In the Shadows of Titans: The 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars
Below is a script I wrote and recorded in late 2021 to be the first episode of a series called “In the Shadows of Titans” about teams and athletes that had everything it took to win a title but never did because they ran into someone just a bit better.
The larger project has been shelved (at least for now), but I wanted to make sure this story saw the light — the 1999 Jaguars deserve it.
If you’re a new team in a sports league, life is usually tough. It often takes years to become competitive, and the NFL is no different. Just look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who didn’t get their first win until the second-to-last game of their second season.
However, that wasn’t the case for the Jacksonville Jaguars. After going just 4-12 in their inaugural 1995 campaign, the team won nine games the following year, earning a Wild Card berth and making a run all the way to the AFC Championship Game, pulling off major upsets against Jim Kelly and the Bills and John Elway’s #1 seed Broncos.
After coming up just shy of the Super Bowl in only their second season, the Jaguars kept their momentum going with consecutive 11-5 seasons, making the playoffs two more times and winning their first division title in 1998 while the Broncos won back-to-back championships. In all, the Jaguars’ made the playoffs three times in their first four years, as many as the other six teams to join the league post-merger combined.
The 1999 offseason was busy. Elway and Barry Sanders retired. The Tennessee Oilers became the Titans. The Cleveland Browns rejoined the NFL after being inactive for three seasons. I was also born during this offseason, so you could say it was a pretty important time for the world.
Entering the 1999 season, the AFC favorite was anyone’s guess. Even without Elway, the Broncos had a solid chance at becoming the first team to ever win three consecutive Super Bowls. After all, they still had Terrell Davis, the reigning league MVP who had just rushed for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. Brian Griese was set to take over at QB, but this was a team good enough that maybe the QB didn’t even matter that much.
Then there was the Jets, led by Coach Bill Parcells and QB Vinny Testaverde. The Jets had gone 12-1 with Testaverde as a starter a year ago, and had big names around him like RB Curtis Martin and WR Keyshawn Johnson.
Of course, Dan Marino and the Dolphins were also in the mix and had the #1 scoring defense from 1998. But the team with the best preseason win total over/under was the Jaguars.
Under head coach Tom Coughlin, the young franchise had established itself as a legitimate competitor in the AFC. Their quarterback was Mark Brunell, a two-time Pro Bowler. At running back was Fred Taylor, who was coming off a 1,200+ yard, 14-touchdown rookie year. And then there was the “Thunder and Lightning” wide receiver duo of Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith. Both of these dudes would finish their careers with over 11,000 receiving yards. But there remained questions on the other side of the ball.
In 1998, the Jaguars ranked just 25th out of 30 in total defense and tied for 27th in total sacks. They would need to improve their pass rush, and newly hired defensive coordinator Dom Capers would seek to do just that with his aggressive blitzing style.
Aiding the Jaguars in their title hopes was what looked to be a weak division in the AFC Central. The Cleveland Browns were in no position to contend as they returned to the NFL. Neither were the Cincinnati Bengals, who hadn’t finished with a winning season since 1990 and wouldn’t for another six years. The Baltimore Ravens were coming off a 6-10 season and had a new head coach and starting quarterback, and the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the league’s worst offenses in ‘98.
The main competition looked to be the Tennessee Titans. With Steve McNair and Eddie George, the Titans were thought to be a possible Wild Card team and a good challenge for the Jaguars.
If there was any doubt the Jaguars were a Super Bowl contender, Week 1 erased it. Jacksonville was facing the 49ers, who were coming off a 12-4 season. Steve Young and Jerry Rice were in their late 30s, but this team had shown no signs of slowing down. However, against the Jags, they were dominated in all three phases. After getting on the board first with a field goal, the Niners allowed 41 unanswered points over the rest of the game. It was the 49ers’ biggest loss since 1980. They had a turnover differential of -5 - they haven’t had a worse one since.
While Mark Brunell threw 3 TD passes for the Jaguars, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia combined to throw 3 interceptions for the 49ers. The Jaguars had a pick-six and a fumble return touchdown - it was total domination.
It’s important to remember that this wasn’t any old team - this was the 49ers, who were coming off 16 straight 10+ win seasons. Yet, the Jaguars dispatched them like they were, well, a new expansion team.
The following week, Jacksonville won on the road in Carolina in a revenge game for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who had been the Panthers’ head coach. This made the Jaguars 2-0 ahead of their first meeting of the season with the Titans, who had also won their first two contests.
Steve McNair missed the game while recovering from back surgery. This meant Neil O’Donnell got the start at QB for the Titans. And while O’Donnell’s start was slow and the Titans punted on their first six drives, the Jaguars were unable to take advantage and led just 3-0 at halftime.
