By Michael Wilbon
Monday, October 3, 2005
You could ask Mark Brunell 100 times if his arm feels stronger, if his legs are healthier, if an additional year of recovering from elbow and hamstring injuries from his final days in Jacksonville has allowed him to be a much better quarterback, and 100 times he'll dismiss it all. He'll tell you repeatedly he's able to throw with such improved accuracy and run either to pass or pick up a first down because the Redskins have better personnel and the offense is better structurally.
You can believe that, or you can believe your own eyes and the eyes of Joe Gibbs, for that matter. Brunell, 35, isn't the specimen he was in his twenties, but it appears he has regained enough of what we thought was lost to become a quarterback of consequence again. In Dallas, he threw two bombs for touchdowns late in the fourth quarter to win. Yesterday, he was best on the game's most difficult plays in leading the Redskins past Seattle. He was nearly perfect on third down, particularly third and long, and for the second straight game he converted a critical third down by running. Yes, the Redskins around Brunell are playing particularly well, from Santana Moss to Clinton Portis to the offensive line, and, yes, the coaches have replaced last year's Flintstones offense with something modern, if not quite Jetsons.
Still, Brunell, no matter what he would like you to think, is better. He' s stronger, faster, quicker, sharper. His passes have zip again. And every coach in the NFL who has bothered to pay attention, every scout and every opposing player knows it. His own coach knows it. Gibbs says Brunell has told the coaches, "I feel like we're doing much better things," and that he's surrounded by better players. He has told Gibbs, the coach said yesterday, "It wasn't me being hurt or anything." Of course, Gibbs didn't believe it. He's been around great athletes in football, around great drivers in NASCAR. He knows they often don't know exactly how it is they do what they do. He knows the greatest players, and Brunell was once one, aren't introspective. Athletes play, coaches analyze. Gibbs knows what he saw last year, which is why he says now, "I attributed quite a bit of it to him being hurt."
Gibbs and everybody else saw a renewed Brunell in training camp, particularly in preseason games, and they see him being that and more three games into an undefeated season. Gibbs noted that Brunell was getting "plenty on the ball. He can move now. Part of his game is his legs. He's made big plays [with his legs] two weeks in a row now."
So we can stop the Jason Campbell watch, as long as Brunell stays healthy. Last year, Brunell couldn't complete passes while moving forward.
Half the time he was skipping passes to receivers, like some old ballplayer throwing out the ceremonial pitch on Opening Day. Take off and run? He could barely plant and throw. Now, he follows a 25-yard run on third and 27 in Dallas, with an 18-yard dash on third and nine to keep alive what turned out to be the game-winning drive against Seattle. "One of those a game," he said. "That's it. That's all I can do."
When a quarterback picks his spots that wisely, it's all he and his team need. The Redskins don't need Brunell putting himself in harm's way unnecessarily. They just need to know those old legs -- "I just don't go as fast as I used to," he said -- have some youthful bounce left.
Last season that was unthinkable.
In the preseason, Brunell was showing his rejuvenated form against second- and third-string defenses. Against Dallas, it was easy for the skeptics -- count me as one -- to wonder if those fourth-quarter strikes and the 25-yard run were flukes.
But Seattle, granted after only three weeks, had the best defense in the league when it came to third-down efficiency. Brunell shredded the Seahawks.
No, the Redskins didn't score many points, but they moved the ball and spread the receptions and carries around.
Brunell made one significant mistake yesterday; he was a little high and outside with that pass off Portis's fingertips that turned into an interception. That should have cost the Redskins the game, except Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren called the dumbest sequence of plays any good coach has ever called. Other than that one turnover, Brunell picked right up where he left off in Dallas. Of 13 third-down pass plays, Brunell completed 11. He threw one incompletion and was sacked once. On third down in overtime, Brunell threw 13 yards to Moss on third and 10, ran 18 yards on third and nine, and threw 30 yards to Moss on third and 10 to set up the game-winning field goal. (By the way, Moss has had more impact in three games as a Redskins receiver than Laveranues Coles did in two seasons.)
Of course, there shouldn't have been an overtime. After the tipped interception, it was Seattle's game to win. The Seahawks had the ball with 49 seconds left, one timeout, and a great back in Shaun Alexander. That offense had just marched 91 yards to tie the game. (Note that Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs was on the sideline with an injured shoulder.) If Holmgren had elected to throw one slant pass or a sit-down to the tight end or Alexander, his kicker could have made a field goal of 40 yards or less and won the game. Instead, Holmgren settled for three yards and a 47-yard kick, no good, off the left upright. Then, Holmgren had the nerve to criticize the cornerback, Kelly Herndon, who made the interception, for not advancing his return far enough. Makes you wonder who the genius was in Green Bay, Holmgren or Brett Favre.
Anyway, Brunell might be in the midst of having a better season than Holmgren or Favre, unlikely as that seemed a year ago.
"I think," Redskins lineman Ray Brown said, "that Mark wants to be The Guy again. He's got a real good perception of what his career was in Jacksonville. He was great in Jacksonville. They loved him there. But then injuries can be humbling. They bring in young Byron Leftwich, and all of a sudden people are asking you if you used to be Mark Brunell. A veteran guy, all you want is a coach to say, 'You're my guy.' I think Mark is rolling with that. He would do anything to help this team win and thank Joe Gibbs for expressing that confidence in him. You ask me how different he is from last year? I'll tell you this: There's a great comfort level with him. Nobody's warming up on the sideline after he has a couple of bad passes."