Now that Mark Brunell has become the highest-paid backup quarterback in the NFL, there are questions around the league about why the Washington Redskins invested so much money on a 34-year-old veteran who many believed was on the downside of his career when he was signed to a seven-year, $43 million deal that included an $8.6 million signing bonus.
A survey of eight NFL general managers or pro personnel directors revealed unanimous agreement that the Redskins paid too high a price in salary and compensation -- a second-round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars -- for a quarterback with a recent history of injuries who did not play last season after hurting his elbow in Week 4.
Joe Gibbs defends his acquisition of Mark Brunell, above, and signing him to a long-term contract last winter.
(John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to affect their relationship with the Redskins, indicated that they understood why Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who always preferred to start an experienced quarterback in his first stint as a head coach in the league, was attracted to Brunell. But many said Gibbs picked the wrong quarterback.
"Two years ago, in my opinion, he [Brunell] started down, and then he hurt his elbow last year and didn't play again," said an AFC personnel director. "Now, there's nothing left in the tank. And why did they give him that $8 million signing bonus? I promise you, no one was interested in Mark Brunell at that price."
Another AFC general manager agreed. "Watching him in 2002 and 2003 and talking to people who were around him, the feeling was that he was a descending quarterback," he said. "No quarterback wants to get hit, but he really didn't want to get hit any more, more so than the average guy. I thought his mobility had gone downhill. All the directions were going downhill. Was he falling off the cliff? What does it look like now? But our scouting report was that you'd be suspicious of him as a starter, and even have questions about him being a backup."
A personnel director with another AFC team said Gibbs's decision to acquire Brunell -- his first major personnel move after returning to the Redskins in January -- and make him his starter over Patrick Ramsey was symptomatic of a deeper problem that Gibbs is having adjusting to coaching again after 11 years away from the NFL.
"I don't like to second-guess and I don't want to sound like I'm piling on here, but I think Joe is living in the past on this," said a personnel official with one AFC team. "No question, veteran quarterbacks don't make mistakes and can manage the game for you. But the game really has changed since he was in the league. It's more wide open, it's quicker, it's get the ball down the field in a hurry. The athletes on defense are even better -- faster, stronger and more athletic. You can't maximum protect, send two guys down field and expect to have a lot of success."
Said an AFC general manager: "The feeling was that Brunell was on his last legs. We played them [the Jaguars] last year and he didn't look good physically. He couldn't throw." The general manager said the shortcomings, if anything, seemed magnified this season. "I watched him this year a few times, and they had big problems on offense," he said. "They just seemed to be a step behind everything -- the play-calling, clock management. It just looked totally out of sync."
In the aftermath of his decision to make Ramsey the starter, Gibbs defended his acquisition of Brunell and signing him to a long-term contract last winter within weeks of his return to Washington.
"I disagree with the fact that it hasn't worked out. We've got a long ways to go," Gibbs told reporters Wednesday. "For me, his role and what's going to amount to what he does here for the Washington Redskins, we're going to find out over the next several years. Certainly, I don't think he is the only person that's keeping us from moving the ball on offense."
At a news conference Monday following the Redskins' 17-10 loss to Cincinnati, which dropped the team to 3-6, Gibbs insisted that there was "no problem with Mark's arm strength."
"We've been close a bunch [on completing long passes]," he said. "We're just not getting them in and making big plays. We're not getting the conversions on the big catch, and on the other side of that we've had some drops."
If Brunell stays with the team, the Redskins would have to pay him a base salary of $1.5 million and $1.43 million in pro-rated bonus money next season. But if they conclude he can no longer play, they would be faced with a significant salary cap conundrum unless they could convince him to restructure his contract.
Under the terms of his current deal, Brunell is also set to receive a $500,000 roster bonus on April 1. If he is cut or retires before that date, however, the Redskins would take a $7.165 million salary cap hit in 2005, league sources said. If he is cut or retires after June 1, the Redskins would take a $1.93 million hit on the 2005 cap, and a $5.7 million hit against the 2006 cap. For a team that already faces potential salary cap trouble in the next few years, the signing of Brunell could have long-term consequences.