Nobody knows for sure how close the Jaguars came to trading Mark Brunell. Eleventh-hour agreement? How about 11:59?
As late as early-afternoon today, the Jaguars entertained trade offers from at least three teams, thought to be the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions. Of course, the Jaguars had begun trade discussions with the Chiefs at least two weeks earlier.
All of that is unimportant, now. Brunell will remain the Jaguars' quarterback, as he has been since early in the team's inaugural season, after having agreed to a four-year deal worth $30 million. That deal includes an $8 million signing bonus, of which $4 million will be paid now and $4 million will be paid during the 2001 season.
"I wouldn't describe this process as ugly," Brunell told reporters during a telephone interview late this afternoon. "It's a relief and I'm real excited about it. From the beginning of the process, I wanted to be a Jaguar."
Contract talks had dragged on through the winter before the two sides reached a re-structured agreement on March 1 that allowed the Jaguars to get under the mandatory $67.4 million salary cap. At that time, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver thought a new, permanent deal would be done within "two weeks."
Four weeks later, Weaver left the Jaguars' offices today admittedly weary from an effort he had made his personal mandate. With the Brunell deal, Weaver truly "made his bones" as an NFL owner.
"Why did it take so long? It took longer than it should have," Weaver said.
The obstacle in negotiations was Brunell's request for a 10-year contract worth a Drew Bledsoe-like $100 million-plus. Weaver's position was that he was afraid those kinds of numbers would be a turn-off for Jaguars fans, even though the majority of that money and the years in that proposal would've been of a "dummy" nature. That kind of a deal would've given the Jaguars more salary cap flexibility, but Weaver feared public perception.
Instead, Brunell agreed to a shortened version of the Bledsoe deal. The four-year deal he signed is similar to the five-year contract he got from the Jaguars in 1997.
"I've been saying the large signing bonuses can't continue. We've been a poster child for that. Something had to give," Weaver said when asked about the downsized contracts players are accepting in free agency this year.
"We've got a cap because clubs have spent so freely and it's caught up with them, and now, for the first time, the cap is starting to work. The days of free spending are over," Weaver added.
Brunell's new deal, which carries through the 2004 season, will be capped like this in 2001: The $6.35 million amortization remaining from his previous contract will be added to $2 million of signing bonus from the new deal, and $500,000 of salary. That's an $8.85 million cap hit in 2001.
Under the re-structured deal Brunell signed on March 1, he would've been an $11.35 million cap hit in 2001. Therefore, Brunell's new contract affords the Jaguars a $2.5 million cap savings this year. That's money the Jaguars are expected to use on re-signing either center Jeff Smith or offensive tackle Todd Fordham, or both. The Jaguars will need to create additional cap room to sign their 2001 draft class.
That's where linebacker Kevin Hardy enters the picture. He's in the final year of his contract and the Jaguars want to negotiate a new deal that would provide more immediate cap relief. If they are unable to do that, they may trade Hardy, who would provide a $2.2 million cap savings (his 2001 salary) in a trade.
"Now that's a priority," Weaver said of negotiations with Hardy.
With all of the number-crunching done, Brunell can get back to the business of playing football.
"Do we have as much talent as we have had in the past? Maybe not, but we have enough talent to win a championship," Brunell said.
"In '96, we didn't have the most talent in the world, but we had fighters. This team has the ability to go all the way. I believe that with all my heart," Brunell added.
He knows he has to repair his popularity with the fans, but he doesn't believe his lengthy contract negotiations, which were unfairly blamed for the releases of 15 players at the cap deadline time, have put him in bad stead with his teammates.
"Each guy on the team realizes these contracts take time. I don't see it being a problem. It's part of the business. I think these guys are excited to have their quarterback," Brunell said.
"I feel I'm coming into my best years. A few years from now, I hope we have a chance to do this again," he said of negotiating a new contract with the Jaguars in 2004.
Weaver spoke for Jaguars fans.
"I think the fans want Mark Brunell to be here. I don't see any backlash," Weaver said.