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The forgotten game that changed the course of the Jaguars franchise and the NFL

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Mark Brunell

With the Jaguars celebrating their 25th season in 2019, you’ve likely been reliving some of the most memorable moments of the team’s first 24 seasons through various medians like here at Big Cat Country, on the team’s official site, and on multiple local radio programming. While many of the recollections have come from the most notorious historical talking points of Jags lore, there’s one game that gets lost among the crowded memories of “62-7” and “Myles Jack Wasn’t Down!”. It was a game that at the time defined a most bipolar of seasons for a very young and very bipolar team, and unbeknownst to just about everyone at the time, it was a game that set the course for a head coach, a franchise, and the NFL for years to come.

On November 24th, 1996, the Jaguars limped into Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium for their second match up in three weeks with the 3-9 Ravens. Just two weeks earlier, quarterback Mark Brunell had mounted a furious comeback in Jacksonville against the same Baltimore squad, having been down 27-16 late in the fourth quarter, to win 30-27. But the Jaguars and head coach Tom Coughlin entered the rematch reeling, having been handed a lopsided 28-3 loss in Pittsburgh the week before that resulted in the team dropping to a disappointing 4-7 record and releasing veteran star receiver Andre Rison the following day leaving a locker room that was ready to implode on it’s coach and each other.

The second iteration for the two teams went very much like the first. The Ravens controlled the game for the majority of three quarters, extending to an otherwise comfortable 25-10 lead going into the fourth quarter, and the Jaguars’ second season seemingly about to flat line. Then, as if something out of a Hollywood script, the Jaguars franchise was resuscitated and their fate changed forever.

With the Jaguars needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie, and having just stopped the Jags’ on a failed fourth down attempt inside Ravens territory, Baltimore needed only to run out the clock and put the team from Jacksonville out of it’s self-inflicted misery late in the fourth quarter. But on the first play of the drive, quarterback Vinnie Testeverde botched the snap as he attempted to hand off to running back Earnest Byner. Byner appeared to land on the ball, but it popped free from his grasp as he rolled over it and Jaguars linebacker Eddie Robinson pounced on the loose ball, emerging with any hopes of another last-minute comeback in his hands at the Ravens’ 30 yard line. Six plays later, Brunell found receiver Willie Jackson for the touchdown to cut the lead to two, and followed it up by lunging towards the end zone to just get the ball across the goal line and tie the game at 25.

The game would go into overtime, with Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis hitting the game-winner from 34 yards out, but only after linebacker Kevin Hardy saved the Jags from another near end having forced a Byner fumble inside Jaguars territory that was recovered by defensive tackle Kelvin Pritchett.

Grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat in Baltimore on that November afternoon, ignited the spark that started what would become a seven-game winning streak culminating in the historical 30-27 upset against Denver in the AFC Divisional round, and falling just short in New England in the AFC title game. It catapulted the Jaguars franchise from expansion doormats into an AFC powerhouse for the next half-decade including another trip to the AFC title game three years later. It inevitably launched the careers of Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, Mark Brunell, and many others, and forged a divided locker room together under it’s second-year head coach.

So what if things hadn’t gone the Jaguars’ way on that Baltimore Sunday?

  • Had the Jaguars not pulled it together that day, and gotten perhaps the luckiest of bounces, there are no upsets of Buffalo and Denver respectively, that put Jacksonville on the national map once and for all as a pro football town.
  • There’s no 40,000+ strong packing Jacksonville Municipal Stadium just after midnight to welcome home their team after the upset of all upsets, and the fever that the “Cardiac Cats” brought throughout Jacksonville in December ‘96 and January ‘97, and started the bond between team and city, doesn’t quite take place.
  • There’s no “Bruce Smith game” to launch Tony Boselli’s Hall of Fame career.
  • John Elway likely leads the juggernaut Broncos team to the first of two match ups against Brett Favre’s Packers and perhaps retires a year earlier after the ‘97 season.
  • With the discourse finally having grown to a boiling point after a second-straight losing season, and with too much of a militaristic leadership, owner Wayne Weaver more than likely would’ve succumbed to the will of his players and the fan base and terminated Coughlin as head coach and general manager, with University of Florida head coach Steve Spurrier a likely replacement.
  • Coughlin would’ve presumably returned to an assistant coaching role under new Jets head coach Bill Parcells, leading to a staff with Coughlin as offensive coordinator to join defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, and leaving the now ex-Jags coach without the resume of turning an expansion team into a contender while never getting a chance to show his head coaching chops again in the NFL.

Ok, so we can’t know for sure that ALL of those things come to pass if the Jaguars don’t get that lucky bounce.

However, while we’ll still be talking about “Morton’s Miss” when we celebrate the Jaguars 50th season, it would’ve never have happened without “The Miracle at Memorial”.