NFL Insider by Mark Maske

Now-Brittle Brunell Holds Key for the Redskins

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006; 10:36 AM

The Washington Redskins were, as usual, busy performing an expensive retooling this offseason. The difference was, this time they were adding to an already successful team, not trying desperately to craft a sudden, star-studded turnaround.

Joe Gibbs always was good at spending late owner Jack Kent Cooke's money during his first coaching go-around with the Redskins, and now he has become equally adept at redistributing current owner Daniel Snyder's wealth. The Redskins got going well before the market for players opened, signing defensive boss Gregg Williams to a contract extension to prevent him from interviewing for head-coaching vacancies around the league, then hiring Al Saunders to be Gibbs's top coaching lieutenant on offense.

The result is the league's most expensive -- and perhaps best -- coaching staff. Gibbs and Saunders have similar coaching philosophies and common coaching associates, but their pairing nevertheless will be worth watching closely because Gibbs is turning over the keys to his offense. It might not be easy for him, but he said he's doing it because he thought it was a necessary personal sacrifice.

The Redskins fretted about the labor negotiations between the league's franchise owners and the NFL players because they needed a settlement to have the salary cap space to add to a team that went 10-6 last season and reached an NFC semifinal before losing at Seattle. They got it. The settlement meant that Snyder will have to sign some big checks for the revenue-sharing plan among the owners that accompanied the labor deal. But it also meant that he could sign some big checks to sign players this offseason. And he certainly never has hesitated to spend money in pursuit of winning, even if some of his early efforts in that regard were misguided.

The club made its typical big splash early in free agency and signed wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, safety Adam Archuleta and defensive end Andre Carter. The Redskins had to outbid and outmaneuver the Chicago Bears to get Randle El and Archuleta, and they temporarily thought they were going to lose Carter when he made a visit to his hometown Denver Broncos before calling back the Redskins to tell them he was signing with them. In each case, the Redskins might have overspent slightly. But they did it knowingly and willingly, believing that a team must pay a premium price to strike quickly in free agency and get the players that it wants the most.

The Redskins traded two draft picks to the San Francisco 49ers to get wideout Brandon Lloyd, and the arrivals of Randle El and Lloyd change the dynamics of the offense considerably. The team already had a workhorse tailback in Clinton Portis, a big-play receiver in Santana Moss, a reliable tight end in Chris Cooley and a good offensive line. Now, in Randle El and Lloyd, it has two capable complementary receivers to keep defenses from ganging up on Moss.

All that's left to have a formidable offense is getting solid play at quarterback Gibbs didn't get that from Mark Brunell in the first season of his return to coaching, and the Redskins went 6-10. They did get it last season after Gibbs benched Patrick Ramsey and went back to Brunell in the opening game, and that spurred the turnaround. The Redskins traded Ramsey to the New York Jets this offseason, and signed Todd Collins as a free agent because he'd played for Saunders in Kansas City.

The key to the Redskins' season will be whether they can scotch-tape together the now-brittle Brunell and have him healthy enough to be playing well in the games that matter. Last season demonstrated that Brunell probably has reached the point in his career where he can't make it through an entire season unscathed. He turns 36 in September, and the abuse his body absorbed when he was a Steve Young play-a-like earlier in his career took its toll. He was hurting at the end of last season, and his play in the regular season finale and the playoff opener was dreadful. But Gibbs might not have an alternative at the position. Collins is a quarterback who might be able to get the Redskins through a game or two, but he probably wouldn't be the answer for longer than that. Jason Campbell, a first-round draft pick last year, enters his second pro season with a chance to earn the job of being Brunell's top backup. But he's probably not ready to get significant playing time for a team with aspirations of going deep into the playoffs.

Some might consider it an ominous sign that Brunell is missing time this offseason because of a fracture in the index finger of his throwing hand. But, in truth, it's possible that the best thing that could happen to the Redskins would be to have Brunell suffer such a relatively minor injury in the middle of the season -- one that would keep him out for only a few weeks, and allow his body to be rested for the rigors of the remainder of the season. It's not something that can be planned, but it's a scenario that could work in the Redskins' favor if it happens to unfold. Gibbs plans to do his best to keep Brunell fresh by cutting back on the quarterback's practice-field workload, beginning in training camp.

Carter was a disappointment in San Francisco. But he had to play linebacker for the 49ers, and he gets to move back to the position he prefers -- defensive end -- with the Redskins. Williams's defenses with the Redskins have been able to generate pressure on quarterbacks even without great individual pass rushers, but Carter could make things easier for the team's defensive coaches if he can give them one player they can rely on to get 10 sacks a year.

Archuleta replaces Ryan Clark, who exited as a free agent, at the safety spot alongside Sean Taylor, whose long-delayed trial on gun-related charges in Florida finally produced a plea deal in which Taylor avoided jail time. If Taylor ever is able to act like an adult and a professional, he could be one of the league's biggest defensive stars.

The Redskins, as always, were mostly observers on draft weekend. But they had one remaining need that they didn't address in free agency -- getting a linebacker to replace LaVar Arrington, who had bought his way out of his contract to become a free agent -- and they traded up in the second round to fill it. They got Miami's Rocky McIntosh, and hope he can play a significant role as a rookie.

The Redskins do their roster-building in a distinctly non-traditional way, virtually forgetting about the draft and using Snyder's money -- and willingness to spend it -- to constantly reload and never rebuild. They have been wiser spenders since Gibbs's return. Gibbs demonstrated last season that the game hasn't passed him by, and that a potential fourth Super Bowl title for him (with a fourth different quarterback) is within reach. The NFC East has three legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants and the Redskins. Whichever team stays the healthiest and catches a few breaks will emerge, and it's virtually impossible to designate a clear-cut favorite at this point.

Around the League

Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman John Welbourn announced his retirement and indicated he plans to attend law school. Welbourn, 30, played seven seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chiefs. He was traded to the Chiefs in 2004 and was suspended for the first four games of last season for a violation of the league's steroids policy.

Welbourn told the Associated Press that he "decided to retire on my own terms rather than somebody else's . . . . I've been playing football for 16 years and it's a little scary to think I won't be playing any more. But at the same time, it's exciting to think I'll be starting a whole new chapter in my life."

Welbourn's retirement gives the just-signed Kyle Turley a chance to become the Chiefs' starter at right tackle . . . .

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue had a midweek meeting with business leaders in Los Angeles. Tagliabue continues to push the owners to put a franchise or two in the Los Angeles market within the next few years. The NFL has been without a team in Los Angeles since the Rams and Raiders left following the 1994 season . . . .

Defensive end Robert Mathis agreed to a five-year contract extension with the Indianapolis Colts, agent Hadley Engelhard told the Indianapolis Star. Mathis led the Colts with 11 1/2 sacks last season and would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring.

Note: The NFL Insider column will be on hiatus until teams begin opening training camps next month. Please rejoin us then.

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