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A Dynasty That Could Have Been?: The Jags From the Late ’90s

July 3, 2018 • Ben Heck • AFC, AFC South, Features, Front Page, History, Jacksonville Jaguars

If you’re like me, you’re constantly thinking about “what if” scenarios. Especially when it comes to the history of the National Football League.

In January, the Jacksonville Jaguars came just one win shy of making the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in history.

It was Jacksonville’s first playoff appearance since the 2007 regular season and its first AFC Championship appearance since the 1999 season. The Jaguars had gone nine straight seasons of winning eight or fewer games and missing the postseason.

Because of the long playoff drought, I think people tend to forget about all of the success the Jaguars experienced in the franchise’s early days.

Did you know: In four out of the first five seasons of existence, the Jaguars made the postseason? The team, after debuting in 1995, made the playoffs in 1996, ’97, ’98 and ’99, which included two AFC Championship appearances (1996 and ’99) and a combined 45-19 regular season record.

As a lefty, I absolutely loved Mark Brunell growing up. But, these days, people seem to forget just how great the Brunell, Fred Taylor, Jimmy Smith trio was in Jacksonville.

Well, we’re here to remind you. Let’s take a look back at the team’s impressive four-year stretch from 1996-99:

1996

After putting up a 4-12 season as an expansion team in 1995, the Jaguars bounced back in its second year of existence with a 9-7 regular season record.

Led by third-year, 26-year-old Mark Brunell, who made his first of three Pro Bowl appearances that season, the Jacksonville Jaguars won its last five regular season games to sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card team.

Brunell threw more interceptions than touchdowns (19 TD, 20 INT; league-leading 4,367 passing yards) and leading rusher James Stewart put up 723 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground, ranking the Jags’ offense as the 14th-best scoring offense in the league.

The defense wasn’t any better, ranking the 19th-best scoring defense in the league that season. But, luckily for Tom Coughlin’s Jags, they got hot at just the right time and carried its late-season success over into the postseason.

As an AFC Wild Card team, Jacksonville knocked off the Buffalo Bills, 30-27, in the Wild Card round behind a 175-yard performance from a 24-year old Natrone Means. The defense limited Jim Kelly to 239 yards and a touchdown and one interception through the air and Thurman Thomas to 50 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

A fourth-quarter Jimmy Smith touchdown catch and Mike Hollis 45-yard field goal allowed Jacksonville to pull off the stunner.

The following week, Jacksonville won another 30-27 playoff game, this time over John Elway’s Denver Broncos. Brunell out-dueled Elway while Means added another 140 yards and one touchdown on the ground.

Means was much less effective in the AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots (19 carries, 43 yards), and the Jacksonville offense managed just a pair of Mike Hollis field goals in the team’s 20-6 loss. New England would go on to fall to Green Bay in the Super Bowl two weeks later, of course.

1997

The running back duo of Stewart and Means combined for 1,378 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground for the 11-5 Wild Card Jaguars in ’97.

Between the RB tandem and Mark Brunell’s 18/7 TD-INT ratio, Jacksonville’s scoring offense jumped from 14th to third in the league in ’97, with receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith each catching 80+ balls for 1,100+ yards.

The ’97 season, though the overall numbers and team record improved from a season ago, ended with a one-and-done in the postseason as they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos, 42-17, in the Wild Card round.

1998

If it weren’t for Randy Moss’ incredible rookie season in ’98, I have little doubts that the Offensive Rookie of the Year award would have gone to Taylor that season. The rookie 22-year-old running back, the No. 9 overall pick out of the University of Florida, broke onto the scene in ’98 with his 1,223 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns (14 rushing, three receiving).

Thanks to the newfound rushing attack for Jacksonville, some of the pressure was taken off the Brunell/Smith/McCardell passing trio and the Jaguars became a top five rushing team with 2,102 yards 19 touchdowns on the ground.

At 11-5, the Jaguars captured its first division title in team history and defeated the Patriots, 25-10, in the Wild Card round. Taylor ran for 162 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries and the Jacksonville defense limited New England to just 35 rushing yards on 19 carries.

A week later, Jacksonville ran into the New York Jets and went home early following a 34-24 Divisional Round loss. Taylor put up another 86 rushing yards, but Brunell’s three picks were too much to overcome.

1999

As far as regular season records go, the 1999 season is still Jacksonville’s best season yet. The franchise has only hit double-digit win totals three times since ’99 — 12 wins in ’05, 11 wins in ’07 and 10 wins in ’17.

Jacksonville snagged its second consecutive division title and the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, giving them a first-round bye in the postseason.

Fred Taylor started just nine games that season, posting 732 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Even with an unhealthy Taylor, Jacksonville finished second in the league in rushing yards (2,091) with James Stewart adding a team-high 931 yards with 13 touchdowns and Brunell adding 208 yards and one touchdown.

It also didn’t hurt that the Jags ended the regular season with the No. 1 scoring defense, led by Pro Bowlers Kevin Hardy (98 total tackles, 10.5 sacks), Tony Brackens (68 total tackles, team-high 12.0 sacks) and Carnell Lake (57 total tackles, 3.5 sacks). Aaron Beasley led the team with six interceptions for 200 yards and two touchdowns, while Fernando Bryant led the team with 106 total tackles.

Once playoff time rolled around, the Jags took care of business in the Divisional round by defeating Miami by an incredible 62-7. The legendary Dan Marino threw for just 95 yards, 1 touchdown and two interceptions on 11-for-25 passing and was eventually replaced under center by backup Damon Huard.

Huard would go on to complete just five of his 16 attempts for 46 yards and get sacked three times.

Taylor ran for 135 yards in the win, while Brunell and JAC backup Jay Fielder only needed to attempt 20 passes between them in the win. By game’s end, Jacksonville ran for 257 yards and three touchdowns to Miami’s 21 yards on 18 carries.

Unfortunately, the success didn’t carry over to the following week as Jacksonville’s magical ’99 season came to an end in the Conference Championship. The Tennessee Titans would defeat the Jags 33-14 to earn the Super Bowl trip.

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Do you believe 1999 still remains the best season in Jacksonville’s team history? Who do you think is the best player in the franchise’s history? Would your thoughts on the Jacksonville franchise be any different had they won those two AFC Championship games back in ’96 and ’99??

Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Photo: sportstalkflorida

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