Give Credit Where It's Due
Monday, January 2, 2006; 11:23 PM
PHILADELPHIA -- The world is full of weak characters, including my own. It's full of whiners, pessimists, misanthropes, complainers, and dead-enders. And then there is Mark Brunell.
A year ago, his career was dead. A month ago, it was dead again. A week ago, he had a bad knee. But on this night, Brunell was the victorious quarterback of a 10-6 playoff-bound team, and it was time to give credit where it was due, straight to him. He was the one player who had been doubted the most, and he surely personified more than any other what an unlikely and determined effort this was by the Washington Redskins, to win five games in a row to end the regular season.
He wore a brace on his sprained right knee, which was heavily taped. He was unable to practice for four days this week. The creases in his 35-year-old face looked like they had been cut there with a knife. Afterward, there was something stripped down and tough-seeming about him, in his jeans and a black leather jacket. If Brunell wasn't giddy with success, well, it had been a hard night, not to mention a hard few weeks, not to mention a hard couple of years. There were times when he wasn't sure "that I'd ever get another shot," he says.
His statistics weren't glorious. Rather, they were just enough to get the job done in gouging out another must-win, a 31-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Nine-of-25 throwing for 141 yards and one touchdown, a shoulder-wrenching 54-yard pass to Santana Moss to lead to another score, a key scramble for a fourth-quarter first down, and perhaps as importantly, no horrendous game-killing mistakes or turnovers.
Asked how fast he moved on a 12-yard run to pick up that critical first down in the final period, and he said, "Not as fast as I used to move."
In a lot of ways, Brunell's story was the story of the entire team. Two years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars dumped him for a young kid built like a new car, Byron Leftwich. Brunell's reception in Washington was unenthusiastic, and he lost his starting job to Patrick Ramsey last season, when he was more banged up than anyone knew. Then this season, there was the 3-0 start. The midseason losing streak dropped the team to 5-6, when everyone, including yours truly, jumped screaming off the bandwagon and wrote the team off as a lost cause. At times, the only person who seemed to really believe in him, or them, was Coach Joe Gibbs, who staked his own faltering reputation on the notion that Brunell could still play.
"He just kept fighting and swinging," Gibbs said. "I think it's been a big story for Mark. You go all the way back to what he went through last year. Mark has experienced a lot of things, and I think he really appreciates what's happened this year. I think it's been a big story not only for Mark but for all the players."
Let's settle this question once and for all. Brunell is still an extremely viable NFL quarterback, a fine leader with physical courage who sees the whole field and whose arms and legs are very much alive. He proved it over and over again these last three weeks in particular, posting 35, 35 and 31 points. As his arcing 54-yard throw to Moss verified, the Redskins have become a genuinely dangerous offensive team. During the course of the game Moss broke the Redskins' single-season record for receiving yardage, set by Bobby Mitchell in 1963. If someone had told you at the start of this season that Moss would set a new mark, would you have thought for a moment that the quarterback who threw the ball to him would be Brunell? It had to be sweet for Brunell, and for Gibbs, who now looks so utterly right for signing him, and standing by him.
"When you look in his eyes out there, all you see is that he's every bit the competitor," said Gibbs.
Trite as it sounds, it couldn't happen to a nicer man. No matter what his injuries or his career setbacks, no matter how loud the criticism from the press, Brunell has never complained. When he might have been sullen or irritable, he has been invariably mild-mannered and courteous. No matter how well or poorly he played, he was self-effacing and gracious. This has always been true of him.
Brunell loves to tell a story about his beginnings in the league: In 1995 he was the brand new quarterback for the expansion Jaguars. The Jaguars' star draft choice was Tony Boselli, the offensive tackle out of Southern California. The two were vacationing with their wives on St. Thomas, and as they lounged, a boy asked Boselli for his autograph. Boselli signed it and then said, "You might want to get his, too," and nodded toward Brunell.
The boy said, "Why would I want his autograph? That would be like him asking for mine."
We could all take a lesson from Brunell. And we could all take a lesson from the Redskins' ability to rebuild themselves in the span of a mere month. Like Brunell, they stowed their complaints, and erased their mistakes. The things they previously did wrong, they suddenly did right. There was something extremely hopeful about such an act of self-revision, because it proved that a flawed team could alter itself with an act of will. They weren't sentenced to failure. Just because you make a mistake once doesn't mean you have to make it twice. I made a mistake of my own when I wrote five weeks ago that the Redskins were done for the season. They weren't, not by a long shot. For one thing, I didn't take into account the deep competitive nature of their quarterback.
"To win five in a row says a lot about this football team, its character, and how we stuck together," Brunell said. "To win 10 games in this league is difficult to do. To do it the way we did says a lot."