It's Brunell, for Better or Worse

Quarterback Mark Brunell, who turned 36 Sunday, is starting to feel the heat this season, and not just from the pass rush of the Redskins' opponents.
Quarterback Mark Brunell, who turned 36 Sunday, is starting to feel the heat this season, and not just from the pass rush of the Redskins' opponents. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

John Madden made his reputation in TV by being funny and fair. He doesn't carry a grudge or try to be nasty. He respects the difficulty of the game and admires the players. He'd rather analyze than criticize. But sometimes, he'll drop the hammer.

On Sunday night, the legendary announcer, ex-Super-Bowl-winning coach and video-game-salesman-to- the-universe dropped an anvil on Mark Brunell. Usually, nobody cares about the talent evaluations of NFL analysts. But Madden is different. He has authority. And, right now, he's piling it onto Brunell. That matters because, at the moment, much of the NFL world -- outside Redskins Park -- agrees with Madden. You can't understand the burdens on the team or the mountainous challenge ahead of Brunell if you don't appreciate how deeply many smart NFL minds doubt him.

"The Redskins have the weapons but the quarterback has to get the ball to those weapons. Do they have the right players to run the offense? I think therein lays the problem," said Madden as the Redskins headed to a 27-10 loss to the Cowboys. Later, he added: "Is this a pretty good offense that will get better or is it a bad offense that may never be able to play with these players? My best guess is that they don't have the right players. What I'm talking about is the quarterback position."

As for the Redskins' chances next week in Houston, Madden said, "It's going to be tough because they're not very good." Presumably, he meant the Redskins were not very good right now, which is obvious to anyone, rather than that they'd never become good. Then he added that, performing at its current level, the Redskins' offense was "a waste of having playmakers."

Oh, by the way, happy 36th birthday, Mark. But don't count on a prominent place in Madden '08.

Right now, the Redskins are a team without options. They can't improve themselves quickly with personnel or strategy switches, especially at quarterback, where Coach Joe Gibbs has wed himself to Brunell with no plausible alternatives. Behind Brunell, there is nothing, at least for 2006 and, if you are talking about serious Super Bowl contention, probably for 2007, too. Young Jason Campbell is so fresh you don't even have to keep him refrigerated. Such project players usually take years. On the other hand, Todd Collins has been in the deep freeze since '97, the last season he started a game. Defrost him at your peril.

The Redskins have made their bed of golden nails. Now they have to lie on it. They must play out the expensive hand they've dealt themselves and do it with conviction -- not because it's the best way, but because, at this point, it's their only way. So, forgive them their cliches in Dallas. This is one time when it would be mutiny under fire not to follow the party line.

"We have to find a way to fix a bunch of things. Certainly, this is a hard time for us," Gibbs said. "But I think this group is together and we can do it. We've got the right kind of guys. I like the way we hang together as a group. The effort is there. I take great heart in that. We're one game back [in the NFC East]. We need to win one game, then we have a chance to get going."

Gibbs is so calm in a postgame crisis you expect him to take a nap on the lectern. If he were in "Snakes on a Plane," he'd probably ask the flight attendant for a diet cola, watch the movie and figure it would all work out because his guys "have character."

Maybe someday this implacable, almost ridiculous level of rote self-confidence may not work for Gibbs. But look at the record of the last 25 years in the NFL and NASCAR. He doesn't always win. But he never panics and he's always building. "I told Clinton last week, 'We don't play somebody who is sore and can't practice. We want you to play here 10 years,' " Gibbs said of injured running back Clinton Portis. "Clinton means a lot to us. He's a great leader. Hopefully, he'll be back here real quick."

Portis better return soon because Brunell, more than most quarterbacks, needs him desperately. With a big-time running game to set up his play-action passes, Brunell was able to throw for 3,050 yards with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last year. However, when opponents don't fear the Redskins' ground game, the facts are clear: by himself Brunell can barely keep the offense from being routed and overrun. On Sunday night, he was sacked six times, threw an interception, supervised an offense that was penalized constantly and, by the time the game was out of reach, was 7 of 18 for a pathetic 64 yards.

By game's end, he'd padded his stats to 197 yards against a prevent defense. Despite that, in 28 starts as a Redskin, Brunell has been held to less than 100 yards passing six times -- a 21.4 percent rate. When he's shut down, he's stopped utterly. In his Jacksonville prime, from 1996 through '02, Brunell started 104 games and was held under 100 yards only five times.

On such ugly nights, Brunell's flaws become clear. Memories of his weak-armed 2004 season flash to mind. He's lost enough mobility that, with poor protection from his tackles, he quickly gets happy feet, ducking the pass rush a beat too soon. Encouraged by the turnover-phobic Gibbs to be cautious, Brunell is far more interested in avoiding big mistakes than making big plays. So, he lives on safe sideline routes, flanker screens, check downs to his backs and, when the moon is full, a bomb up the sideline. As a result, the remarkable array of explosive, expensive, speedy big-play people that surround him are almost certain to be underused.

However, what will happen if Portis returns to the form that gave him 5,930 yards rushing in his first four seasons? Then, no defense thinks about Brunell first because Portis doesn't just have 100-yard games (32 of them). The Dynamite Eater has 15 games with 130-to-228 yards rushing. He runs wild until you pull the safeties up, put eight men in the box and get him stopped.

Without the full-scale threat of Portis, Brunell often looks washed up. But Gibbs brought the pair to Redskins Park together. Just as John Riggins made Joe Theismann a far better quarterback, the current duo was always intended to complement each other. If Portis and Brunell ever stay healthy together for an extended period, while the whole offense has time to learn Al Saunders's much-mocked 700-page play book, will the Redskins suddenly find ways to "distribute" the ball all over the field to Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd?

That's a lot of "ifs." Portis now has two separate shoulder injuries to endure. He may not be completely healthy all season. If he isn't, Brunell will presumably be pounded plenty. But, on local TV on Sunday night, Portis vowed that "there's no possible way I won't be out there next Sunday. I don't have any concerns [about the team]. Once you plug me back in, I think a lot of things are going to change. There's no panic mode. Mark is going to have to get it done. He's our man."

As for The Man Under Fire, he says what he must. He has no option. "This is a proven offensive system. I know we have good players and we won last year," Brunell said. "We have to fight, stick together and see what comes out of this."

Everyone, like Madden, who shudders when they watch Brunell these days, may be proved right. But they're not right yet.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company