Joe Theismann and Patrick Ramsey were on the golf course last spring and their conversation quickly turned to what many sports fans across the Washington area were debating: whether the Washington Redskins' acquisition of veteran Mark Brunell would unseat Ramsey as the starting quarterback.
Coach Joe Gibbs, who won his first Super Bowl in 1983 with Theismann as quarterback, was back after an 11-year absence -- and his first major move had been to lure the 33-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback from Jacksonville, then sign him to a seven-year, $43 million contract.
Many were already penciling in Brunell as the starter, given Ramsey's limited experience -- 16 NFL starts compared to Brunell's 117 -- and the discrepancy in their salaries; Ramsey, 25, signed a five-year, $5.7 million contract as a rookie in 2002. Theismann, while blunt about the modest level of competition Ramsey had faced over the previous two years, offered a more optimistic view on the possibility of him keeping his job.
"I believe in the character of Joe Gibbs and I believe in what he stands for as far as competition goes," Theismann said. "It's tried and tested over time and I told Patrick this: For two years they gave you a job, now you have to earn it. Mark has earned his job before, so the competition is only going to make the football team better and make him better. . . .
"Joe Gibbs will play his best player at any position regardless of any outside factors."
The battle between Ramsey and Brunell will be the most closely watched competition at training camp, which begins Saturday at Redskins Park. Who gets more snaps with the first team in practice, how playing time is divided in preseason games, every nuance about the quarterbacks' performance will be analyzed by the media, fans and the rest of the team, until Gibbs announces which quarterback will start on opening day against Tampa Bay on Sept. 12.
Ramsey and Brunell said they split the snaps with the top offensive personnel during the three-day passing camp that concluded Wednesday and realize that eyes will be on them when the team takes the field for two practices on Saturday.
"There's been no competition up to this point really, other than just learning the offense and trying to run it effectively and as efficiently as possible, and I think [now] is when it all starts as far as competition," Ramsey said. "Nothing is going to change between Mark and I, I think we're going to remain the same way we are relationship-wise, but this is when it starts. So we're both going to go out there and compete as hard as we can and see what happens."
Ramsey won the starting job more quickly that most anticipated, making nine appearances and five starts in his rookie season and revealing the potential to be a future star. Last season was taxing, however, as a lack of protection led to a pummeling. Ramsey led the NFL in passing yardage over the first six weeks of the season, but his performance lagged and he played most of the year in pain. He missed the final five games with a foot injury, though Ramsey said his foot is fully recovered.
Brunell is the 11th-rated passer in NFL history and is known for his throwing efficiency, mobility and willingness to absorb punishment. Some scouts wonder if durability could become more of a problem for him at this point in his career, however. Brunell played in only three games last season in Jacksonville because of an elbow injury and the emergence of rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich. By all accounts, the quarterbacks have developed a good rapport. ("We have a lot in common, actually," Ramsey said.) They share a deep religious faith, have played golf together a few times -- Theismann has joined them on some outings -- and are at their core country boys who enjoy the outdoors ("Hunting season is coming up in a few months, so I'm sure we'll jump into that," Brunell said.) They have plenty to talk about outside of football and their ambition to start for the Redskins.
"Really the only time we have to handle those things is walking through these doors [to talk to the media]," Brunell said. "In [the locker room], he knows and I know that you can just control what you do on the field and go out there and give your best and hopefully things work out for you."
Ramsey bristled when Brunell was signed and through his agent asked the team for a trade, believing it would in his best interest to continue developing as a starter. After meeting with Gibbs and being advised that training camp would be an open competition, Ramsey came to embrace the opportunity to play for the coaching legend.
Given that injuries are common in the NFL, it is likely both quarterbacks will see some playing time, and while Brunell's experience would seem to give him an edge, Ramsey is taking Gibbs at his word.
"I only know what Coach Gibbs has told me as far as this situation is concerned," Ramsey said, "and Coach Gibbs has told me this is an open competition; if you win it, you play. So I have no other reason not to believe him, and with his reputation and the kind of guy he is, I believe him. I believe what he says and I just want to go out there and compete and hopefully I'm the best man for the job."