By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2005
An instant after Mark Brunell had launched a pass toward Santana Moss, who was racing toward the end zone on the final play of last Sunday's game against Kansas City, almost all eyes in Arrowhead Stadium followed the flight of the ball until safety Sammy Knight dived and tipped it incomplete to preserve the Chiefs' 28-21 victory over the Washington Redskins. What most sitting in the stands or watching on television did not see was Brunell taking one last hit from Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen, then slowly getting up and trying to clear his head as the game ended.
Brunell never mentioned Allen's parting shot after the game, at least not until he was prompted. Even then, he declined to characterize it as a penalty, saying only that he'd have to look at the videotape. A few days later, after he had seen the play on tape, he still did not want to say anything publicly. After 13 years as an NFL quarterback, Brunell, 35, knows it wouldn't do any good to complain because it would not change the play.
Perhaps that's one reason Brunell said this past week that he did not watch a lot of tape from the 2004 season, when many around the league, and perhaps even some teammates, had to wonder if Brunell could still play at the highest level.
"I tried to watch as little of that as possible," he said. "It depressed me. But I know the situation last year, and that will stay last year. Somehow, my weak arm has turned into a strong arm. I just feel good right now."
As the Redskins (3-2) prepare to face the San Francisco 49ers (1-4) today at FedEx Field, what's not to feel good about? A year after calf and hamstring problems limited his mobility, affected his ability to throw with velocity or accuracy and prevented him from slipping out of the pocket, Brunell has emerged as the quarterback and team leader Coach Joe Gibbs envisioned two years ago when he signed him to a seven-year, $43 million contract.
Critics around the league wondered why the price was so high for a player with sore knees and a bad elbow seemingly on the downside of his career. The cost also included the Redskins giving up a second-round draft choice to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that had essentially given up on Brunell after he missed the last 13 games of the 2003 season with an elbow injury. He struggled as the starter in the Redskins' first nine games, and Gibbs finally turned the job over to Patrick Ramsey.
Last October after one of the Redskins' midseason losses, one AFC general manager said of Brunell: "Two years ago, he started down, and then he hurt his elbow last year and didn't play again. Now there's nothing left in the tank."
Last week, after watching tape of Brunell's performance against the Chiefs and several other Washington games, the same general manager said: "A year ago, I thought he was dead, buried and gone. I was wrong. A lot of us were wrong. The big difference obviously is that he appears to be healthy. Last year, he did not. His arm is better than a year ago. His mobility, his accuracy, his velocity are back.
"He always had all the other things, the poise in the pocket, the ability to get rid of the ball under pressure. That doesn't go away. But this guy has obviously had a rebirth. As long as he stays healthy and he can retain his mobility, there's no reason he can't continue this and keep doing it for another few years."
Brunell insisted last week that he took no magic potions in the offseason, that he did not feel it necessary to rededicate himself to the game but simply studied film, worked out and ran as diligently as he always has and regained his health after not playing in the final seven games of the 2004 season.
His resurgence comes at an age when many top quarterbacks start to decline. The average age of retirement is 37.1 years among the 15 modern era quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Sonny Jurgensen, Len Dawson and Johnny Unitas stayed until they were 40. Joe Namath stopped at 34; Bob Griese and Terry Bradshaw were done at 35.
Several mobile quarterbacks with similar styles to Brunell -- Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, Joe Montana and John Elway -- all ended their careers at 38. Roger Staubach stopped at 37. But most of those quarterbacks also put up outstanding seasons after turning 35.
"Look, the magic age is not 35," said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, forced out of the game at 36 when he broke his leg in 1985. "It's all about your health. You first have to recognize what is so obvious this year was how unhealthy Mark was last year, and he never really said a lot about it. He was hurt, and he obviously compounded it by continuing to play. Now the legs are back, the arm strength is back."
How bad was Brunell a year ago? In his final five games as a starter, he completed 44 percent of his passes for 460 yards, with 4 touchdowns, 5 interceptions and a 48.6 passer rating. To put that number in perspective, consider that Ryan Leaf, once the overall No. 2 draft choice and arguably the biggest quarterback bust in draft history, had a 50.0 passer rating for his brief career.
This year, Brunell's numbers have been among the best of his career. He's completing 58 percent of his throws, has nine touchdown passes and two interceptions, and his passer rating is 91.5, more than seven points higher than his career average and better than his best year in the league (91.2 in 1997 in Jacksonville).
Brunell's health has been a significant factor in his comeback. The addition of Moss, the leading receiver in the league, has been a huge help, along with the return from injury of tackle Jon Jansen and the addition of center Casey Rabach to the offensive line. Brunell and many of his teammates also are becoming more comfortable with each other in a far less predictable offense. A little luck never hurts either.
"If you know where the receivers are going to be and you're all on the same page, what they'll do with certain routes against coverages, the ball will get there quicker," Brunell said. "It's a timing thing. Knowing where people will be. There are a lot of things you can believe in. One is the system. The other is in each other. I'm a believer in our receivers. The offensive line is doing a great job, the running backs, all three of them. Not only have you bought into a system. We've bought into each other."
Gibbs has been delighted with the quarterback who started the season as the backup but quickly replaced injured starter Ramsey after three series in the season opener.
"He's just been outstanding," Gibbs said. "He's a very solid leader. He has great confidence. He is someone who, when he comes off the field, you look at him and know that he has a lot of poise. He's been there before. He gets plays with his legs sometimes. He bails us out on pass protection. He has a very good sense of where the pressure is coming from. I think that's a big deal with a quarterback. Can he feel it? A lot of times they can't even see it, but they've done it enough that they have a sixth sense for when to slide and get away from pressure. In his case, he has really helped our protection. He has a feel for when to get rid of it.
"Sometimes just getting out of the pocket and getting rid of the ball can be the biggest play of the game. As I've said many times, a quarterback's biggest play is when it's not there. Everyone is going to hit it when it's there. When it's not there, what do you do with it?"
Jurgensen also gives Gibbs much of the credit for Brunell's resurgence. "I felt [Gibbs] was going with Brunell before the season opener," he said. "Because Gibbs had promised Patrick he'd be the quarterback, I think he wanted to keep his word. But Ramsey never got comfortable in the preseason. You could see Gibbs was deliberating on it, when to make the change. When [Ramsey] got hurt so quickly, Joe saw the opportunity, and he seized it. Give him credit. He's the only one who saw that [Brunell's] career wasn't over yet. He saw something the rest of us didn't."
When Gibbs was asked last week if there were times he'd love to tell his critics, "I told you so," he politely declined.
"I'm just happy for him that he is playing well," Gibbs said. "A lot of times up here you go through tough things. At any one time in the NFL, you're going to have a number of players on a team who are going through tough situations. A lot of times the way they handle it is a measure of someone's character. I think that was Mark's situation last year and Patrick's situation now. The way you go through the tough times leads you to improvement and great performance in the future. It's a test of character when you go through that."