A Difficult Position To Defend

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

If you say "quarterback controversy," I'm thinking about an emerging Steve Young trying to beat out an aging and angry Joe Montana. I'm thinking of the agonizing choice between Sonny and Billy, or Drew Bledsoe trying to get his job back from a young and healthy Tom Brady, or the open hostility in Buffalo a few years ago between Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson.

Sorry, but Patrick Ramsey versus Mark Brunell doesn't do it for me.

What's the choice: a young, perhaps battered quarterback whom the head coach doesn't want to play or a veteran who hasn't done anything worth mentioning for three years and appears to be a ghost of himself?

That's not a quarterback controversy; it's a quarterback dilemma, bordering on a quarterback crisis. If Joe Gibbs will bench his starter after less than one half of a season-opening victory, what does that tell you about the way he views Ramsey? And if Brunell couldn't beat out the player the coach has so little confidence in, at least to start the season, what does that tell you about Brunell?

From all appearances, the problem with the offense isn't the line, which is pretty sturdy. The problem isn't with the running backs, who collectively could be great. It isn't the receivers, who are probably adequate. And it's not the scheme, which has been tweaked and massaged all spring and summer. It's the quarterback position, which appears both inadequately manned and poorly managed.

Look, Gibbs is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for good reason. No coach in NFL history has won three Super Bowls with as many different quarterbacks and running backs as Gibbs employed. There are significant philosophies of offensive football that Gibbs, if he didn't invent, at least pioneered.

I still think Gibbs, like Dick Vermeil in St. Louis when he returned after a long absence from coaching, can field a serious contender in his third season (which would be next year). But Gibbs hasn't handled this quarterback situation with his usual aplomb. At the moment, it appears he botched the thing.

After paying lip service to being committed to Ramsey as his starter, Gibbs gave Ramsey all of three series Sunday. Bad blind dates last longer than that. Okay, we all pretty much knew it was a matter of time before Gibbs might want to get a look at Brunell, his hand-picked choice to play the position. But three series ? That's not a short leash, it's a choke collar. It's like he was looking for some reason to yank Ramsey, and the hang-'em-high sack that sent Ramsey to the sideline was the bit of intervention that gave Gibbs his opening. If I were Ramsey, having been undermined for the second straight season, I'd be enraged. Frankly, that's a move I expect from Mike Martz, coach of the St. Louis Rams, not Gibbs, a man of patience and faith to whom one's word means everything.

Ramsey has a long, long way to go to prove he can be a playoff quarterback, but to be yanked after three series is insanely unfair. If a coach thinks that little of his starter, then don't put him in there in the first place. You think the player can't sense he's not trusted?

The head coach must pick the quarterback he thinks can give him the best chance to win the game and give him a reasonable chance to justify the decision. Problem is, Gibbs simply isn't comfortable entrusting the job to Ramsey, which is why he spent millions to sign Brunell one year and traded his way into drafting Jason Campbell the next.

The only way this decision to bench Ramsey can work out is if Brunell starts throwing for at least 200 yards per game and putting the offense in position to score. But there's been nothing to indicate Brunell can do that. Not in a Redskins uniform. Against the Bears, at least Ramsey fired three very nice third-down completions consecutively, one from the shadow of his own goal line. Despite all these declarations that Brunell's legs are back and he'll be able to plant and throw or throw on the move effectively, as he did in Jacksonville for years, we have yet to see evidence of it.

The major point here is that neither Brunell nor Ramsey has shown very much. That's a big part of the reason Gibbs spent three draft picks -- in the first, third and fourth rounds -- to pick Campbell from Auburn in the draft. You don't spend three picks that high on a long-term project. Those picks represent three starters for a team that knows how to draft. So, if you trade three starters for a kid, you must think pretty highly of him. And if you think that highly of him, you'd better be getting ready to see what he can do, sooner rather than later if what you have isn't getting the job done.

Most of us, based on Gibbs's history of preferring veterans, can't believe he'd play a rookie quarterback (even if quite a few of the players at Redskins Park believe the rook is the best of the three). It seems as if Gibbs redshirted Mark Rypien and Stan Humphries for about three years each. But these are different times. In a quarterback's third season now, he better have proven to some degree that he can play or he'll be out in most instances because of salary cap considerations. And that brings me to this: John Riggins, talking to Tony Kornheiser on WTEM yesterday, said he would seriously consider starting Campbell now. Hey, the Bears looked at their incumbents and decided to go with rookie Kyle Orton, who was picked a lot lower in the same draft than Campbell.

Personally, I can't believe Campbell is anywhere near ready to play. But perhaps, given what we've seen from the incumbents, Campbell gives the Redskins their best chance to win now. It amounts to a competitive sin to undermine a 12-4 caliber defense by pairing it with an offense that might be missing only the triggerman.

That's what Bill Parcells was thinking when he acquired Bledsoe to put on the field in Dallas with a wonderful young running back, Julius Jones, and a very good defense. Gibbs is hoping that Brunell, like Bledsoe, has enough left to work in concert with Clinton Portis and a very good defense, which appears to be the only thing right now that would justify this bizarre start to the Redskins' season.

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