Thriving Under the Microscope

Mark Brunell, bracketed against Jacksonville by offensive linemen Jon Jansen, left, and Randy Thomas,
Mark Brunell, bracketed against Jacksonville by offensive linemen Jon Jansen, left, and Randy Thomas, "doesn't seem to let criticism or anything else bother him," Coach Joe Gibbs said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

A week ago, amid a groundswell of support for Jason Campbell, quarterback Mark Brunell reeled off an NFL-record 22 straight completions to help secure the Washington Redskins' first victory of the season. On Sunday, nursing a sore elbow and facing one of the league's elite defenses, Brunell was even better.

He may have thrown a sloppy interception on his first attempt against Jacksonville, his former team and offseason home, but he did an about-face and led Washington to a 36-30 overtime win with a game-winning, 68-yard strike to Santana Moss. It was a familiar script for Brunell in this city, and the latest fairy-tale comeback from a player many believed was fit for retirement when Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs acquired him in 2004.

A year ago, Brunell was seemingly playing for his career after losing his starting job midway through 2004. He performed at a Pro Bowl level much of 2005, but was injured and ineffective in the playoffs and, like the entire offense, had a feeble start this season. Now, yet again, scrutiny becomes him, with Brunell's Week 3 performance in Houston perhaps his latest rebirth. He has a 122.7 passer rating in Washington's consecutive wins, with the offense compiling 976 total yards in two weeks.

"When you get later in your career, everyone doubts you, whether you're too old, whether you can't do it no more," Moss said. "All I have seen since Day One is a guy who goes out, goes to work, don't say much, don't complain much, and he's the guy. And until he's not the guy, then you can say what you want about him. But he's our guy, and I'm always sticking to his side, because I know that without him we wouldn't be the Redskins offense that we are."

For all of the accuracy and efficiency Brunell displayed against Houston, the performance came against a porous defense. Associate head coach Al Saunders called a preponderance of screen passes and quick slants near the line of scrimmage that did not tax Brunell's arm. The Redskins pointed to the game against Jacksonville as a true test for Brunell, and the matchup against his former team was particularly emotional for the Redskins quarterback.

He responded with possibly his best outing as a Redskin. It was the first time Brunell threw for 300 yards or more in a Washington win -- there was no padding of stats with the game out of reach -- and every pass was crucial to the outcome. Brunell completed passes of 19 yards or more to five teammates after Washington struggled to mount any such gains in the opening weeks, and his 117.2 passer rating was his best in any game in which he had attempted at least 30 passes since early in the 1998 season. Over Brunell's final 29 attempts after the interception, he posted a 135.6 rating and tossed three touchdowns to Moss.

"After the pick, he was on the sidelines saying, 'Let's go, we've got to score, we've got to put up points,' " tailback Clinton Portis said. "And we went out and did that."

After two weeks, Brunell ranked dead last among starting quarterbacks in some areas; now he is 10th among current starters in passer rating and eighth in third-down passer rating. Sunday was a synthesis of his Redskins career, with all that Gibbs prizes most in him -- experience, leadership, moxie -- rising to the fore. He threw the initial interception, completed just 8 of 16 passes in the first half, then went 10 for 14 for 202 yards in the second half and overtime.

"That's a credit to him and the kind of person he is," Gibbs said. "I think he continues to fight all the time. He doesn't seem to let criticism or anything else bother him, which is part of being a good quarterback. If you can't deal with that, chances are you're going to have a tough time dealing with everything else that comes from playing quarterback."

Brunell had thrown six straight incompletions on third-down passes by the midpoint of the third quarter, then located tight end Chris Cooley for a first down on third and nine, hit wide receiver Brandon Lloyd down the sideline for 33 yards on third and six, and the Redskins completed that drive by going ahead, 20-17.

On the ensuing possession, Brunell completed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Moss on third down for a 27-17 lead in the fourth quarter.

"I've done that so many times in my career, start with an interception," Brunell said. "I've been doing this a long time, and sometimes in the first series you throw one and have a turnover, but you can't let it bother you. You go out and keep fighting and don't lose confidence and just keep things going, and we were fortunate to have a good night."

Brunell was playing with several stitches in the elbow on his throwing arm after suffering a deep laceration against Houston, and only returned to practice Friday. He wore a bulky pad but eventually got used to it -- Brunell expects to wear it again Sunday against the New York Giants -- and it certainly did not hinder his delivery on the final throw of the game, when anything other than a big-league fastball would have likely resulted in an interception or Moss absorbing a crushing hit from two converging defensive backs.

"Mark put it on a rope," Moss said. "I made a comment that his arm looked like it was really rested come Friday of last week, and I'm glad it was, because he put it in there and all I could do was just make a play out of it."

The ending left Brunell unable to reconnect with his many friends on Jacksonville's sideline, but before the game he shook hands with the team's owner and exchanged pleasantries with trainers and the equipment staff. A few moments after that final throw, Brunell was one of a group of players leaping into the crowd behind the end zone. He was stuck in a precarious headlock at one point, but wiggled free.

"It was pretty ugly in there," Brunell said. "I'm going to find that fan, too. He wouldn't let me go. I couldn't even breathe because I ran down the whole field, but it was pretty fun."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company