Zero to Hero: Brunell Finds Groove

Mark Brunell became the first Redskins quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a game since 1999.
Mark Brunell became the first Redskins quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a game since 1999. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 19, 2005

Mark Brunell had never experienced such an intense difference from one week to the next, he said. Last night, the Washington Redskins quarterback hugged teammates and celebrated a four-touchdown masterpiece. Eight days ago, he bemoaned a three-interception, no-touchdown game that could have turned out even worse.

The contrasts between those two performances created a mind-boggling gap, but Brunell offered only the most simple of explanations after a 35-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys yesterday.

"Everything just clicked," Brunell said. "Everybody put me in a good situation. I just did my job."

A week after Brunell played what he called "one of the worst" halves of his career against the Arizona Cardinals, the quarterback enjoyed one of his best games. Brunell completed 12 of 20 passes for 163 yards and became the first Washington quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a single game since Brad Johnson did it in October of 1999.

Afterward, though, Brunell hardly spoke like a quarterback who had done anything special. He never had to do much, he said. His receivers made great plays; his offensive line gave him all the time in the world; defense and special teams set him up for success.

Last week in Arizona, some of Brunell's good throws became interceptions after they bounced off receivers' hands. Yesterday, though, some of Brunell's bad throws became touchdowns.

"The only thing that really changed was what happened after he threw it," said H-back Chris Cooley, who caught three of Brunell's touchdown throws. "This time things went his way. Last time they didn't."

The Redskins' first touchdown came off a potential Brunell mistake. Midway through the first quarter, Brunell saw Cooley wide open in the end zone. The quarterback threw a bullet three yards to Cooley's right, forcing the H-back to make a diving catch.

"I guess he gave me a chance to get it," Cooley said. "I came to the sideline after that and said, 'Were you throwing that away?' He was just like, 'No. I knew you were going to get it.'"

Brunell exhibited the same confidence in Santana Moss in the second quarter. The quarterback watched Moss sprint by Cowboys cornerback Aaron Glenn and then heaved what turned out to be a perfect pass. The ball dropped in Moss's hands for a 42-yard reception that set up the Redskins' second touchdown -- a play Brunell credited, basically, to happenstance.

"That was your basic bomb, really. That's what we've been calling it for years and years," Brunell said. "I just threw it up there, really. Santana made a great catch."

To hear the Redskins tell it, great catches -- not necessarily great throws -- provided the key to Brunell's performance. He threw a short out to Moss in the second quarter, then watched Moss dodge two Cowboys and create a 31-yard gain. He found three players wide open in the end zone (Cooley twice and Mike Sellers once). "When we got down near the end zone," Sellers said, "nobody was covering anybody."

One play best illustrated Brunell's good fortune. With 21 seconds left in the first half, the Redskins -- with possession at the Dallas 34-yard line -- seemed content to settle for a field goal. Brunell dropped back and threw a simple, five-yard pass to Cooley, then prepared to call a timeout.

Cooley, though, broke three tackles and raced 30 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown, giving Brunell four touchdown passes in the first half.

"I was just trying to make him look good," Cooley said. "Mark is a pretty easy going guy, and he doesn't let things bother him week to week. When you play this game, you know that things can go either way. Some days you can't get anything. Then, a week later, absolutely everything is going your way."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company