Battered Brunell Battles Back

"We've come a long way in a year," says Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell, being pressured by the Philadelphia Eagles' Trent Cole. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

There was little aesthetically pleasing about Mark Brunell's performance Sunday night. His play lacked fluidity and efficiency, his passes sailed well beyond receivers and he never got into a groove.

But with the Washington Redskins in need of a second-half comeback to clinch a playoff berth at Philadelphia, and the offense sputtering, Brunell, still game at 35 and with a brace strapped to his sprained right knee, had a bit of the Old West still in him, gutting out several key plays to help the team win, 31-20.

Just dressing for the game took moxie, with Brunell barely able to walk at the start of the week, and after a few sloppy possessions it was clear this would be no masterpiece for him. Indeed, his 9-for-25 outing, with one touchdown and one interception, may have been the worst of his season. Yet it still included a crucial 54-yard pass to Santana Moss to set up the tying touchdown on the first drive of the third quarter, and a scramble on third and eight to prevent Washington from having to punt deep in its territory with just a four-point lead and just more than four minutes to play.

"Sometimes your quarterback gains the most respect with the team and everything, I think, when things aren't going really well," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "And certainly in this game it didn't go well early, and it's happened to him before this year, and it's happened to our offensive team before this year, where we're not performing well, and then all of a sudden we kind of catch fire and get going and do some good things, good enough to win the game."

Without Brunell's clutch plays, the Redskins might not be preparing to face Tampa Bay in a wild-card playoff game Saturday. And without Brunell's resurgence this season, Washington's offense might still be looking to climb from the doldrums. Few could have predicted that Brunell would be healthy enough to appear in all 16 games, much less produce one of the finest seasons of his 13-year career -- which includes three Pro Bowls -- coming off a disastrous 2004.

Yet that is precisely what occurred. Brunell remained a threat on play-action passes and elusive on bootlegs, despite being battered and bruised much of the season. Concerns about his arm strength -- so prevalent a year ago -- were allayed by deep strike after deep strike, with a 70-yard bullet to Moss in a Week 2 comeback at Dallas epitomizing his comeback.

"If you look into his eyes out there, he's every bit the competitor," said Gibbs. Brunell finished with a career-best 23 touchdown passes, and a 23-10 touchdown-to-interception margin. He completed nearly 58 percent of his passes and posted an 85.9 passer rating, fifth in the NFC, and his best since 1998.

"We've come a long way in a year," Brunell said. "For me personally, yes, but, more importantly, for the whole team. We all struggled last year, and being the quarterback, the spotlight is on you a little bit more. But this offense has come a long way and put us in a position where we're in the playoffs and we've won 10 games, which is very difficult to do in this league. So it's very gratifying for this whole team, offensively and defensively, to be in the position we're in."

Brunell couches many of his public remarks in terms of the collective. He is more comfortable speaking about team than individual, and is particularly sensitive to praise; last season Brunell took much of the blame for the 6-10 record. This season, he has been quick to deflect attention to Moss, running back Clinton Portis and the offensive line. They, in turn, believe Brunell shouldered too much of the blame for the 2004 season.

"Last year I didn't think Mark got a fair chance," Portis said. "Those first eight games we never had the same starting lineup. We shuffled our line and we shuffled our tight ends. Once we got the same people playing week in and week out, Patrick Ramsey was leading us. Mark having this whole offseason to work with the guys and having our whole team here brought everyone a long way."

Last January, the verdict in NFL circles was that Brunell was done and that Gibbs was reaching by bringing him back. But the combination of better health, a revamped offense, new receivers and improved play-calling made for a very different season.

"It was only a year ago that we got to listen to a torrent of expert commentators that pointed out that Mark had completely lost all ability to play the quarterback position," said Leigh Steinberg, Brunell's longtime agent. "Mark got to listen to all of that, but he never lost his confidence in himself. He took all the blame and responsibility without ever complaining, and he always believed his time would come back around again."

Brunell, acquired from Jacksonville shortly after Gibbs returned to coaching two years ago, earned the team's "Tough Guy" award for his daring Sunday -- a badge of honor not often doled out to passers.

"He's mentally tough, willing to sacrifice his body, and he's a smart guy," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "He knows that, hey, if we get a good running game going, it really helps him, and he could care less whether he throws for 300 yards or 150 yards, as long as we get the victory. When you've got a quarterback that tough and that unselfish and that willing to sacrifice a lot of things for the betterment of the team, then you've got the right type of guy."

Defensive end Renaldo Wynn, who played with Brunell in Jacksonville, said, "He knows how to win, and he's not going to hurt you. He's going to make the plays he has to make when he needs to make them, and he's heady enough where he can get himself out of different binds. He doesn't have the athletic ability he once had, but he has pretty good pocket awareness; with a lot of quarterbacks it could be devastating what could be the outcome, but he's got himself out of a pickle where it could be pretty bad by throwing the ball away."

Brunell played down the impact his injury had on Sunday's performance, but a team source said the sore knee kept him from planting properly on throws and disrupted his motion. That likely will be less of an issue Saturday given time and additional treatment. Whereas last week he could not complete a full practice until Friday, Brunell was taking normal work yesterday, the Redskins' first practice before facing the Buccaneers.

This will be the first postseason appearance for the Redskins -- and Brunell -- since January 2000. That year, the Jaguars lost the AFC championship game. This season, the Redskins have won five in a row and aim to keep the streak going.

"Our goals don't change," Brunell said. "Our backs are still against the wall."

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