By Sally Jenkins
Monday, September 25, 2006
HOUSTON -- We can hop off Mark Brunell's back, for the time being. No doubt we'll climb back on it soon enough, but in the meantime, give him his due. There are a lot of things you could wish for in a Redskins quarterback -- a bigger arm, livelier legs, a younger man. But you can't ask for more sheer cussedness than Brunell showed with his NFL-record outing against the Houston Texans.
There was a "shut-up, shut-up, shut-up," quality to Brunell's single-game mark of 22 straight completions, something emphatic in the performance that was clearly a retort to his critics, and which suggested why Coach Joe Gibbs has been such a staunch advocate for him. "You could tell he set his jaw," Gibbs said.
Sure, the Texans are a perfectly lousy team, but this is still the NFL, and a string of 22 completions is special under any circumstances, much less the ones Brunell faced entering this game. For weeks, he has been feeling the heat. He is 36, and trying to master Al Saunders's unwieldy 700-page playbook. The Redskins were winless in their last six games counting preseason, he had yet to throw for a touchdown, and NBC's John Madden practically called for him to be benched on national television last Sunday. Amid all the hectoring, yammering and hammering of his critics, Brunell held his temper, and his tongue, and kept working at the problem.
"Absolutely, it was a tough week," Brunell said. "But you do your best to block it out, you go forward and keep playing hard."
The Redskins can be a maddeningly uneven team, but if they have one consistent quality, it's toughness. There's something balky and intransigent about them, they seem to thrive on contrariness, and you begin to wonder if that quality doesn't come from their quarterback. After hearing so much doubt about his abilities, Brunell completed 24 of 27 passes for 261 yards, and put 31 points on the board. He didn't throw an incompletion until 23 seconds remained in the third quarter. And he finished the game with a cut elbow that required heavy bandaging afterward.
"I felt like you can't do much better than what he did," Gibbs said. "Everything was pinpoint."
No wonder the Redskins have stood by him when others suggested he was their biggest liability. "The guy knows how to win games," Santana Moss said. "You have to stick in there with him."
"Everybody else was bashing," Clinton Portis said. "They were saying he can't carry this team, he can't do this, or he can't do that."
Brunell made clear that he's still a viable NFL quarterback. That doesn't mean he's solved all of his problems, or that the Redskins have solved theirs. How much time did Brunell buy himself with his critics? A week? At most. The fact is, this was merely what Brunell had to do to restore confidence in his stewardship. If Brunell didn't light up the Texans, who have the worst defense in the NFL, he wasn't going to light up anybody. This is a defense that had given up 956 yards in two games -- more than a yard for every page of Saunders's playbook. Coming into the game, opponents had converted on 17 of 25 third downs against the Texans. Anything less than big numbers from Brunell would have meant a full-blown crisis.
Watching Brunell run the Redskins' offense the last few weeks has been like watching a car in neutral. Brunell hasn't been horrible, but he hasn't made anything happen, either. In his last six starts entering the Houston game (including the playoffs), he had completed 80 of 149 passes for 896 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. Basically, jump ball.
The largesse of his statistics was somewhat deceptive. The Texans didn't have a pass rush to speak of, and the game plan was not a difficult one to execute. It called for short, easy passes, little chip shots to the skill players, who then racked up the yardage with foot-speed. A number of his passes were actually at or behind the line of scrimmage, including his longest of the day, a 74-yarder that was an underhanded shovel pass that Portis turned into an escapade.
But the most encouraging thing about Brunell's performance for the Redskins is that it will help keep opponents honest. Brunell hit eight receivers, and rarely the same one twice in a row, and mixed in some crisp downfield throws along with the dinks, including a beauty to David Patten that served as a reminder that Patten has three Super Bowl rings. "Now you got to cover everybody because you know we'll go to everybody," Portis said.
Above all, the game plan called for precise execution from Brunell and that's what he delivered. It was a major improvement over what had come before. As Portis pointed out, "For Mark to step up with all the heat and the pressure, I don't care who you're playing."
A league record is a pretty good comeback.