By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
IRVING, Tex. -- For 56 minutes in the heat of Texas Stadium, Mark Brunell did nothing to suggest he should be taken seriously as a starting quarterback for a team of consequence. He overthrew open receivers. He underthrew open receivers. He couldn't get out of the way of a hellish Dallas pass rush. He looked old, in over his head, nowhere near as effective as one of his mid-thirties peers, Drew Bledsoe of the Cowboys.
And then out of desperation, in a 1-minute 11-second span, Brunell looked like a quarterback who might matter once again, and at the same time made his head coach look brilliant once again. The 39-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss might have looked a little lucky against a Cowboys secondary that grew a little full of itself after pitching 8 1/3 innings of scoreless ball. But the second touchdown throw, that 70-yarder to Moss with 2:35 to play, was a thing of beauty, a pass with such a tight spiral and perfect arc that the rust of three years fell to the turf as the ball landed in Moss's hands.
Suddenly, the Redskins are 2-0. Suddenly, and without warning, they seem to have found an answer, at least for now, to their quarterback dilemma. Suddenly, when it was least expected, the Redskins took the Cowboys' hands from around their throats.
It was the kind of stunning turnaround that made Cowboys vs. Redskins the NFL's best rivalry in years gone by, must-see TV on "Monday Night Football."
It might not make up for Clint Longley on Thanksgiving day, but it was "Masterpiece Theatre" for those who didn't turn away from a 13-0 Cowboys shutout to get a little shut eye. And, clearly, it was a nice new chapter for the Redskins after losing 14 of 15 to the Cowboys overall, and nine straight in Big D. It also sends the Redskins into a bye week dreaming big dreams. Anything is possible when you have a quarterback who can throw it deep, right? We haven't seen a quarterback in burgundy and gold throw it that deep and that accurately since Mark Rypien back in, what, 1991?
Who knows if it's a mirage, if that's all Brunell has in the tank, a sweet sort of encore but really nothing more. We'll have to wait nearly two weeks, until Seattle comes to town, to find out what we're dealing with here, a renaissance or a one-week hit.
Brunell was the primary story Monday night for the Redskins. The team knows it has a potentially great defense, at the very least a stout line and adequate receivers, running backs who have more than enough speed, power and explosiveness. What the coaches didn't know, until the final three minutes of the game, was what they had at quarterback, beyond great uncertainty. From what we saw of Brunell against the Cowboys through 56 minutes, that uncertainty could have become fear. And by benching Patrick Ramsey and going to Brunell after only three series in Week 1, Joe Gibbs went back on his own word in less than one half and gambled on a 35-year-old quarterback whom virtually nobody in the NFL (except Gibbs) believed can play anymore.
But Gibbs's faith in Brunell seemed justified Monday night. After quite a few bad throws and five-yard flips that count for completions but nothing more, Brunell started to catch fire late -- very late. He had that great running-right, throwing-right pass that resulted in a 41-yard gain to Moss that served as a flashback to his glory days in Jacksonville, when he led the Jaguars to two AFC championship games. And on third and 27, after being thrown to the ground like a rag doll by the Cowboys' Roy Williams, Brunell dashed 25 yards and gave up his body to try and make a first down with his team down two scores late. Nobody ever said Brunell's spirit isn't willing; it just wasn't very wise after what we saw from him last season to presume he could find his old form.
The book for opponents on the Redskins' quarterbacks is pretty simple: Don't let them beat you. They're not good enough. The Bears knew they could rattle Ramsey, and did. The Cowboys knew they could punish Brunell, and did. It's a whole lot for a team to overcome when your quarterback play is more likely to be a detriment than an asset. It didn't seem there would be any heroics when Brunell was intercepted by Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, which led to Dallas's first score.
It looked like this game was headed for a familiar headline: Offense Betrays Great Defense Once Again.
It's too much to ask the defense to pitch a shutout every week. You don't shut out the Raiders, the Chiefs, the Chargers, the Broncos, the Eagles, the new high-scoring Giants, or, for that matter, the Seahawks. Through one game and 56 minutes, Gregg Williams and his D got less support than Roger Clemens. They were on the field too long. They started in poor field position too often. You wouldn't want to blame the quarterback for all those false-start and holding penalties, but it was fair to wonder, with four minutes to play, if ineptitude at quarterback was breeding a lack of confidence, even among the good players.
Once again, the defensive players, whether they'll say so publicly or not, were prepared to be in a Texas standoff. The defense, at least, teed off on the Cowboys every chance it got. Marcus Washington, Shawn Springs, Walt Harris, Lemar Marshall . . . there were probably a half-dozen or so Redskins on defense who have every reason to puff out their chests when coaches review the game tapes. It looked like the Redskins were wasting another great defensive performance, like they were heading into the bye week having to explain the quarterback dilemma for nearly two weeks. It was starting to look like Gibbs had made a very, very bad decision regarding the most important position on his team, really the most important position in sports.
And then, with two throws, Brunell changed it, changed the conversation about what Gibbs had done to Ramsey, changed perhaps what the Redskins feel about themselves and what they see on the horizon. Now, let's see if he can pass the test all worthy quarterbacks have to pass . . . and do it repeatedly.