'Opportunity' Is Lost On Everyone

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Good luck to Mark Brunell Monday night in Dallas on national television. Here's hoping he is not intercepted too often or hurt.

Good luck to Joe Gibbs, who on Monday hitched his comeback legacy to the quarterback who detonated most of the 2004 season. Here's hoping the coach's undying faith in Brunell, a player who turns 35 on Saturday, is rewarded.

Because that is a lot of faith.

But before they move on and toss Patrick Ramsey aside, let's be honest:

Gibbs strung Ramsey along like a girlfriend he knew he was never going to marry. He took a mentally fragile young player and never truly instilled the confidence in him that Ramsey needed to thrive. Long before he benched Ramsey and went back to Brunell on Monday, Gibbs handled the quarterback situation with about as much aplomb as a fast-food shift manager firing a fry cook on the spot.

From the beginning, he made every mistake. Gibbs buckled to the media's incessant questioning about who would start late last year, almost begrudgingly giving Ramsey the title. He spoke often about how he would give Ramsey every opportunity. And then he drafted a quarterback in the first round.

He soothed Ramsey's hurt feelings, telling him he could not pass up a solid young quarterback in Auburn's Jason Campbell and not to worry. He was still the guy Gibbs trusted to lead the team this season.

And then the coach replaced the 26-year-old a day after he had his neck wrung in the second quarter in the opener against the Bears. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Every opportunity, isn't that what the coach said? Before the right side of the line failed to protect him from Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs's malice, Ramsey was given three series to make his case. He stood in the pocket after a shaky start, rifled and converted 3 of 5 third-down opportunities. He made some key completions when he had to. And that was it. Back to a headset and clipboard.

Maybe this is merely a function of Ramsey's inability to win the coach's confidence, as some of Gibbs's players have privately intimated. Maybe Gibbs has a new-found hankering for the quick hook, years after sticking with Joe Theismann through thick and thin. Maybe Gibbs is still just as loyal, and Brunell is his poor man's Theismann. Whatever, the truth must be mind-numbing for the legions who follow this team: The coach who masterfully used three different quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls is hard-pressed to find one to win a measly regular season game.

Good luck to all of them from Monday night on. Because if Brunell is not the answer, nothing will define Gibbs's comeback from retirement more than his inability to mold and groom a competent quarterback .

This is not merely about whether Ramsey has the talent and moxie to move the franchise toward the playoffs, because that argument can just as easily be applied to Brunell. This is about one non-Pro Bowl quarterback getting eight games and three quarters less than another non-Pro Bowl quarterback had last season. This is not merely about a revered coach making a gut-level change, either. This is about team president Joe Gibbs's bungling since January 2004 of the most critical position on the football field.

From the moment Brunell was signed for the ungodly sum of $43 million for seven years, Gibbs has tried and failed to employ someone to lead his team.

The truth is, last season was the year to see if Ramsey had any future with the team. If he did not flourish early in that bang-up offense culled from the Paleolithic era, then you go to Brunell, the way the Jets went to Vinny Testaverde a few years ago, the way the Giants got by for a while with Kurt Warner. Cut and paste and try to make a collage capable of getting you to the playoffs. This is what good organizations do.

They don't use their offseason and preseason to say one thing and then do another before halftime of their first game.

Among other qualities Gibbs has over more than any tough-guy fraud like Bill Parcells is his word. Gibbs's word is bond. He says something, he means it. At his core, he is a straight shooter, a great problem solver.

He recently played liaison between Daniel Snyder, the team's petulant owner, and the emotional star player, LaVar Arrington. Gibbs stepped in and solved a contract dispute almost headed for arbitration, asking both to give a little.

But the way he led Ramsey on, never giving the quarterback his full confidence, dispensing enough for Ramsey to think Gibbs was beginning to trust him before ultimately dumping him for a guy who went 3-6 last season, has to concern any player on that roster. Gibbs's word -- "Patrick will have every opportunity" -- was not what it was before Monday.

Most likely Gibbs is going back to Brunell because, deep down, he remembered what Brunell did against Dallas last season -- 325 yards and two touchdowns while he was fighting a black-and-blue groin injury suffered the week before.

Last month I asked Gibbs why he stuck with Brunell so long, nine mostly unproductive games into last season. He mentioned that game and the injury, Brunell playing through the pain. "And for him to come out and want to play and win that badly, well, those things come into your decision-making too," Gibbs said then.

In hindsight, Gibbs already had it in his mind that he was giving Brunell another chance. The coach just needed a crack in the window, and Ramsey's injury gave him it.

Gibbs's 2004 offense was the elephant in the locker room until offensive lineman Jon Jansen had the guts to joke about how archaic it was on a draft-day ESPN show in April. But Gibbs knew all along: Brunell did not get a chance in an upgraded offense that could suit his talents better.

Anyone supporting the decision to bench Ramsey could rightly argue that Brunell was slightly better in training camp and the preseason. Ramsey's shaky practice last week and his occasional happy feet in the pocket in the first quarter played directly into Gibbs's worst fears. Ramsey was never his guy from the start, so why was he trying to force the issue now?

And something about sticking with a guy you blindly believe in -- when everyone else is telling you to ship Brunell to Amsterdam -- is almost noble in today's win-now-or-else NFL.

But bottom line: Ramsey never got the genuine opportunity under Gibbs that he should have, the same opportunity Gibbs afforded Brunell.

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