It was the darkest day in the two-year history of the Jaguars. When I walked into the locker room on Nov. 18, 1996, there was a chill in the air.
On this particular morning, the young Jaguars were a team divided. They were 4-7 (sound familiar?) following a 28-3 loss in Pittsburgh; their arrow was pointing straight down. The tension that separated one corner of the locker room from the other was palpable.
The previous day, controversial wide receiver Andre Rison freelanced a pass route that resulted in a loss-clinching interception. Rison was supposed to go over the middle, but Steelers safety Darren Perry was sinking his hips, preparing to strike. Rison cut to the outside; Mark Brunell's pass was to the inside. The following morning, Coach Tom Coughlin cut Rison.
When the media entered the locker room on Monday, we could feel the angst; pro-Rison and pro-Coughlin factions were aligned. There was a tense silence in the room. Interviews were conducted in hushed tones, cautiously. I remember thinking to myself, "This team won't win another game." As it turned out, they almost didn't lose another game.
"Losing in Pittsburgh was never pleasant. We showed up on Monday knowing it was going to be a long day; it always was after a loss with Tom," Tony Boselli recalled.
"(Rison) was really well liked in the locker room. Despite all his mistakes, running the wrong routes, he was a really good teammate. When he was let go, there were a lot of people who were unhappy. The tension was pretty thick."
The next seven games remain the greatest and most dramatic run of success in Jaguars history. In my 45 years covering the NFL, I never covered anything else like it.
What that morning following the loss in Pittsburgh taught me is, indeed, football is not a feel-good game. It's an edge game. Coughlin once said to me, "I don't want guys walking around here with smiles on their faces." There were no smiles.
"It made us closer. Instead of losing the close games, we started winning the close games. We got better at the position. All of a sudden, things started bouncing our way. Motivation is a funny thing," Boselli said.
The release of Rison provided an opportunity for a new star to emerge. Jimmy Smith would become that player for the near and long-term future.
As the Jaguars headed into Week 13 (sound familiar?) of the '96 season, they were on the edge of collapse, so I thought. Then the run began.
Jaguars 28, Ravens 25 (OT)
The Cinderella Jaguars, the team of destiny that could do no wrong, were born in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, the house Unitas built. Brunell rallied the Jaguars from a 25-10 deficit with fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Pete Mitchell and Willie Jackson. Brunell then sent the game into overtime with a two-point conversion run. Mike Hollis would kick the game-winner in overtime.
Jaguars 30, Bengals 27
Brunell threw for 356 yards and a touchdown to Keenan McCardell, as the Jaguars held off a persistent Bengals team on a rainy, dreary day in Jacksonville. The magic was already beginning to happen for the Jaguars, as Mickey Washington opened the scoring by returning a blocked field goal attempt 64 yards for a touchdown.
Jaguars 23, Oilers 17
The Oilers were ahead of the Jaguars in the AFC Central when the two teams met in the Astrodome, where the Jaguars had scored the first win in franchise history the previous year. The Oilers would move to Tennessee for the 1997 season, and late in '96 they were laying the foundation for their future. Steve McNair had recently taken the starting quarterback job, and Eddie George was the Oilers' star running back. On this day, the Jaguars kept the Oilers at arm's length, holding the lead for all but a few minutes of the game. The Jaguars were 7-7 and wild-card playoff contenders.
Jaguars 20, Seahawks 13
Sunday Night Football came to Jacksonville and a star was born. Rookie Tony Brackens intercepted a pass and got a sack in a disruptive defensive performance that announced him as one of the league's stars of the future. The Jaguars had to rally for this win, and Brunell did the honors with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith. The Jaguars were smokin' hot and, at 8-7, all they needed was a little help and a win in the season finale against visiting Atlanta to claim a playoff berth. Fate, it seemed, was the Jaguars' best player.
Jaguars 19, Falcons 17
Morten Andersen, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, sized up a 30-yard field goal attempt with four seconds left on the clock. "Well, it was nice while it lasted; it gave me a lot of good writing," I thought to myself. I was standing next to Pete Prisco, behind the left upright, when I saw something resembling a football twisting and turning awkwardly as it struggled to gain altitude. "He missed it," I said as I looked at Pete. The Jaguars were going to the playoffs.
Jaguars 30, Bills 27
Home-standing Buffalo didn't stand a chance in this Wild-Card playoff game. Bruce Smith was old and Boselli was young. This would be Jim Kelly's final game, ending with a trip to the locker room on a cart. Brunell tied the game with another one of those fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Jimmy Smith, and then Hollis banged home a game-winning field goal. Fate was in control now. It was throwing the ball, catching the ball, kicking the ball. It would all end, we thought, the following week in Denver, against the AFC's top-seeded Broncos.
Jaguars 30, Broncos 27
It's the greatest upset in NFL postseason history. The Jaguars awakened in Denver as Jagwads. They left Denver that evening one win away from the Super Bowl and headed home for a surprise, middle-of-the-night pep rally. The Broncos quickly took a 12-0 lead on two easy touchdown drives; the missed conversion attempts should've warned them what they were up against. Of course, the Jaguars rallied; it had become their trademark. Natrone Means pounded out first downs, Brunell authored one of the greatest scramble runs in NFL postseason history, and tossed the game-winner to Jimmy Smith, again. The Jaguars' charter flight home made a low pass over Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, where thousands were gathered to welcome home the conquering heroes. The pilot dipped his wing and I could almost hear the cheers. "Is this really happening?" I asked myself. Yes, it was.
Patriots 20, Jaguars 6
The Jaguars lost in the AFC title game in New England the following week. They came one completion away from going all the way, in my opinion. Fate didn't see Willie Clay lurking. Nobody blamed fate. It was a great run.
Can it happen again? Why not?