The Jaguars were dealing with a major injury of their own, as Fred Taylor was out with a hamstring injury that would cause him to miss six games during the season. That meant James Stewart was the team’s main RB, and Stewart lost a fumble on the Jaguars’ first play of the second half, leading to a quick Titans TD.
However, after Jimmy Smith caught a TD pass from Brunell and Aaron Beasley had his second pick-six of the season, the Jags took a 17-7 lead into the 4th quarter.
Two Titans field goals cut the lead to 17-13, and then Brunell threw an interception on the next Jaguars drive. The Titans capitalized on starting in plus territory with a touchdown to take a 20-17 lead with less than four minutes left. The Jags marched down the field and eventually faced 3rd & goal with 1:03 left. Brunell tried to connect with Keenan McCardell on a corner route to the back of the end zone, but the pass was intercepted by Samari Rolle. Tennessee took an intentional safety as time expired and won 20-19.
The Jaguars outgained the Titans 369-242 but had four turnovers, not even counting an unsuccessful fake field goal attempt at the end of the first half.
It was their first loss of the season, and the Jaguars responded. How? Only by going on what is still their longest winning streak in franchise history.
It began with a 17-3 victory in Pittsburgh which included the Jaguars scoring two safeties, something that has only happened 20 times in the NFL since 1940. Wins over the Jets and Browns took the Jags to 5-1 entering their bye week, after which they demolished the Bengals and Falcons by a combined 71-17.
In Week 10, the 7-1 Jaguars faced the Ravens. One year from now, the Ravens will win the Super Bowl with one of the stingiest defenses in league history. But at this point in time, Baltimore is a 3-5 team on their way to an 8-8 campaign.
This was an ugly football game. Out of 12 offensive drives, the Jaguars went 2-3 on field goals and punted nine times, including six three-and-outs. No matter - the Jags won 6-3 despite having just two drives that gained more than 15 yards.
The Jacksonville offense followed up their worst showing of the season with 41 points and 494 yards against the Saints in Week 11. But this team’s identity was in their defense, which had now gone six straight games allowing 10 points or fewer since the loss to the Titans.
That streak - 6 straight games allowing 10 points or fewer - was the longest in the NFL since the 1985 Bears did so in 7 straight games. No one has matched the Jaguars’ streak since.
After that dominating victory over the Saints, the Jaguars beat the Ravens again and took down the Steelers, Broncos, and Browns to improve to 13-1 as winners of 11 in a row ahead of a Week 16 duel with the now 11-3 Titans.
It was exactly three months after the first meeting, and this time, the game wouldn’t be close. The Titans scored on each of their first 3 drives while the Jaguars went INT, punt, punt, and it was 17-0 early in the 2nd quarter. It was 24-7 at halftime, and the Titans kept their foot on the gas pedal in the 3rd, scoring two more touchdowns to take a 38-7 lead, signaling the end of Steve McNair’s day, as the QB rested having just thrown a career-high 5 TD passes.
Samari Rolle, who had the interception to seal the Titans’ first win over the Jaguars, had three more picks in this game - he had 4 INT in the entire season, all of them against the Jags.
After not having allowed more than 24 points in a game all season, the Jaguars fell 41-14 in Tennessee, giving the Titans a regular-season sweep.
In Week 17, the Jaguars recovered with a 24-7 win over the Bengals, and just like that, they had finished the season 14-2. Every team they had faced, they had defeated. Except for one.
The Jaguars had the best record in the NFL. They had allowed the fewest points per game in the league, had the fewest turnovers in the league, and tied for the league-lead in sacks. They had seven players named to the Pro Bowl, which was tied for the most in the NFL.
After receiving a first-round bye, the Jaguars faced Dan Marino and the Dolphins in the AFC Divisional round after Miami had defeated the Seahawks in the Wild Card round, back when Seattle played in the AFC West.
I’m sure not the word “game” accurately describes what happened on January 15, 2000 at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville. To call something a game implies a competition. But no competition occurred - only unimpeded annihilation.
It began with a 9-play, 73-yard TD drive from the Jaguars, ending with a Brunell-Smith connection for six. Then, on the Dolphins’ first play from scrimmage, Dan Marino threw an interception that led to a Jags FG. Miami punted on their next drive, and Fred Taylor responded by taking a handoff for a 90-yard TD, the longest carry in the NFL that season.
The onslaught continued on the Dolphins’ first play of their next drive, when Tony Brackens sacked Dan Marino, forced a fumble, picked up the ball and scored, making the game 24-0 with more than 3 minutes still left in the first quarter.
Miami then punted and the Jaguars scored a touchdown. On the following drive, the Dolphins couldn’t even punt correctly, as their attempt was blocked, leaving the Jags to score three plays later.
The score is now 38-0 early in the second quarter. And remarkably, starting QB Mark Brunell’s day was over. His final statline? 5-9 for 108 yards and 2 TDs.
