By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007
The last time Mark Brunell spent the bulk of a season as a third-string quarterback, he was a rookie learning from Brett Favre and knowing he had essentially no chance of appearing in a game. Now a 15-year veteran, Brunell has been inactive every week but is only a play away from leading the Washington Redskins again.
Brunell, 37, has not thrown a pass since the preseason and has not received a live repetition with the first-string offense since August. But with starter Jason Campbell out likely at least for a month and replacement Todd Collins facing the NFL's premier pass rush Sunday night at Giants Stadium, Brunell could be called on again during the final three weeks.
Brunell was the first player Coach Joe Gibbs pursued after returning to coaching in 2004, and in every season except for this one, Brunell's role has been in flux. Fans have been divided on Brunell -- with some heralding him for getting the team to the playoffs in 2005 and others maintaining Gibbs stuck with him far too long -- but Gibbs has long supported him. Gibbs and team owner Daniel Snyder wanted him on the roster for an emergency, even at a $1.5 million salary (and $3.5 million cap figure).
"I don't think there's probably another team in the league that could have done that with the owner," Gibbs said. "The owner would have had me by the throat and choked me if I said we were going to keep two veteran guys behind a young guy. The fact that we have Mark there is a big comfort for all of us."
For Brunell, Campbell's dislocated kneecap and sprained knee ligaments do not change much, save for the reality that he will be active Sunday and could play if necessary. He has taken almost no snaps at practice except for scout-team work and will not get any additional snaps this week, he said. Brunell's off-field study habits are unaltered as well, as he continues to participate in quarterback meetings and review film of opponents, just as he did when starting for Washington for the better part of three seasons.
"Every guy would like to move up the depth chart, but never at the expense of a friend getting injured," Brunell said. "You never want that, but that's part of the business, and you always have to be ready. I hate to say it, but that's what it is.
"And I feel bad for Jason, because he was getting better and better and he is the guy here, and he will be for a long, long time. And for the next three weeks we go forward and a lot of guys had to step into new roles, but nothing changes for me. I still put in the same amount of time and watch film and try to get ready without reps as best I can."
Collins has waited 10 years for this start but is playing behind a hobbled offensive line. Campbell, significantly more elusive and athletic than Brunell or Collins (who was sacked 39 times in 13 starts in 1997), was getting pounded in recent weeks. The New York Giants play an aggressive style (they lead the league with 47 sacks, six more than any other club) with two dominant defensive ends -- Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan. Strahan will engage undrafted rookie right tackle Stephon Heyer, a matchup of particular importance to Washington's quarterbacks.
The Redskins' offense has sputtered under Gibbs for the most part, with the second half of the 2005 season being the exception. That year, Brunell and wide receiver Santana Moss, who set a franchise record with 1,483 yards that season, bonded and the team won five straight games to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
"You know how I feel about Mark," Moss said. "I grew up watching Mark and had a blast with Mark my first year here , so I know Mark can play football. We all know Mark can play football, and Mark knows just like we know.
"Mark knows how to win games, regardless. No matter what position you put him in, he's going to try to make something happen. He has that niche about himself to where if it all goes bad he's going to find a way to win the game, and that's the reason Mark's still here, because he can still do that in this league."
However, even in moments of triumph -- beating Tampa Bay in the postseason, setting an NFL record for consecutive completions in a game in 2006 -- Brunell was a lightning rod for criticism. He amassed just 41 yards in the playoff win over the Buccaneers and, when setting the completion mark, attempted almost no passes of any length. His arm strength and willingness to attack defenses over the middle were of concern, and fans largely welcomed the switch to Campbell last year after nine games.
Brunell has been a mentor and sounding board for Campbell since Campbell was selected in the first round in 2005 and has supported him as he has developed.
"One thing I learned about Mark is his character, and the way he carries himself is no different if he's starting or not starting," Campbell said. "And it's crazy. People say, 'Why do you need three quarterbacks on your roster?' This goes to show you why. Stuff like this can happen, and now he's one play away."
Brunell, who is well rested after undergoing offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing (left) shoulder, realized his starting opportunities were scant and wanted to stay in Washington, where he knew the coaches and the system. When Collins beat him out for the backup spot in the preseason, the opportunity to contribute seemed minimal, with Brunell's career likely nearing its end, but now he is one step closer to playing again.
"It is really difficult because every guy wants to play," Brunell said. "Second string, third string, wherever you're at, you want to play, because this is what we do. But it is what it is. If you're the third guy doing scout team, you prepare as if you're the starter. You work out, you're in all the meetings, and you deal with it the best you can."