For Brunell, a Fresh Start
Monday, September 19, 2005
Mark Brunell is precisely the same quarterback he was a year ago. His mechanics are unchanged and there is nothing inherently different about him. Any impression that he appeared quicker and more elusive in the preseason, with considerably more oomph on his passes, was an optical illusion, Brunell and his coaches say, a byproduct of the second- and third-string defenses he was playing against, perhaps.
Physically, save for last season's hamstring injury, Brunell is in identical health tonight as he heads into his first start of the season in Dallas, and on this topic the Washington Redskins leave no room for debate. There was no magic elixir to account for the 35-year-old's dramatically improved performances the last six weeks, no velocity-inducing salve rubbed on his throwing shoulder, and no profound change in his offseason regimen. He is essentially the same man who struggled mightily and was benched midway through last season.
Now, though, he has a revamped system and new starting receivers to work with. Brunell is more steeped in the offense a year after being acquired, with what the Redskins consider a better game plan and more effective weapons, and the assumption is that with those changes will come renewed production from a passer who had had a beleaguered history in Washington.
"This year, I'm a different guy in that I've been in the system for a year," Brunell said, "and I think we've got more talent this year, I really do. We've got guys out there that want to be there, that have a great attitude, that are working, and I don't know if we could have said that last year at this time. But this year we can. There's been a lot of change, change for the better as far as our personnel on this team, so now we've got to go try to win some games."
No one bore the brunt of Washington's 2004 offensive ineptitude more directly than Brunell and Coach Joe Gibbs and, after an eight-game hiatus with Patrick Ramsey running the offense, they are reunited again, attempting to prove that they can get the ball downfield, score points and win games.
Given the results last year, there are plenty of doubters. That Gibbs was willing to replace Ramsey after three offensive series in Week 1 with Brunell clearly says something about his level of confidence in the two passers, and his eagerness to see Brunell, who was signed to a seven-year, $43 million deal including an $8.6 million signing bonus, get snaps in this modernized attack.
"I see him being spry myself, but I can't say he looks quicker or faster than last year," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "I haven't found myself thinking that way. I don't see any change; all I see is someone who seemingly knows what we're trying to do after being in it for a year. I see some decision-making -- him making quick decisions -- and I think he understands what we want. That's what I see. I don't see anything physically different."
Still, Brunell must play exponentially better than he did in nine starts last year, and faces an immediate challenge in Washington's archrival, on the road on "Monday Night Football." Brunell's best 2004 outing was against the Cowboys in Week 3, a few days after pulling his hamstring. Brunell concedes that the lingering hamstring problem hindered him "a little bit," and the 12th-year-pro bottomed out in the ninth game, going 1 for 8 for six yards on Nov. 14 against Cincinnati amid a torrent of boos from the FedEx Field crowd, leaving Gibbs almost no choice but to finally pull him.
Brunell's return in Week 1 was modest -- 8 for 14 for 70 yards without a touchdown or interception -- and the offense failed to get in the end zone in a 9-7 victory over Chicago. He was 1 for 5 throwing to Santana Moss, the new number one receiver, and did not work with Moss or counterpart David Patten at all in four preseason games. But Brunell's ability to protect the football -- Ramsey's biggest flaw -- against the Bears and his strong preseason play were enough to sway Gibbs back.
"To Mark's benefit," Gibbs said, "I think he's been really consistent with his play since we started back this year. I think he's been confident and sure."
"I think he's a threat," Dallas Coach Bill Parcells said. "He's still got some mobility. He's a smart quarterback."
Brunell, however, places little stock in his preseason success, realizing that many of the defenders he was facing in the second half of games ended up being cut, while he was working largely with reserves.