By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006
HOUSTON, Sept. 24 -- On the day of his redemption, Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell bled. He stood on the sideline of Houston's Reliant Stadium, with blood pouring from a cut on his left elbow so severe that he emerged from the visitors' locker room with his arm heavily bandaged almost an hour after the team's 31-15 victory over the Texans.
It might have impressed his teammates more than the NFL record he set by completing 22 straight passes over the game's first three quarters. "Did you see him out there bleeding?" asked Randy Thomas, one of the offensive linemen charged with protecting him during games. "That's tough."
Of course, Brunell's success came against a team that has the worst-rated defense in the National Football League, one that has allowed 1,451 yards in just three games this season. Next week's opponent, Jacksonville, has allowed half that amount.
It was a fact the Redskins cheerily ignored on a day their quarterback was the story and the team got its first win of the season.
It had been a hard week for Brunell, who absorbed most of the criticism for Washington's offensive shortcomings in an 0-2 start. As the quarterback of a recalibrated offense, he was ripped on talk radio shows and in Internet chat rooms as washed up at age 36, too old and broken down to escape pass rushers and too weak of arm to properly run an offense that requires many quick and accurate passes.
But on Sunday he was uncannily sharp. His first throw, a tricky, high-risk flip to running back Clinton Portis, was perfectly placed in the middle of a throng of Houston players. Portis was able to turn the completion into a 74-yard gain that set up Washington's first score.
After that Brunell couldn't miss. And as the game went on and the completions started piling up, word began to trickle among the Redskins of the success Brunell was having.
Left tackle Chris Samuels said a man went up and down through the players shouting, "That's 11 of 11" and, "Now he's got 15 of 15."
Still, none of the players seemed aware of the history Brunell was making. When Thomas stopped to rest at one point, he glanced up at one of the giant scoreboards that hangs eight stories above the field and noticed it said Brunell was "21 of 21, 100 percent" and he said he wondered aloud, "Is that a darn record?"
At that point, Brunell had only tied the record for most consecutive completions in one game, previously set by Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, who completed 21 straight passes against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 11, 2002. Brunell's next throw, a lob into the corner of the north end zone to wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, was too far and led Lloyd out of bounds. But the officials called a penalty against Houston's Thomas Johnson for knocking Brunell to the ground after the quarterback had let go of the ball, negating the play.
Given another chance at the record, Brunell made history with a six-yard pass to receiver Santana Moss with 1 minute 49 seconds left in the third quarter.
"Absolutely it was a tough week, last week for us," Brunell said when asked about the criticism he faced coupled with the 0-2 start. "We have a lot of guys with a lot of character."
Over the previous seven days the heat facing Brunell had been stifling. Perhaps the harshest indictment came from NBC announcer John Madden, who said on a national telecast of the team's loss to Dallas last weekend: "My best guess is that the [Redskins] don't have the right players. What I am talking about is the quarterback position."
If the words stung, Brunell did not show it to his teammates. He came into the team's meetings and practices with the same silly demeanor he possessed in the weeks before. He told jokes. He laughed about his 36th birthday, which came on the day of the Cowboys loss. And the players took solace from this.
As long as their quarterback was not rattled, they wouldn't be either.
"The guy's a veteran, he's been to three Pro Bowls, not many guys have been to three Pro Bowls," Lloyd said. "We respect him to death. He's our leader and we will do anything for him."
Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said Brunell was bothered by the Dallas game, in which he didn't have 100 yards passing until late in the game. (On Sunday, Brunell finished 24 of 27 for 261 yards.) The quarterback sat down with his coach and said he felt that much of the offense's failing was his fault.
Together with the team's new associate head coach for offense, Al Saunders, Brunell and Gibbs came up with a plan to attack the Texans. It relied on lots of short passes and quick decisions that would allow the team's pass catchers to take advantage of Houston's overly aggressive defense. The plan worked perfectly.
"He's a very driven and very competitive man," Saunders said of Brunell. "I saw Mark approach his week with a focused and determined attitude."
As usual, Brunell had little to say after the game. He emerged from the locker room smiling and asked a team assistant what kind of food was on the team flight. Pizza, he was told. He laughed. Then he stepped onto a podium, looked at the reporters gathered in front and softly said, "Shoot."
And when the questions started he kept grinning but at the same time deflecting attention from himself. He said he wasn't aware of the record when tackle Jon Jansen told him he had completed either 21 or 22 in a row, he couldn't remember. Otherwise, everything was about the team. The heartache of the week? Everyone felt it. The success of the offense? Everyone did well.
"It was a tough week so you do your best to block it out," he said, the only time he directly addressed the criticism. "You go forward and keep playing hard."
Then he was gone, off to the plane, his -- and the Redskins' -- season salvaged, for at least another Sunday.