A Truly Sorry Situation

By Mike Wise
Monday, October 24, 2005

A year ago, Mark Brunell's teenage daughter was watching a game from the family's box seats at FedEx Field when she heard a chant rise up: "WE WANT RAM-SEY! WE WANT RAM-SEY!"

"Our younger kids didn't understand, but she knew they wanted the other guy to take Dad out," Brunell said. "She got emotional and cried, and that ended up becoming a tough time for everyone."

Brunell's children never got the business from the cruel kids in homeroom, mainly because he and his wife home-school. But they knew, just as all kids know.

"Looking back, it turned out to be a lesson we could learn from," he said. "We learned how a situation like that affects all of us."

A year later, we all look as fickle and insensitive as we do wrong. With the exception of the Gibbs and Brunell clans, all together now. (You, too, Danny): Sorry, Mark, for wanting to put a fork in you.

Like every unoriginal soul who said the game has passed your coach by, we bought into the Brunell-Should-Retire group-think. We're embarrassed we ever chastised the franchise for not going out and signing other inferior veteran quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner or Jeff Garcia.

Sure, we had our reasons. After nine games and six interceptions a year ago, we thought you were headed for the announcer's booth. Or, worse, an RV show in Jacksonville, where you would sign autographs and be forced to mingle with slovenly Jaguar fans in exchange for a discounted Winnebago.

We surely never saw this coming -- long-arcing bombs falling into Santana Moss's hands, theatrical comeback wins, nearly 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns through six games.

After throwing for three touchdowns, 252 yards and no interceptions -- after amassing a near-perfect passer rating of 147.9 in that 52-17 pulverization of the pitiful 49ers yesterday -- you have convinced us of our error.

We give. Uncle.

"It's just one of those stories that played out," said Coach Joe Gibbs, whose team moved to 4-2 a year after beginning 2-4. Gibbs added that neither he nor Brunell sought mea culpas from the more than 90,000 who 11 months ago begged the coach to bench Brunell, the gimpy veteran who rolled left, ploddingly, on an injured hamstring.

Gibbs may never admit it, but in his gut he knew Brunell had to be injured last season, if for no other reason than Brunell simply could not be that bad.

"I don't know if he has said this, but the way things were going last year, I think Mark felt that was probably it, that he was going to retire," Gibbs said.

Said Brunell: "Now, did I think I was going to get another shot here? Well, in that way I could have been done. But I knew I would get another shot somewhere. I didn't think my career was over. Not for one minute. I knew I could still play. I'm just thankful for the opportunity."

Through more than a third of the season, Brunell is the NFL's most enthralling comeback story. What a surreal transformation. He could go from nearly put out to pasture to the Pro Bowl, just like that. How wrong can you be about a 35-year-old, ultra-competitive quarterback?

"Let's face it, everyone doubted Joe Gibbs's feeling that Brunell's career wasn't over," said Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, who knows something about resuscitating careers. "When he got healthy, we started to see it. Mark Brunell's legs are his lifeline. Once they get moving, everything comes together.

"What can I say? Joe Gibbs was right. We were wrong."

Some of us were worse than wrong. Columns, call-in shows and fan Web sites were downright nasty. One extremist Web thread took on Gibbs's undying faith in Brunell:

"If Joe Gibbs starts Mark Brunell next Sunday, it will confirm what I have thought since the day we signed the inept quarterback. . . . One fervent Christian favoring another fervent Christian," a post written a year ago read. "Time to break the loyalty, Joe. This isn't church, it's football, and Mark Brunell is the biggest mistake you ever made."

Gibbs is an avowed evangelical Christian, who has led revivals under NASCAR stands after his cars were done racing. He prayed over dinner with Brunell, also a born-again Christian, sometime before he signed Brunell to a seven-year, $43 million deal when he was 34.

Never mind that Gibbs somehow found it in his good heart to start Dexter Manley, John Riggins and now Sean Taylor. No, this was personal. For believing blindly in Brunell, Gibbs unnerved much of his fan base. In a warped way, some felt the coach was not honoring their religion -- their team -- so why honor his?

"That part of it made no sense to me," Brunell said yesterday afternoon. "For one, Patrick is a Christian. And a lot of the guys on the team who do play aren't. I never understood that."

We never understood a lot about Gibbs's faith in Brunell a year ago, just as we never understood a lot about Brunell a year ago, including how much he had left.

In hindsight, Brunell's demise could have been more greatly exaggerated than Mark Twain's. Think about it:

The great American writer never had to cope with the masses telling him his career was over. He and his family never had to deal with a public skewering on successive fall Sundays in Washington; Twain was merely reported to be dead.

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