When the debate over the best Jaguars players in team history springs up, as it has recently with the announcement of Fred Taylor's induction to the "Pride of the Jaguars", the one name fans and media alike bring up first on the defensive side of the ball, is Tony Brackens.
While Brackens has been arguably the most popular defensive player in the team's short history, a lot of nostalgia tends to perhaps skew the actual production he gave the franchise on the field. When compared against other defensive ends of his era as well as other defensive players from his own franchise, Brackens tends to fall into the "all-time good" rather than the "all-time great" category.
Make the jump for the debate.
The basis of most fan's argument and at times infatuation with Brackens, can really be traced to a handful of highlights from the first, and most successful, era of the franchise. There was his coming out party on national television versus the Seahawks in his '96 rookie season, in which he had a sack and an interception in pivotal points of the game that led to him being highlighted by then TNT analysis Joe Theisman; A two sack performance at Three Rivers a year later, in one of the greatest games in team history; And perhaps his most memorable play, a sack/strip/recovery on Dan Marino in the '99 AFC Divisional playoff game, in which he almost unknowingly scored a touchdown. The latter of those plays was somewhat ironic in that it really marked the peak of Brackens' career.
When looking at the total picture however, the image of Brackens as the most dominant defensive player to ever wear the teal and black, gets blurred.
First, the injury bug was a major detriment to his career. In his nine seasons with the team Brackens only had one season, in 2000, in which he started all sixteen games. He only had four seasons, '99-'01 and his final season in '03, in which he made double-digit starts. It's no coincidence that in that span, he had his two best seasons as a pro in terms of sack totals, in '99 and '01 . He missed nearly the entire season in 2002 with the same knee injury that hampered him most of his pro career, appearing in only five games that season, a career low. His play was never the same after that injury and it played a big role in his release during training camp in 2004.
From a production standpoint, Brackens had two multiple sack seasons in '99 and '01 respectively, yet he only tallied seven games over his career in which he recorded multiple sacks, four of those games occuring during those two seasons, and never registered higher than 2.5 sacks in a game. He recorded only one instance of back to back multiple sack games, coming in a two game stretch against Pittsburgh and New York in '99. He did make one Pro Bowl for his performance in that ’99 season, but he only finished tied for seventh in sacks in the NFL, third in the AFC. In the ’01 season, Brackens finished tied for eleventh in sacks for the league, sixth in the AFC.
While the highlight from the Dolphins playoff game remains etched in the hearts and minds of Jag fans, Brackens’ playoff performances were just OK. He recorded only one sack during the team’s miracle playoff run in ’96, during the wild card win at Buffalo, and was a non-factor the following two weeks versus Denver and New England. He didn’t start and played sparingly in a 42-17 stomping at the hands of the Broncos the following year. In the ’98 post-season, Brackens recorded a sack versus New England in the teams first ever home playoff game, but then was inactive the next week in a loss to the Jets. He did record a sack in each of the team’s ’99 playoff games, including the highlight play versus Miami. All in all, his post-season performance mirrored his regular season career, spotty and inconsistent.
Perhaps Tony’s biggest detriment, other than the nagging knee concerns, was his work ethic. Now by all accounts, Brackens was never a bad guy, be it with the public, media, or team mates. However, he was never known to be one of those “first one in, last one out” players during his time with the team. On a recent “Jaguars This Week”, Jaguars radio analyst and former defensive end Jeff Lageman echoed these similar sentiments when speaking about Brackens, and recalled the words of former defensive end Clyde Simmons, who said, “Tony will be as good as Tony wants to be”. Lageman went on to describe Tony as a player who, “left a lot of talent untapped and could’ve been one of the greats had he wanted to be great”.
Those statements, along with the inconsistency of his career, really call into question whether Brackens even belongs on the “Pride of the Jaguars”, let alone be the first defensive player to be given the honor, as some fans have clamored for. When compared to the careers of former Jaguars Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, as well as current players Rashean Mathis and Daryl Smith, Brackens’ case gets quite stalemated.
- - Stroud was a three time Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection from ’03-’05, and outside of Richard Seymour was widely considered the best defensive tackle in the NFL over that three year span. He played in all sixteen games five times during his career, including a span where he didn’t miss a game from ’02-’05. Certainly that performance and durability, make him a much more viable candidate than Brackens.
- On the other side of Stroud was “Big John” Henderson, himself a two-time Pro Bowler in ’04 and ’06, in which he was also an All-Pro selection. Like Stroud, Henderson missing games was a rare occurance. Unlike both Stroud and Brackens, however, Big John was a near instant starter in his rookie season and nearly broke Brackens’ seven sack mark as a rookie from the defensive tackle spot. His career as a Jaguar was a year shy of Tony’s and from an on the field perspective, more impressive.
- Mathis is far and away the greatest player ever to man the Jacksonville secondary. He was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in ’06, where he finished third in the NFL in interceptions with eight. He holds the team records in career interceptions, interception return yards, defensive touchdowns, and passes defended. Like Brackens, Mathis also has a post-season fan memory. In the ’07 post-season, Mathis twice intercepted Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, returning one for a touchdown in a game that was ultimately decided by a last minute field goal to give the Jags the win. Mathis played four consecutive seasons without missing a game from ’03-’06, and at one point was one of the most feared corners in the NFL.
- Daryl Smith has never received the accolades of the above mentioned players he played with, but any Jags fan knows he has been perhaps the most dependable player in team history, not named Jones-Drew. Smith has twice recorded one hundred or more tackles in a season, in ’09 and ’11, has been a team captain for as long as the distinction has been made publicly known by the NFL’s issuance of the “C” patches. Playing in all sixteen games five of his eight seasons, and missing only four games to injury, Smith has been a constant on the defense since his ’04 rookie season, and is the Jaguars equivalent of Washington’s London Fletcher, in terms of fan favor and national recognition or lack thereof. Most knowledgeable Jags fans would be hard pressed to find room for Brackens over Smith, once his career is over.
The debate will undoubtedly continue as more former players are added to the “Pride”, and the times of Brackens and the other former players become more and more nostalgic. I don’t believe Brackens will be that first defensive player to have his name etched above the West Club of EverBank Field. In my opinion, that distinction will go to Stroud, who WAS the greatest defensive player in this franchises’ young existence. The player known as “T-Brack”, will always have a place in the hearts of Jaguars fans, especially those who were there to watch the team through it’s early years. His play on the field, and stature in the team’s history is much like that of Mark Brunell. A player who was very good in his prime, but only thought of as “great” thanks to a combination of nostalgia and lack of any competition for the distinction at their position since their departure.
Let the debate rage on.