It was just what the folks on Monday Night Football wanted as they prepared to go live from the 55th-largest television market in the country for the first time: Jaguar quarterback Mark Brunell making his dramatic return to the field after tearing a pair of ligaments in his right knee only 44 days ago.
Good theater about to become great drama for a third-consecutive Monday night, with a television audience hanging in there to see if Brunell would remain healthy, and then being treated to another last-second resolve.
Like last week, when the Philadelphia Eagles botched a field goal attempt to beat the Dallas Cowboys on the final play, the Steelers kicked away an opportunity to upset Jacksonville, losing, 30-21, before an Alltel Stadium-record crowd of 73,016.
Trailing, 23-21, with six seconds to play, the Steelers lined up to kick a 40-yard field goal to win the game only to have the snap from center slither along the ground to holder Mike Tomczak.
Pittsburgh kicker Norm Johnson, like Philadelphia's Chris Boniol a week ago, hesitated after eyeing the poor snap, but unlike Boniol who froze, Johnson managed to get his foot into the ball. Johnson's kick, drilled low, struck Jacksonville defender Clyde Simmons and was then picked up by teammate Chris Hudson, who went 58 yards with the blocked kick for an exclamation touchdown to the Jaguars' dramatic win.
After a wild celebration, the field was cleared, 11 Steelers were retrieved from their locker room to line up opposite the Jaguars, and Jacksonville successfully added the extra point to ignite yet another round of cheers.
"I wouldn't want to be kicking a field goal to win the game on Monday night any more," said Jacksonville offensive tackle Tony Boselli.
The Steelers squandered a 114-yard rushing effort from Jerome Bettis and a kickoff team that made a mockery of the Jaguars' special-teams preparation. But Jacksonville won and, in addition to solidifying their grip on first place in the AFC Central Division with a 3-0 record and dropping the Steelers to 1-2, the Jaguars got away clean with the controversial return of Brunell.
Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin said it was his decision to play Brunell after consultation with physicians, trainers and his quarterback. Brunell said it was God's work, allowing him to heal quickly from a torn medial collateral ligament and a posterior cruciate ligament in the jaguars' second exhibition game.
So why did it feel as if it had all been staged for a city desperately trying to validate itself as major league, or worse yet, choreographed by the guys with the TV cameras, who pay the NFL big-time money for this prime-time entertainment and who will soon be negotiating a new deal?
Without Brunell throwing for more than 300 yards for the ninth time in his career, this was going to be a Sumo running back face-off between Pittsburgh's Bettis and Jacksonville's Natrone Means: Not exactly the most scintillating kickoff to the network's week-long look at its new fall shows.
Every local TV station here went wild all day hyping Jacksonville's party before a national audience, and pumping the anticipated game-time decision on whether to start Brunell or not. Anyone else, and this night might have gone flat.
Name the quarterback who would have started in place of Brunell, if he had been allowed more time to heal? Steve Matthews--stop, do not turn off the TV.
Forty-four days after the Jaguars thought they had lost Brunell for the season, his right leg wrapped in a brace, he was running from 298-pound Pittsburgh defender Oliver Gibson.
"He's not 100%," said Boselli, Brunell's best friend on the team, "but watch out when he is."
So why play him? Why place your franchise player in jeopardy in the third game of the season, especially after jumping out to a 2-0 start with two quarterbacks?
"He was close enough," Boselli said. "He was protected enough, and Mark is very strong and he wasn't going to get hurt."
Good for the Jaguars, good for ABC-TV and good for everyone around the country who likes to watch exciting players at work.
And more to the point, "Thank God he came through it," said Coughlin.
Brunell, sacked three times, played cautiously, remaining in the pocket for much of the game despite making himself a star in this league because of his scrambling ability. He completed 24 of 42 passes for 306 yards, the first quarterback since Green Bay's Brett Favre in late December 1995 to top the 300 mark against the Steelers, and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith.
"The knee was solid, no pain, and I didn't get hit on it," said Brunell, who remains convinced that God cured his knee before doctors performed exploratory surgery on Aug. 15th, expecting to find serious damage to his anterior cruciate ligament, thereby knocking him out for the year.
"I'm not a miracle man. I do believe God healed my knee, and He's the reason I was able to play today. And this is big--it came down to the last play, and it was very good for this franchise and for the city of Jacksonville."
And great for television.
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