The quarterback is embattled. There's no doubt about it, now.
Mark Brunell has been the target of critics and disappointed fans ever since the Jaguars' AFC title game loss to the Tennessee Titans last January. His detractors said he couldn't win the big one; couldn't win in the playoffs, and it was pointed out that Brunell's postseason passer rating is significantly beneath his regular-season rating.
Most recently, he was blamed for the team's second-half collapse in Indianapolis, its meager offensive output in the loss to the Steelers, and this past Sunday he was benched in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars' loss to the Ravens. With that benching, it was open season on Brunell. Every Brunell critic immediately had license to open fire.
This is new stuff in Jacksonville, which says something about the kind of play Brunell has provided since the team's inaugural season, but almost all quarterbacks have endured what Brunell has experienced this week. Blame the quarterback is the way of the game.
That's the stage Brunell finds himself in. He is being blamed for this team's early-season collapse. Those who once cheered him as the franchise's blessing, now boo him for being the team's curse.
What will be most interesting is how Brunell's teammates react to this attack on their leader and, make no mistake about it, Brunell is the guy on whom this team has leaned for six seasons. He maintains a strong support group in the Jaguars locker room, including best friend Tony Boselli, and appreciative wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.
Will the Jaguars rally 'round their quarterback? Will they play their best football of the season as a gesture of their support for him? It would not be without precedent.
Their quarterback has been backed into a corner. Because he is the quarterback, which means he must also be part diplomat, he is forced to accept the criticism without lashing back. Brunell has been superb at maintaining his cool.
For example: "Do you feel betrayed by the fans who cheered Sunday night when Jamie Martin replaced you in the game?" Brunell was asked.
"I'm not concerned about the fans. I'm concerned about the guys in this room and this team. We have great fans. When it doesn't go the way the fans like, they have a right to express their displeasure. All we have to do is get this turned around and everything will be alright," Brunell said.
What do you think he would've liked to say? But he didn't, and his teammates undoubtedly took note. They should feel a strong sense of compassion for Brunell, and they do. They should want to win for him, and they do.
Years ago, Terry Bradshaw was an embattled young quarterback who was once "cheered" as he left the field with a separated shoulder. In those days, the heart and soul of the Steelers was "Mean Joe" Greene, who remained solidly in Bradshaw's corner. When Bradshaw played well, Greene would great reporters with: "How'd ya like our quarterback today?"
This would appear to be the lowest point in the Jaguars' history, but, in fact, what has happened since Brunell was benched with nine minutes to play in Sunday's loss to the Ravens may be the most positive thing to happen to this team since that AFC title game loss sent this franchise into a death spiral.
Maybe this team needed something this dramatic to purge itself of that loss. Maybe it needed something like this to unify its locker room. Maybe Tennessee is the perfect opponent.
If this is the week this team comes together and stands as one behind its quarterback, then this is exactly what it needed. Otherwise, yes, these are the franchise's darkest days.
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