Safeguarding the Future by Holding On to the Past

By Mike Wise
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Joe Gibbs could make it easier on himself if he traded Mark Brunell. Cries of his undying loyalty to a relic pushing 37 would cease, along with the decision whether to name Brunell the No. 2 or No. 3 quarterback. The Redskins could finagle a late-round draft pick out of a needy team like Seattle or Atlanta.

With one transaction, the player who became a unifying symbol of discontent for fans would go away -- presumably with all those catcalls about the No. 8 car warming up in the pit in case Jason Campbell stalls. Moving Brunell is such an easy call.

It also would be the wrong move, a rash decision to please nobody but a fussy and tired congregation. Indeed, a team official said last night on condition of anonymity that the Redskins were keeping Brunell. If that's the case, they're smart.

Five weeks ago, it was fair to question Brunell's name on the roster. Coming off a season in which his body betrayed him and he was eventually benched, he was making $1.5 million. He had garnered a reputation as the old coot that Gibbs couldn't wait to bring off the bench to prove everybody wrong again. The more Brunell was brought up to Gibbs, the more he simmered internally. There wasn't a stadium large enough to hold the stubborn pride between them.

But that was before Campbell took a vicious hit in the preseason game against Pittsburgh two weeks ago and crumpled to the field holding his knee. That was before Chris Samuels missed all of the preseason and Todd Wade didn't quite make the tackle-to-guard transition. That was before one of the team's lone strengths in 2006 -- its offensive line -- became the biggest question mark before the 2007 season even began.

Anyone who saw Carson Palmer's little brother throw an interception and look very shaky on Thursday night realizes the landscape has changed. Brunell may not be the guy to save the season anymore, but he certainly isn't the player who's going to ruin it either. Let's be clear: The Redskins are one injury away from not having a backup quarterback.

Todd Collins gets my vote to replace Campbell if the kid ever goes down. After that, there is no one. Move Brunell now and Gibbs is looking at real desperation in the event of an injury. Vinny Testaverde gets a call in Week 6. The scramble to sign a veteran and have him learn the system at that juncture would be a clear indication the towel has been thrown in.

Gibbs is famous for stockpiling veterans so that he has depth at every position. If he is indeed Mr. Overly Cautious, this is a good time to be conservative and go against public opinion. If he really believes he can field a playoff team in a watered-down NFC, suck up the money and keep Brunell. He's probably worth a conditional sixth-round pick or a seventh-round pick. That's not much compensation. That's change for change's sake.

There will be a bunch of people who condemn such thinking, who believe Gibbs needed to cut this cord a long time ago. Some have made the Gibbs-Brunell connection out to be a much deeper issue than just a senior citizen coach identifying with a battle-scarred veteran.

Two years ago, this was posted on a fan Web site: "If Joe Gibbs starts Mark Brunell next Sunday, it will confirm what I have thought since the day we signed the inept quarterback. . . . One fervent Christian favoring another fervent Christian. Time to break the loyalty, Joe. This isn't church, it's football, and Mark Brunell is the biggest mistake you ever made."

And who can forget the beginning of their relationship at an airport in 2004? Gibbs told Brunell he was a diabetic and he was having a reaction. He had an insulin imbalance and had taken the wrong dosage. He needed to be driven to a hospital. Brunell drove to an emergency room, where his future coach was given the correct dosage and was observed for a couple of hours. They talked football and life in that emergency room.

Who wouldn't give anyone the benefit of the doubt if that was their shared life experience? An authentic bond was forged.

But whatever favoritism he did show toward Brunell has been replaced by a sobering thought: Gibbs's legacy -- winning again -- takes precedence over a relationship with a player. It's why Collins has taken most of the snaps in the preseason and Brunell's name is being bandied about in the rumor mill. I believe Gibbs's undying faith in Brunell is less about religion and commonality and more about how Gibbs says the word "guts."

Brunell to Gibbs is John Starks to Pat Riley. In fact, they were probably both 2 for 18 at some point. Starks represented grit and gumption and belief to Riley, who infamously refused to bench the mercurial Knicks guard in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals despite Starks's continued misses from the perimeter. Riley admitted to me years later that he probably should have gone to his bench and used Rolando Blackman. But something about Starks's heart made him stick with the misfiring gunner in the Knicks' best shot to win a title in 20-odd years. "I just thought he was going to finally make one," he said.

Brunell never got that far, but he did somehow find a way to take Gibbs back to the postseason in 2005, irrespective of those who believe Brunell actually hampered more than helped the offense.

None of Gibbs's players elicit more of a negative reaction from fans than Brunell. And yet here he is, grinning through his craggy features, less than a month away from 37 years old, his cleats clackety-clacking against the Ashburn pavement at the team's training facilities.

"Don't move Mark Brunell" are four words I never saw myself typing. Maybe I'm brainwashed by that game in Dallas two years ago, when Santana Moss ran under two beautiful spirals to shellshock the Cowboys in a matter of minutes.

All I know is, Jordan Palmer is practice squad material right now. Todd Collins knows the system. But if you're Joe Gibbs, do you want to go into the season with your only other legitimate backup not having started an NFL regular season game since the Clinton administration?

Mark Brunell is not going to sabotage the season or retard Campbell's development. He is needed insurance.

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