of pressure off Del Rio. With the Brunell controversy put to rest, Del Rio may turn his full attention to cutting his roster, which must be completed by four p.m. on Sunday. The Jaguars must release 18 players by that deadline.
One of the big decisions would involve defensive end Tony Brackens, who is attempting to make a comeback from microfracture knee surgery last November. In his only action of the preseason, Brackens was the starting left defensive end last night, played about a quarter of the game and impressed Del Rio enough that it's likely the decision to keep Brackens on the roster has already been made.
"I know he moved around well. He adds an element to our defense," Del Rio said.
Rookie second-round pick Rashean Mathis earned the starting free safety job for tonight's game, replacing incumbent Marlon McCree. "Rashean and Marlon have battled the whole camp. We feel like we have three starter-caliber safeties," Del Rio said.
Running back Fred Taylor saw limited action for the second consecutive week. Taylor carried three times for 22 yards, including an 11-yard run.
"He ripped off a couple of long runs. That's all we needed to see," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars pushed the Redskins all over the field for three quarters of the game. The only real drama occurred in the fourth quarter, when the Redskins cut their deficit to 17-12 and Del Rio decided to go for it on fourth-and-one at the Jags' 29-yard line. Garrard was stopped, fumbled and the Redskins recovered at the 27. But the Jaguars' second-team defense held the Redskins to a field goal.
"That's a preseason type play. I'll take blame for that. We just got a little too cute," Del Rio said of his fourth-and-one decision.
It was Steve Spurrier's second game at Alltel Stadium in nine months, and for the second time Spurrier went away a loser. On this night, the Redskins were without four starters on defense, including star linebacker Lavar Arrington and cornerback Champ Bailey. The Redskins finished the preseason 1-3.
"Jacksonville played well and has a good team, and they are going to be OK this year. They have a chance to do well," Spurrier said.