By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."Motivation
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.
"There's no question that it spurred those guys on, because it spurred me on," said Moon, who broadcast both of Washington's games with Seattle last season. "It seems like the only time you heard your age it was either, 'He had a great game, can you believe he's 36 years old?' Or, 'Ooh, he had a bad game and he's 36 years old, maybe his best days are behind him?' You get tired of hearing that, and I'm sure that Mark uses that as motivation like I did."
Moon, who like Brunell starred at the University of Washington, speaks with Brunell frequently. They espouse the same theories about dealing with advancing age -- staying attuned to any small pain so as not to exacerbate it, getting ample sleep, working out year-round -- but ultimately agree that they must leave some of the future up to chance.
"A lot of it has to do with pure luck and not having any major injuries," Moon said. "That's what most quarterbacks worry about."
The cumulative impact from years of playing the game can manifest itself suddenly. Hall of Famer Bart Starr won his fifth championship at age 33, then, in his final two seasons, tossed eight touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Brett Favre, who turned 36 last October, is coming off his worst season in which he threw for 20 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. Unitas threw 38 touchdowns and 64 interceptions in his final six seasons.
"The thing that happens when you get old, and I'm sure it will happen for Mark, is that when you take some punishment, you don't recover as quickly as when you were younger," said Jurgensen, a Hall of Famer and longtime Redskins broadcaster. "Sometimes it lingers throughout the week and hampers you as far as practice.
"That's a tough thing, because you have to get ready to play the following weekend, you're not 100 percent at all, and you have to leg it out the best you can. And Mark has made his living with his legs, and he's been able to escape the rush, roll out, throw on the move, but you do take some hits that way."Confidence
Brunell injured his hamstring early in the 2004 season, his first in Washington, and lost his starting job in the ninth game of the year when he ranked 32nd in the league with a 49.8 completion percentage. The Redskins' offense was conservative that year, and the team had few quality receivers. But several commentators said Brunell could no longer play the game, and at least five NFL executives contacted that season questioned Brunell's arm strength, mobility and willingness to absorb hits in the pocket. But Gibbs never wavered, predicted a rebound for the passer, and was proved right in 2005.
"I never really doubted Mark," Redskins running back Clinton Portis said. "When you look at guys and judge guys, you look at the guys who cut corners, then you look at the guys who are getting it done. Mark always gave it his all; we never had to worry about Mark. If he made a mistake, he stood up for it. If he did something wrong, he admitted it."
The coaches revamped the offense last season and added a deep threat in wide receiver Santana Moss. The turning point came in Week 2, when Brunell stunned a Texas Stadium crowd with consecutive fourth-quarter bombs to Moss to pull out a 14-13 win for the Redskins. His teammates' confidence in him grew.
"The Dallas game was huge," said Ramsey, a close friend of Brunell's who left Washington for the New York Jets this past offseason. "He helped us pull that one out. As the season progressed, he's a guy that guys were very inclined to, because of just who he is and the way is. You can see that when you get to know him."
Brunell performed at a top level most of 2005, and finished with a career-best 23-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But he was knocked out of the penultimate regular season game with a blow to his right knee. Brunell played down the injury, but wore a brace on his knee, and had trouble planting his feet and throwing accurately in the three games that followed.
Brunell was 38 for 77 (49 percent) in those three contests, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. His play included a paltry 7 of 15 for 41 yards against Tampa Bay in the playoff opener. In the previous 15 games Brunell had completed 59 percent of his passes, averaging almost 200 yards per contest with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
"He was hurt, but one of the aspects that is a quintessential characteristic of Mark Brunell is an unwillingness to ever complain or alibi," said Leigh Steinberg, Brunell's longtime agent. "He's never publicly attempted to shift blame to other people or to injuries, and it sometimes gives a misleading picture, because sometimes Mark is a lot less healthy than you might think."
Brunell spent the offseason running long distances more than ever before, seeking to increase his endurance. He eats fewer cheeseburgers and is trying to give up soda. He requests more massages, soaks more frequently in a cold tub, stretches his limbs regularly to remain as flexible as possible. He has kept his mind limber, too.
New quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor tracked him down throughout the offseason, getting pop quizzes and tutorials to him every Monday by fax, snail mail, express mail or direct handoff when the quarterback walked out of Redskins Park. Brunell drew up every play the team planned to introduce at training camp. "He had to draw the formations, the routes, how he would read each play based on the [defensive] coverages I gave him," Lazor said. "I would guess it took a decent amount of his summer to do it, and Mark was pretty meticulous in how he filled it out and sent it back."
Brunell is being granted more rest and recovery time than in years past, with Gibbs planning to ease him through the practice week, monitoring the number of passes he throws in drills. He is surrounded by more talent than ever before after the addition of wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El. This year might be Brunell's last, best chance to win a title.
"Because I realize that I'm getting on in years -- and I don't know how many more years I'm going to play -- I appreciate the game more than I ever have," Brunell said. "I really enjoy what I do for a living more than I ever have. When you're young you think you're going to play forever. You just think, 'Okay, if we don't win a championship this year, we've always got next year, or the next year.' And pretty soon you get to Year 14, and your opportunities, well, you know you don't have that many chances left. So I'm having a blast and enjoying it while I can."