Brunell's Two-Minute Warning
Sunday, September 3, 2006
Mark Brunell remembers becoming old about five years ago. He was 30 and was steeling himself for training camp -- an annual rite on the professional football calendar that, after eight years in the NFL, would lead to questions about his arm strength, quickness and ability to survive a 16-game regular season schedule.
The questions have been asked every summer since for Brunell, none more so than this preseason, his third as quarterback of the Washington Redskins.
Brunell, who turns 36 in two weeks, ended 2005 banged up with an injured knee and was ineffective for much of the playoffs, and has suffered through three minor injuries since then. He is learning a new system under the Redskins' new associate head coach-offense, Al Saunders, and, like the entire first-team offense, played poorly in four exhibition games.
Brunell is the only proven passer on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. With one backup -- Jason Campbell -- having never thrown an NFL pass and the other -- Todd Collins -- without an NFL start since 1997, Brunell is acutely aware that his health and performance will be scrutinized each week this season.
Brunell often uses self-deprecation to defuse uncomfortable questions regarding his age -- roasting himself before anyone else can -- but sometimes his eyes belie his tongue. While Brunell knows the questions are part of the job, it is clear they become tiresome. "I'm the oldest guy on the team, and I don't like hearing those questions, I really don't, because somewhere along the way 'old' means that you can't get it done anymore," Brunell said. "But I'll say this -- and I'm not just throwing it out there -- I really feel that I'm smarter than I ever have been.
"Now, physically, I don't run as fast -- my feet aren't as quick -- but I feel mentally sharper than I ever have, and I handle the game better, I believe. . . . But because I am up there in years, my health is the biggest thing for me. I have to take care of my body better than I ever have."
Brunell, a three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Jacksonville Jaguars, already has experienced an up-and-down career in Washington. He went from potential savior, when Joe Gibbs acquired him shortly after coming out of coaching retirement in 2004, to villain by the middle of that first season, when fans at FedEx Field screamed for backup Patrick Ramsey to take over. Brunell entered 2005 as Ramsey's understudy, regained his starting spot during the opening game and led the team into the playoffs for the first time since 1999. But Brunell, battling a knee problem, struggled in the postseason, which ended with the Redskins' second-round NFC playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Questions about Brunell's durability were raised again when he broke his index finger shortly before minicamp last spring. Getting kicked in the calf and straining his groin were brief training-camp maladies this summer. Collectively, the setbacks caused some angst given his age and recent history of injuries.
Brunell also completed less than half of his passes (16 for 33) in four preseason games, though the team's coaches profess little concern about that.
"You look around the league and I see the guys who are playing, and we probably talk about [the quarterback's age] more in this town than they do in other towns," Gibbs said. "They'd probably go, 'Hey, we got Mark Brunell, he's a veteran.' Here we say how old he is and everything. But I think we've seen quarterbacks play up into their late thirties and be really good, and certainly I think Mark takes great care of himself. You kind of go off what you see on the field, and I certainly don't see it in him where you think he's losing something."
Teams have been represented by a starting passer 36 or older seven times in the 40-year history of the Super Bowl, most recently when Rich Gannon, who was 37, quarterbacked the Oakland Raiders in their loss to Tampa Bay on Jan. 26, 2003. John Elway won his first Super Bowl at age 37, then led the Denver Broncos to the league title again the next year. Redskins legend Sonny Jurgensen led the NFC with a 94.6 passer rating in 1974, at age 40, on wobbly knees and in his final NFL campaign.
Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton had his last great season at age 36. Hall of Famers Roger Staubach (35) and Johnny Unitas (37) won Super Bowls at an advanced age. Hall of Famer Warren Moon was 38 when he had the second-best season of his prolific career. Hall of Famer Joe Montana had strong seasons at age 37 and 38. Their age was lost on none of them, Moon said.