Brunell Is Just One Play Away

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Everybody's Favorite Redskin to Pick On came off the practice field last night. Mark Brunell knows there is no open competition for the quarterback job this year. It belongs to Patrick Ramsey, who is at once Brunell's close friend and the most visible impediment to becoming an NFL starter again.

"It's nice to be out there, but every backup -- third string, second string, doesn't matter -- wants to be out there starting," Brunell said.

He is asked about last season. The derisive chants. The benching. The losing.

"It was very tough," Brunell said. "I came up here with high expectations."

He's still here? He's still here.

Here's what Sonny Jurgensen says about quarterbacks and criticism: "It goes with the position. They told me I wouldn't play two weeks here because of my [throwing] motion. You can't let that bother you."

Jurgensen was once booed heartily as he walked onto Franklin Field for the Philadelphia Eagles in a game against Dallas. "It was so bad my teammates were booing me when I came into the huddle," he said. "I threw two interceptions on my first two attempts. It got so ugly, people were coming out of the stands, fighting with the trainer. Before it was over, I threw five touchdowns. I think they cheered moderately."

Brunell caught much of the same flack last year. For much of a 6-10 season, the most irate fans did not want Brunell merely benched; they wanted him abandoned, jettisoned to the curb like a musty sofa unfit for a new home.

When no one could bring themselves to take umbrage with Joe Gibbs's archaic offense, Brunell and his seven-year, $43 million contract became the blocking dummy for every bit of fan frustration. Depending upon which season ticket holder you asked, his arm was either weak, dead or in need of amputation.

Brunell expected the criticism, even some of the name-calling. But the man who yelled "I want my money back" did not bother him as much as the incessant booing at FedEx Field, which grew in volume and intensity each week until Ramsey finally replaced him as the starter in the ninth game.

"The boos, that was the hardest thing," Brunell said. "You know, my kids were up in the stands, hearing all that." Two of his four children were old enough to grasp the venom. "They understood what was happening with their dad."

At least they were spared cruelty in the classroom.

"We home-school them," Brunell said. "It's a good thing, too. Can you imagine the abuse they'd take?"

The feeling among most observers is that Ramsey will have a short leash, that Brunell may have a chance to professionally redeem himself if Ramsey cannot muster a few wins early. Whether that's true or not, here's what you should know about Brunell before you write him off: He restructured his deal, as did eight teammates, to clear salary cap room.

Ramsey said he's actually grown closer to Brunell since he took the job from him last season. "Not only can he still play, he's invaluable in the locker room, one of those guys that just has that special something that makes you believe you can win."

And know this: It doesn't matter if all of FedEx Field does not believe he can throw deep or lead a sustained drive for a score anymore. Gibbs believes in Brunell, and no one else's opinion, frankly, counts.

"If you go back in my past, people have said I'm too loyal sometimes," Gibbs said yesterday after practice. "They said I was too loyal to Joe Theismann. But for me, it's more of a feel thing, what you think is right."

Gibbs saw what everyone saw: Brunell rolling out forever, it seemed, looking for a receiver. (Let's be honest: Brunell went left more than Michael Moore and Al Franken.) But Gibbs also saw the receivers that did not quite run the right routes, the pass-block breakdowns, an offense that did not exactly cater to Brunell's abilities.

Brunell built his reputation on a five-step drop in Jacksonville, firing bullets toward the tips of his wideouts' fingers. The less time he had to think, the more effective he was. With the Redskins, he began a seven-step drop. He had more time to evade a rush but less time to look downfield. Washington also put such a premium on protecting the quarterback that eight teammates were often kept back to block, sometimes leaving only two receivers for four defensive backs and three linebackers to cover.

Ramsey is the first to admit he became the beneficiary of a slightly upgraded offense. With the hiring of quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, once the backup to Joe Montana and Steve Young and a coach who lived the West Coast offense, there are likely to be more options. As much as Musgrave has helped Ramsey with his footwork and mechanics, he's exactly the kind of coach Brunell could also thrive under.

That might be heresy to suggest a little over one week into training camp, especially for a 34-year-old quarterback whom many in the NFL believe is on the downside of his career. But at some point -- either in Washington or elsewhere -- he will get a shot to prove he can play again. Whether Gibbs will give Brunell the leash as he did a year ago is another question.

Why did Gibbs stay with Brunell so long, including after a 2-4 start going into a bye week? In hindsight, it was the Cowboys' fault. Brunell had won the opener and looked good against the New York Giants before a groin injury forced him to the sideline. He had played five good quarters of football when Ramsey came in and promptly threw three interceptions in a loss. Gibbs thought Brunell would be out the next week against Dallas on Monday night and then Brunell, the back of his leg badly bruised, shocked him and suited up. He threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, bringing his team close in the final quarter.

With Brunell, it wasn't just about numbers. "There's other things that influence your decision, too," Gibbs said. "He came out after the Giants game and his hamstring was literally black and blue. You could see the colors. And for him to come out and want to play and win that badly, well, those things come into your decision making, too."

His grit and resolve made a believer out of the coach. For better or worse, Brunell became to Gibbs what John Starks was to Pat Riley, what Pedro Martinez was to Grady Little: the guy whose heart you believe in so much that you convince yourself it can make up for anything in fatigue, injury or ability. For Gibbs, Brunell as a competitor and a person superseded anything he did on the field in those first few games. With Ramsey struggling, Gibbs believed Brunell was the best man for the job. And he stubbornly kept believing that until the clamor for Ramsey started to hurt his own legacy.

Bottom line: Given a sputtering offense and the unrealistic expectations of Gibbs taking over a 5-11 team, Brunell was not as bad as he looked. He is still here, a valuable backup, a consummate professional and a man itching to amend his standing on the field. "I could've played better," Brunell said. "And if I get that chance again, I'd like to show it."

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