By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
When Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs extols the play of quarterback Mark Brunell, he finds himself in an immediate quarrel with statistics, which show that, in the second half of last weekend's playoff game against Tampa Bay, Brunell completed four passes for eight yards, none in the fourth quarter. And in the regular season finale, a game the Redskins needed to win to advance to the playoffs, Brunell completed just 9 of 25 passes against Philadelphia.
But Gibbs maintains that other aspects of Brunell's performance, such as his patience and refusal to force passes often, have offset the statistical deficiencies and are a key reason Washington won both games.
"Sometimes what a quarterback does -- and it doesn't look pretty and people don't ever talk about this -- is that the best plays he makes are the ones that aren't there," Gibbs said. "I think that Mark's been exceptional at that, whether it's running like he did the other night, getting out of there, making some plays. I firmly believe, from a pass-protection standpoint, that we'd be taking many more sacks and chances with someone else in there."
Still, the numbers are glaring. The past two weeks, Brunell has completed only 40 percent of his passes and has a 41.8 passer rating. His performance has dropped dramatically since taking a Christmas Eve hit from New York Giants linebacker Nick Greisen, which sprained the quarterback's knee and knocked him out of a 35-20 victory.
Suddenly, one of the NFL's great comeback stories this season seems destined for an unhappy ending. After a disastrous 2004 season, Brunell had a passer rating of 98.7 and was throwing for an average of almost 250 yards a game as the Redskins won four of their first six games. In the last three, including the victory over the Giants, his passer rating was 58.8 and he averaged less than 100 yards passing.
"He's reverting to where he was a year ago," said a personnel director of a Redskins opponent who did not want to be identified. "We played them earlier and he looked really good this year. But watching the Tampa Bay game, he looked like the length of the season and the pounding has gotten to him. He doesn't look quick and he doesn't look decisive. It's got to be the wear and tear of a long season."
Brunell's favorite target, wide receiver Santana Moss, said he doesn't think Brunell is completely healthy but thinks the veteran still gives the Redskins the best chance to win.
"He looks funny to me," Moss said. "He's out there playing and that's all we care about. There're a lot of guys playing with a lot of things, and he's a guy who got it done all year. So I never question anything when I see that guy on the field because he's out there for us."
For the first time since being injured, Brunell admitted that his sprained right knee affected him against Philadelphia, and yet was adamant that, although he performed worse against Tampa Bay, the knee was not a factor.
"Mechanically [against Philadelphia], I was a little off," Brunell said. "I didn't get much work during the week and it bothered me on a couple of throws. Last week against Tampa, it felt great. It really did. It's not taped up. I always wear the brace, but the knee is fine."
Center Casey Rabach said the Redskins' coaching staff has tried to compensate for Brunell's injury by attempting to keep him more stationary.
"I think they changed a few things for him," Rabach said. "I don't think he was outside the pocket as much because of the knee. But it being another week after the fact, I think it bodes well for him."
With the ascension of the running game as the top priority, Brunell has not been asked to win games solely with his arm. Since the Redskins abandoned the run in the second half of the Nov. 20 loss to Oakland, Brunell has been asked to do less through the air. In his first nine starts, Brunell threw 308 passes, or 34.2 per game. In seven starts since, including the playoff game, Brunell has attempted 147 passes, or 21 per game.
But Gibbs said that in the Philadelphia and Tampa Bay games, two plays underscore Brunell's value and toughness, qualities that supersede whatever statistical evidence suggests the quarterback is under-performing
Against Philadelphia, the Redskins were leading 24-20 with 4 minutes 21 seconds left , with Brunell standing in the shotgun from his 18-yard line. It was third and eight and a Philadelphia stop would have given the Eagles good field position, possibly at mid-field, and plenty of time to mount a drive for the winning score that would have kept the Redskins out of the playoffs.
Brunell looked for Moss, and saw nothing. He looked for Chris Cooley, who was covered. He slid a few steps to his left, avoided pressure and then took off up the middle, a 12-yard limping run combination that netted the Redskins a clutch first down. The Redskins took another 1:10 off the clock, moved the ball to their 37 and wound up pinning the Eagles back to their 25-yard line. Four plays later, Sean Taylor picked up Mike McMahon's fumble and ran 39 yards for the game-clinching score.
Gibbs considers Brunell's dreadful performance last week against Tampa Bay -- in which the Redskins set an NFL playoff record low for total yards by a winning team -- and instead prefers to think about him taking the snap from the shotgun on third and seven with 7:42 left in the half and the Redskins leading 14-3. Again, Brunell looked for Cooley, before bolting around the left side for nine yards and a first down. Four plays later, John Hall kicked a 47-yard field goal that gave the Redskins a two-touchdown lead.
To Gibbs, these plays are proof that for every area where Brunell is statistically deficient, he is nevertheless a winning quarterback. By allowing Brunell to struggle -- in a way never afforded Patrick Ramsey -- Gibbs is also telegraphing another message about his own preference for a veteran quarterback presence, albeit clearly injured, especially in the postseason.
"He's out there making more plays. He's very, very good at doing the little things, getting rid of the ball when it's the right thing. I think he has helped us win football games the last two weeks," Gibbs said. "And sometimes it doesn't look good in the stats and all the things that happen there, and I understand that. I know he wants to be more productive than that and needs to be more productive than that, but he's made very key plays in both games. So to me, he's pretty much done for us what he's done all year."
Staff writer Leonard Shapiro contributed to this report.