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.
Saturday's outing was rough, with Brunell going 4 for 9 for 46 yards in nearly a half of work. He was erratic and the offensive line was awful, allowing three sacks, but Brunell believes better things are ahead. "I didn't really get to move the ball, and I didn't complete a lot of passes, but I felt great and had fun," Brunell said. "Next time, obviously, I'd like to score some points and have some production, but it's still fun. It's still fun."
Collins, conversely, was the model of efficiency in his brief outing, going 5 for 5 for 56 yards and engineering Washington's only offensive scoring drive. Should he continue to shine and Brunell sputter, there will be calls for Collins, who has thrown one touchdown pass since 1997, to assume the second spot. But he said he has yet to receive any notice from the staff.
"It really hasn't been defined to me," Collins said. "No one has really said anything. I've just got to go out and try to make the most of my opportunities and let the coaches decide what's going to happen. It doesn't bother me. I just try to be prepared. The coaches want to see a guy who can go in there and play like the starter. Everyone is competing. You don't know what slot you're going to fall into, so you do your best and let the coaches decide after that."
Redskins Notes: Journeyman Mike Pucillo will start at left guard Saturday against Pittsburgh in place of injured Todd Wade (bruised shoulder), assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel said. Wade, who has struggled transitioning to guard, missed practice again last night and might not suit up this weekend. Bugel, who said he is eager to establish his line -- the club is trying to replace departed starting guard Derrick Dockery -- praised Pucillo's work ethic and wants to see how he handles the challenge Saturday.
"We've got to get that [starting lineup] squared away and get some chemistry," Bugel said.
Starting left tackle Chris Samuels (knee) is out a few more weeks but began light jogging last night for the first time since getting hurt, and rookie Stephon Heyer (hamstring) was rested for the final portion of practice as a precaution. . . .
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El (quadriceps) missed practice again but hopes to practice fully today, and the team estimates he is probable for Saturday. Wide receiver Corey Bradford (quadriceps) was also out again, so newcomer Todd Pinkston practiced with the second team. . . . Tailback Clinton Portis (knee) continues to work out lightly on his own. . . . Defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery (knee) hopes to practice today as well, and is considered questionable for the game. . . . Return specialist Rock Cartwright suffered a mild hamstring strain in practice but is not expected to miss much time. . . . End Jamaal Green (neck) missed practice. . . . Rookie tight end Tyler Ecker (groin) has not practiced in nearly three weeks.
Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.