In Defense of the Offense

Mark Brunell threw three interceptions in the first half against the Cardinals, but they weren't all the quarterback's fault, Coach Joe Gibbs said.
Mark Brunell threw three interceptions in the first half against the Cardinals, but they weren't all the quarterback's fault, Coach Joe Gibbs said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

A day following a nightmarish first half against Arizona in which Mark Brunell threw three interceptions and had a fourth negated by a penalty, Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs used his opening remarks to the media not to stress better offensive focus deep in enemy territory, but instead to defend his quarterback.

That Gibbs singled out Brunell preemptively when other coaches might have been sarcastic or even dismissive is emblematic of Gibbs's soothing coaching personality. Two weeks earlier, he had used portions of his Monday address to similarly reassure tight end Robert Royal, who dropped three key passes in a 23-17 home loss to San Diego and was near tears after the game.

The interceptions all occurred inside the 20-yard line, keeping the Redskins from the blowout win they desperately crave. On third and two from the Arizona 20, Brunell rolled to his left and fired a pass to crossing H-back Chris Cooley. The ball bounced out of Cooley's hands to Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle. The second occurred six minutes later, on third and five from the Cardinals 20, when Brunell's pass was tipped into the hands of Rolle. The play was negated by a pass interference call. One minute later, Brunell and running back Ladell Betts were not in sync on a route and David Macklin picked off the pass in the end zone.

Later, with two minutes left in the half, Brunell threw to Cooley on a skinny post route only to be intercepted by Adrian Wilson at the 2-yard line.

"The offense got off to a slow start and turned the ball over. A lot of times when you're watching at home you don't have the opportunity to see the film," Gibbs said. "We had one interception that bounced out of our hands. So we felt like we had a well-executed play. We had another one that bounced out of our hands but it was pass interference because we had a guy hanging all over our backs.

"I kind of wanted to give a little explanation on that because people jump on the quarterback from that standpoint but there are a lot of things that go into a pass play."

Gibbs seemed to be trying to stem any criticism of Brunell, who in the second half of the season has had difficulty putting together two consistent halves. Despite a horrid first half Sunday, he has thrown nearly as many touchdowns in the first half (seven) as in the second (nine). But he is subject to early misfires, for seven of his eight interceptions have come in the first half of games.

"Sometimes, it happens," Brunell said. "What's important is that this team bounced back. As frustrating as the first half was, we came out in the second, cut down on our mistakes and got the win."

What bolsters Brunell and his receivers and coaches is that the Redskins are on a two-game winning streak, have the Dallas Cowboys in a home showdown this Sunday afternoon and have begun to take on the personality of a running, power team.

"I always feel like he's a play away from making a big play," wide receiver Santana Moss said of Brunell. "The thing about him is that the play is never over. You could see a play break down and then see Mark scrambling and then do something big. I'm never the guy who criticizes when someone is struggling anyway, so the things I do to make sure he doesn't lose confidence when he's having trouble is to know that if I keep running my routes, he's going to find me."

The Redskins speak of winning their remaining three games for the right to make the playoffs for the first time in six years. By his own admission, the second half of the season has been a struggle for Brunell.

It is a hard contrast from the first six games of the season, when Brunell seemed to be rolling. During those games, Brunell's quarterback rating was above 94 in half of them, a full 10 points above his career mark of 83.9. In the Oct. 20 rout of San Francisco, Brunell finished with a 147.9 rating, his best of the season. The week before, in a 28-21 loss to Kansas City, Brunell completed 25 of 41 passes for a season-best 331 yards and a 110.9 rating. He had rediscovered himself and begun to ease some of the memories of last season, of which even now he says, "Last season, I don't know what to say about last season."

But in the seven games since, beginning with a 36-0 wipeout at the hands of the New York Giants, Brunell has not always found his way. He has thrown four touchdown passes and six interceptions over that span, a somewhat misleading statistic because three of those interceptions came last Sunday against Arizona.

So the numbers point less to Brunell's interception total but more to his recent inability to throw the ball into the end zone. After taking over as the starter in Week 2, Brunell threw at least two touchdowns in each of his first five games, three each against Kansas City and San Francisco. During those games, Brunell had thrown 12 touchdowns against only two interceptions.

After the Arizona game, in which Brunell settled down in the second half and the Redskins escaped with a 17-13 victory, the quarterback finished with a 34.2 rating and spoke as if he were an escapist himself.

"All I can say is we won the game. That's the important thing," he said. "Too many times I've seen games like that and you want to keep them at a minimum, but yes, I've seen them before."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company