The Jags would later tack on a field goal to make things 41-0 before Marino led a TD drive to end the first half at 41-7. But Marino was pulled early in the second half of what would be a 62-7 pounding, the second-largest playoff blowout in league history, and the biggest in the Super Bowl era.
Not only would that be Dan Marino’s final game - it was curtains for head coach Jimmy Johnson’s career as well.
Dan Marino retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, but never won a Super Bowl. He reached the Big Game once - in his 1984 MVP season, where he threw for more than 5,000 yards and 48 TDs at age 23. That year ended up being his peak. As someone who will be 23 soon, Marino terrifies me.
The Jaguars had now matched their 1996 run to the AFC Championship Game. But this time, instead of being the surprise underdogs, they were the favorites, who looked just about unstoppable.
So, who were they playing in this game again, with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line? Oh, right. The Tennessee Titans.
Of course it’d be the Titans, the only team that had beaten Jacksonville all season. And now they would get a chance to go 3 for 3.
Their road to the AFC Championship Game had been exciting, to say the least. In their Wild Card matchup with the Bills, Buffalo kicked a field goal to go ahead 16-15 with 16 seconds left.
On the ensuing kickoff, TE Frank Wycheck threw a lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson, who ran 75 yards for the game-winning touchdown in one of the greatest plays in NFL history, known as the Music City Miracle.
Then, in the Divisional Round, the Titans defeated the team that had been the biggest surprise in the AFC - a Colts team that had gone from 3-13 the year before to 13-3 behind young future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, and Marvin Harrison.
The Titans had now reached their first conference championship game in 20 years, back when they were the Houston Oilers and had the league MVP in Earl Campbell. Led by Jeff Fisher, they had only lost three games all season, all to teams the Jaguars had beaten - the 49ers, Dolphins, and Ravens.
Despite their struggles against the Titans, the Jaguars still entered as 7-point home favorites and held a 14-10 lead at halftime. But after punting on their opening drive of the second half, the Jags committed 43 penalty yards on the Titans’ possession, which ended with a rushing TD for Steve McNair.
After fumbling on their next drive, the Jaguars defense bailed out the offense by forcing a fumble of their own on the 1-yard-line to prevent a Titans score.
But just when it seemed as if Jacksonville had avoided disaster, the next few plays would shift momentum for good. On 2nd & 10 from the Jaguars’ own 1, Mark Brunell was sacked in the end zone for a safety.
The punt following the safety was returned 80 yards for a touchdown by Derrick Mason. In seconds, the game had gone from 17-14 with the Jaguars holding possession to a 26-14 deficit.
The Jaguars still had six more possessions, but they wouldn’t be able to put any more points on the board. After leading 14-7 in the second quarter, the game’s final 5 scores all went to Tennessee, who advanced to the Super Bowl by a score of 33-14.
15-0. Against the rest of the NFL, the Jaguars were 15-0. If only the story could have ended there. Alas, while the Jags were having their best season in franchise history, the Titans had also won more games than they had in any other year.
And now, in the course of three meetings, an otherwise perfect season had been spoiled, stomped on, and now extinguished, all by the same franchise.
The Jaguars allowed the fewest points of any team in the NFL during the regular season. Across the entire season, they gave up just 10.9 PPG to teams not named the Titans. Against Tennessee, that number nearly tripled to 31.3. They turned the ball over 13 times across three games against the Titans, including six times in the AFC Championship Game. They turned the ball over 13 times in their other 15 games combined.
It was a heartbreaking end to a year that saw everything the team had been building towards nearly come to fruition. But perhaps even more devastating is what came afterwards.
Following the 1999 season, the Jaguars were one of two teams to make the playoffs in each of the previous four seasons, along with the Vikings. Over that time, no one in the NFL had more receiving yards than Jimmy Smith.
Sure, the end to 1999 was disappointing, but they would be back. Or so everyone thought. The Jaguars failed to make the playoffs in Tom Coughlin’s final three seasons as head coach. After making the playoffs four times in four years, the Jaguars have returned to the postseason only three times in the 22 seasons since, falling each time to Tom Brady and the Patriots.
The ‘99 Jaguars had everything it took to win the Super Bowl, and yet, that season has been forgotten, lost in the shadows of titans.
The same could be said of the actual Titans. In Super Bowl XXXIV, Tennessee faced the St. Louis Rams, “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
In the game, the Titans rallied from a 16-0 second half deficit to tie the game just before the two-minute warning. On the Rams’ first play in what was thought to be a two-minute drill to win the game, Kurt Warner connected with Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown, making the game 23-16.
Steve McNair came up huge to get his team down to the Rams’ 10-yard-line for one final play. With the game on the line, he fired to Kevin Dyson on a slant route, but Dyson was stopped one yard short of the end zone, guaranteeing it would be the Rams, not the Titans, that won their first Super Bowl.
As this series will show, sometimes, you run into someone just a bit better.