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Brunell worthy of praise


It was a performance to be mentioned with the greatest in Jaguars history, which is another way of saying Mark Brunell added another game to his long list of memories.

Brunell's effort in the Jaguars' 24-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers today rivals his all-time great games: the playoff win in Denver in 1996, the Monday nighter against the Steelers in '97, week two in Baltimore in 2000, just to name a few.

He was as impressive today as he was in any of those games, and maybe even more impressive when you consider this fact: Brunell was throwing to a group of wide receiver cast-offs who may represent the least-respected crop of pass-catchers in Jaguars history.

That wasn't Jimmy Smith or Keenan McCardell catching Brunell's passes today. That was Matt Hatchette and Jermaine Lewis, two receivers who combined for a grand total of two pass receptions last season.

With those two unlikely stars each accounting for a touchdown catch, Brunell finished the day having completed 23 of 27 pass attempts for 272 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 133.3 passer rating. Wow! Not bad for a guy who, rumor had it, was in danger of being cut or traded on the final week of the preseason.

And that's what makes what Brunell did today so astonishing; so demanding of praise and respect. At a time when he was facing the greatest personal adversity of his professional football career, he responded with a performance that re-established his place in this league.

But it was all soiled by defeat. Such a waste. And for that reason, no one spoke too glowingly of what Brunell did against what was billed last week in the Charlotte Observer as the second coming of the "Steel Curtain."

"He had a good statistical game, got us a big play and gave us a chance to win," coach Jack Del Rio said of his quarterback.

Del Rio was intentionally subdued in his remarks. He didn't want to give the impression anything about defeat is worthy of praise, even though his quarterback was. And Del Rio was also fighting the emotions that accompany a bitter defeat. Del Rio was in no mood to gush about anything. His thoughts were angrily focused on his special teams and run-defense.

Such a shame. This was a day that should've been a tribute to Brunell. Had the Jaguars held on for one more play, it would've been such a tribute day, for the greatest player in Jaguars history, the man who is the identity of this franchise but almost certainly is playing his final season in Jacksonville.

"It doesn't matter," Brunell said when asked about his performance. "If you don't get the win, it matters for naught," he added.

Well, yeah, that sounds good but it's not the whole truth. In a game in which the Jaguars did not run the ball effectively, did not stop the run or the pass at any time in the second half and totally collapsed on special teams, Brunell represented the only thing the Jaguars had going for them. Truth be known, without Brunell and his near-perfect performance against the "Steel Curtain" Panthers, the Jaguars would've been blown out of the "Statue City."

At one point in the third quarter, Brunell had completed 13 consecutive pass attempts, tying a team and personal high. It's also worthy to note that even though Brunell has been criticized for only having eyes for Smith, he spread the ball around to eight receivers today. Five of them had never played a down of football for the Jaguars prior to today's game.

"We're on our way. We'll be all right. We're only going to get better in this offense," Brunell said of his regular-season debut in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's version of the "West Coast offense."

But it wasn't the scheme, folks. It was the man running it. Unfortunately, thanks to the pain of having blown a 17-0 lead, the postgame atmosphere wasn't willing to acknowledge the true worth of its embattled starting quarterback.

The guy was great.

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