Backup Spot Still Unsettled

(Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

Jason Campbell is the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback -- that much is certain -- but the pecking order behind him is more nebulous. Mark Brunell entered training camp working with the second string, and was the second quarterback to enter Saturday's preseason opener, but neither he nor veteran backup Todd Collins has received any explicit delineation of their status, they said.

That's probably because Coach Joe Gibbs says he is not entirely sure which player will be the backup. While it's widely assumed that the No. 2 job is Brunell's, Gibbs said he has made no decision on the matter and that the passers will in essence be competing for the position.

The opportunities to shine are limited, as Campbell takes the majority of snaps in practices and Collins, for instance, played only the final few minutes of Saturday's win at Tennessee, but Gibbs maintains that the performances of the quarterbacks will ultimately settle the issue.

"Behind Jason, we're just trying to do the best job we can of playing everybody and having a good feeling for what's going to make us the strongest," Gibbs said. "The tough thing at quarterback is they don't get to play that much, so you try to get them as much time as you can at practice watching them. It's just a process there. I guess the best way to say it is we're just going to let it play out."

Brunell, 36, has won Gibbs's confidence over the years, while Collins, 35, has never thrown a pass for him in a regular season game. Al Saunders, Washington's associate head coach-offense, has abundant faith in Collins from their time together in Kansas City. Collins has not started a game since 1997, but his seven years of executing Saunders's offensive system in practice left an impression.

Collins was by far the better of the two in the first preseason game, and the final three games could decide their fate, though neither seems in any jeopardy of being cut with fourth-string quarterback Jordan Palmer an extremely raw seventh-round pick likely destined for the practice squad.

Brunell, a fifth-round pick by Green Bay in 1993, restructured his contract after losing his starting job again last season, providing significant salary cap relief to the team, and also underwent offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder. The new deal gave the Redskins security in case he did not recover fully -- Brunell's base salary is now a more modest $1.5 million and he received his second of two $250,000 roster bonuses yesterday -- and all sides are in agreement that his shoulder is healthy and his arm strength is fine.

After experiencing a rebirth of sorts in 2005 and leading Washington to the playoffs with a conservative yet effective approach to the passing game, Brunell slumped last year. The left-hander started the first nine games, setting an NFL record with 22 straight completions against Houston, but the deep passes were scarce. He reached 200 yards passing just three times and produced just eight touchdowns. Campbell made his first start Nov. 19, and by then Brunell said his left arm was aching.

Brunell injured his throwing shoulder Nov. 5 against Dallas, getting hit as he was throwing, and the condition worsened from there, even though he remained the No. 2 quarterback. His labrum was repaired Jan. 8, and the surgery required a long rehabilitation, with Brunell remaining at Redskins Park much of the offseason rather than returning home to Jacksonville. He said he never considered retiring, however, and did not fret much over the injury.

"I never really thought it would be an issue," Brunell said. "For half a year last year it hurt to throw, and I certainly don't have that now. I worked really hard and my arm feels as strong as it ever has."

Brunell realized he had no possibility of starting for another team, and was amenable to reworking his contract to stay in Washington, knowing the Redskins would no longer be willing to pay him a starting-quarterback salary. "I really didn't have a big decision to make. I wanted to be here," Brunell said.

He said he is comfortable in a backup role after 14 seasons and is relishing the chance to continue playing the game he loves.

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