Gerard Warren's "final defensive stats" included just one harmless tackle, but what was omitted may have been the biggest hit of the game. Warren, the Cleveland Browns' first-round draft choice from Florida, blind-sided Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell on the first play of the game, which eventually caused Brunell to leave the game for good early in the second quarter.
That first blow of the game may have been the final blow to the Jaguars, who were already without Fred Taylor, Tony Brackens, Donovin Darius and Tony Boselli, a game-day deactivation. The Jaguars were unable to overcome the loss of Brunell, too.
"Some of the things that happened in the first half, I don't think I've ever seen," Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said following his team's 23-14 loss to the upstart Browns today at Alltel Stadium.
The Browns came to Jacksonville with a strong sense of purpose, and they announced their intentions immediately with an aggressive and almost brutal style of play. Warren targeted Brunell after the latter had attempted to underhand a pass to running back Stacey Mack on the Jaguars' first offensive play. The ball was intercepted by Browns defensive end Orpheus Roye at the Jaguars 15-yard line.
The television replay clearly shows Warren turning and running directly at Brunell, who was not near the ball. Warren took several steps and was in full stride when he hit Brunell from behind. The crown of Warren's helmet struck the side of Brunell's helmet, causing Brunell's head to ricochet violently. Warren was not penalized, but he was expected to incur a heavy fine.
"He said he did not see anything that wasn't legal," Coughlin said of referee Bob McElwee's interpretation.
It was a play that sparked a first half of retaliation, both physical and verbal. Jaguars Damon Jones and Sean Dawkins were each flagged for taunting. Cleveland guard Tre Johnson was flagged for a personal foul when he dived over a pile long after the play had been whistled dead.
A story out of Cleveland quoted Browns players as being outraged by comments Coughlin made to his team following its win over Tennessee the previous Sunday. NFL Films caught Coughlin telling his team, "We're 2-0 and on our way to 3-0."
Whatever the Browns' motivation was, it was distinct. They played their best football since re-emerging in 1999. Their rookie head coach, Butch Davis, said he hadn't spoken to his team about its 48-0 loss in Jacksonville last December. Maybe he did. Maybe the Browns wanted to avenge that embarrassment.
"Give Cleveland credit. They played hard. We had our opportunities and didn't take advantage of it," Coughlin said.
Davis applauded Warren's hit on Brunell for having set the tone for the rest of the game. Davis wanted that tone to be a very physical and aggressive style of play.
"That was the one thing we said we wanted to do. We wanted to start this game fast. We didn't want to come out here and be halfway sluggish and wait to get into the fight in the middle of the first quarter or second quarter. We wanted to set the tempo in all three phases," Davis said.
"Defensively, that's kind of the way we start ballgames. We come out hot, flying around and making plays. We got some hits, got some turnovers, created some field position. It was a good way to start the game," Davis added.
The Jaguars were confronted with a 13-0 deficit at halftime, and they would be without Brunell for the remainder of the game. All of a sudden, the Jaguars were without three (Brunell, Taylor and Boselli) of their "Big Four" on offense, and they were in a "death" struggle with a young team that had fire in its eyes.
Coughlin had attempted all week to convince his players and Jaguars fans the Browns were a legitimate threat. "I don't know how serious people were about that," he said following Sunday's loss, which left the AFC Central
Division lead in a four-way tie: Jacksonville, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland are all 2-1; Pittsburgh is 1-1 and Tennessee is 0-2.
Apparently, Coughlin's warnings fell on deaf ears. His team did not match the Browns' energy, and only 57,875 fans showed up for a game that was the first TV blackout of a regular season game in Jaguars history.
Coughlin got his team's attention at halftime, though.
"I think we had some wasted energy with the penalties and the verbalization (taunting) going back and forth. In all fairness, that was something that was going to be called this year," Coughlin said of the taunting calls.
Jaguars wide receiver Keenan McCardell voluntarily took the blame for the taunting call against Damon Jones. McCardell said his first-down gesture on the previous play was the impetus to the penalty on Jones.
The Jaguars were also flagged twice in the first half for "illegal formation," and special-teamer Kiwaukee Thomas carelessly batted a bounding punt into the hands of a Browns defender, which resulted in a 43-yard return and a 28-yard field goal by Phil Dawson with 16 seconds to play.
It would be an understatement to say the Jaguars lost their poise. At one point, Coughlin gathered his team around him along the sideline and gave them a pep talk.
"I said this back and forth verbalization is not getting it done. I told our players to do their talking with their play; shut up and stop the foolishness and try to win the football game. It was an uphill climb as it was without that foolishness, especially with some key guys out of the game," Coughlin said.
Those words spurred the Jaguars to a third-quarter rush that began with an impressive nine-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that cut the deficit to 13-7. Brunell's replacement, Jonathan Quinn, audibled on a third-and-one play at the Browns eight-yard line, then dropped a perfect spiral into McCardell's hands in the front-left corner of the end zone.
Two plays later, Jaguars linebacker T.J. Slaughter stripped Browns reserve running back Jamel White of the ball, and cornerback Aaron Beasley raced 40 yards for a touchdown that gave Jacksonville its first lead.
It appeared the Jaguars were headed for 3-0 and sole possession of first place in the division when Mike Hollis lined up a 42-yard field goal attempt early in the third quarter. Then, Hollis duck-hooked a kick that seemed to swing momentum back in the Browns' favor.
"The ball seemed to be snapped well, handled well," Coughlin said. "We make a field goal and we give ourselves a four-point advantage. We didn't do that. That's an ongoing story," Coughlin said in reference to Hollis' misses in each of the season's first three games.
Cleveland only needed a field goal to win, and quarterback Tim Couch moved his offense 66 yards in 11 plays, with Dawson booting a 30-yarder that gave the Browns a 16-14 edge.
Couch turned in one of the best games of his three-year career. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 249 yards, though he was intercepted once and produced only a 79.2 passer rating. Most impressively, Couch led the Browns on a 19-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, and was cool at crunch time.
The Jaguars had a couple of opportunities to move into scoring territory. Quinn move the offense from its own three-yard line to the Cleveland 36, but the drive finished with four consecutive incompletions.
Coughlin said a 53-yard field goal attempt into the wind would've been "too far" for Hollis.
With 1:25 to play, the Jaguars got one more shot, but Quinn was intercepted by Daylon McCutcheon, who returned the errant pass 32 yards for a touchdown.
"They were motivated. There was a lot of talk about never beating Jacksonville. They came in here with a lot of fire and they believed," Jaguars linebacker Kevin Hardy said of the Browns.
It all began with Warren's hit on Brunell.