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Michael Wilbon

A Big Hole In the Pocket

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, November 15, 2004; Page D01

I'm thinking two names: Drew Brees and Jon Kitna. Yes, we're at that point of the season, the time where the Washington Redskins personnel people have to cast their eyes elsewhere because they simply don't appear to have a for-sure NFL quarterback. There's no quarterback controversy, only a quarterback quandary. It's not the offensive line, it's not the receivers. It's not the schemes, it's not the play-calling. It's the quarterback position, silly. Mark Brunell can't play anymore. Patrick Ramsey can't play yet, though one would think he demonstrated enough on arm strength alone yesterday to be named the starter for the immediate future.

Here's all you need to know about the Redskins quarterback situation: With six minutes to play in the third quarter and Cincinnati leading 17-0, Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis elected to go for it on fourth and one from just inside the Redskins 40 rather than punt the ball. You know why Lewis didn't punt? Because he knew good and well there was no chance the Redskins quarterback, whichever one of took the field, could do enough to rally the Redskins -- not even on a short field, not even playing at home, not even against another 3-5 team with no recent history of winning anything. Lewis's assessment was completely justified when on the ensuing series the Bengals sacked Ramsey, forcing him to fumble, and nearly intercepted him twice.

Mark Brunell is sacked for a seven-yard loss by Justin Smith in the first quarter. Brunell completed just 1 of 8 passes for six yards. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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The quarterback play, from the moment the Redskins offense took the field, was unthinkably bad. Again. Mediocre quarterbacks routinely complete 55 percent of their passes in today's short-pass happy NFL. But Brunell-Ramsey combined to complete 41 percent of their passes and throw three interceptions to one touchdown pass.

It's one thing to be pushed around or fooled by, say, the Ravens defense or the Steelers defense or the Patriots defense. But the Bengals? They entered the game having allowed more yards than 26 of the 32 teams in the NFL. Yet they looked like the '85 Bears against Brunell and Ramsey. I'm not sure I've ever seen a healthy, accomplished quarterback play as badly as Brunell did in the quarter-plus he was in the game. He missed on seven of eight pass attempts, was intercepted once, threw behind and low to a wide-open receiver on fourth and two. Week after week, I've heard opposing defenders say after playing the Redskins that Brunell is done, that he can neither run nor throw anymore. And each week, I figured Brunell would snap out of it. He'd grow more comfortable with Joe Gibbs's system, and while he would never be what he was, he would at least get hot for a couple of games. I figured I'd see something from Brunell that reminded me he's the 11th-most accurate quarterback in the history of the NFL, that only five years ago he led his team to the AFC championship game. But that's not going to happen, is it? The season is nine weeks old now and nobody in the Redskins locker room, regardless of what is said publicly, can have any confidence in Brunell leading a successful team.

Unless there is a total reversal that none of us can see coming, signing Brunell was a huge mistake. And it's Joe Gibbs's mistake, nobody else's. Not only is Brunell a liability now, but his $8.3 million signing bonus is going to kill the team next year, when he's not even playing or when he's cut sometime in June for salary cap purposes.

Having said all this, it's still not a mandate for Ramsey for quarterback. The coaches have been disappointed in his practice performance, which is part of the reason Gibbs hadn't brought him in from the bullpen before now -- that and his penchant for throwing interceptions and fumbling when hit. Gibbs may not be the best personnel guy around; coaching and scouting require completely different skill sets. But he knows what he sees in practice, and he knew what he was watching up in Giants Stadium in Week 2 when Ramsey was an interception-throwing machine in little more than a quarter of play. Against the Bengals, there were six times a Cincinnati player got two hands on the ball before a Redskins receiver got one hand on it in addition to the two picks Ramsey threw. Every smart defensive player in the league was praying for the opportunity to play against Ramsey for the sole reason of being able to run back an interception. They'd look at the film and say, "Gibbs can't bench Brunell. Who will he go to?"

Well, it has to be Ramsey, at least for now. A veteran defensive player, who plays for an NFC team, said of the Redskins quarterback situation, "They've got one guy who can run a team, call a game, read every defense, but can no longer make any of the tough throws, and another guy who can make every throw, take a pounding, but can't see the field and make the reads." He was describing Brunell, first, then Ramsey.

Asked why he made the switch, Gibbs said, "It's kind of a gut feeling -- and I think [Brunell] understood."

He'd better. Gibbs gave Brunell more time than he owed him, given the quarterback's sorry performances.

And to be fair to Ramsey, he was called in to save a day that was already doomed. "At 17-0," Ramsey said, "you feel a sense of urgency. You say, 'Hey, I'm going to try to throw this in there.' I was going to sacrifice some bad plays to get us back in there." That reaction is perfectly understandable, and maybe it did lead to his 18 completions in 37 attempts, another percentage that is not acceptable. But Ramsey is 25 years old, and he does have a cannon. Maybe Gibbs can, to borrow a phrase from the Old Ball Coach, "coach him up."

At least with the playoffs out of sight for this year it's time to find out whether Ramsey can play for Gibbs, whether he's a starter in this league or a backup. Because if it's the latter, then the Redskins have some planning to do. They'd better start to free up some room to chase free-agent-to-be Brees, who has 18 touchdowns to only three interceptions for the Chargers. San Diego could keep Brees and bonus babe rookie Phillip Rivers, but probably won't. And if Brees is too expensive for the Redskins to afford, then perhaps they'll have to look at a less-expensive veteran quarterback to be a stop-gap measure, a guy like the Bengals' own backup, Kitna, who last year completed 62 percent of his passes, and threw for 26 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.

In the meantime, the Redskins seem destined to waste good defense, special teams and running. My colleague Thomas Boswell has an equation that proves a team that allows 17 points per game or fewer wins the vast majority of its games. That means all you have to score is 18. If the Redskins had scored 18 and only 18 in each game this season, which is about three points fewer than the league average, they would be 6-3.

If you don't have a quarterback who can get you 18 points, at home, against a sub-.500 team, you don't really have a quarterback who can help you contend for the playoffs. You need to coach Ramsey like mad, and you need to go shopping. You need to reach into your breast pocket, take out the checkbook and be ready to write a big number with lots of zeros and hope that somebody like Brees or, at the very least, Kitna is ready to cash it.

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