Every day, thousands of fans show up at Redskins Park to watch training camp. And they worry. The fretting starts as soon as the offense lines up against the defense. Any fumbled snap or overthrown pass -- and there have been plenty in three ragged practices over two days -- is met with groans from the hillside full of fanatics.
The fears of the faithful are almost palpable. How can Joe Gibbs's return to the NFL be glorious if his quarterback candidates seem so painfully mortal? As soon as the obligatory hallelujahs for the team's legendary coach subsides, discussion turns to Topic Number One: Who should be the starting quarterback.
After nine superb years in Jacksonville, is 33-year-old Mark Brunell too old and injured? Is Patrick Ramsey, after two seasons in Steve Spurrier's sandlot offense, too shell-shocked to become excellent?
So far, the pair have taken turns seeing who can look more rusty. "Rough, very rough," Gibbs says of the team's play after each practice. On Sunday, Gibbs was reduced to praising third-stringer Tim Hasselbeck, saying, "He does something good every day."
Washington should relax. It probably doesn't matter whether Brunnell, with his fat contract, or Ramsey with his plump one, or even Hasselbeck, with his NFL minimum wage, ends up in the precious job. If the coach's previous 12-year tenure proved one thing, it's that Gibbs could field a winning team with Danny DeVito at quarterback.
"In Joe's offense," said Brunell, grinning, "Danny might be able to move the ball."
The Redskins have plenty of problems, coming off a 5-11 season. But history says that quarterback play is unlikely to be one of them. Either Brunell or Ramsey will do. Maybe even Hasselbeck.
Of all the NFL's elite coaches, only Gibbs has demonstrated that a great quarterback isn't necessary to victory. How do we know? Because he's never had a truly great quarterback, yet he's in the Hall of Fame.
In their Redskins days, Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien, Doug Williams and Jay Schroeder ranged from very good to average. Yet the first three started for Super Bowl winners and Schroeder led the team to the NFC title game.
When Gibbs emphasizes the importance of defense, special teams, the running game and pass protection, he means it. Perhaps because he's never had a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback he has learned how to work around that. Or perhaps he prefers a team that isn't dominated by one star signal caller.
Gibbs acknowledges that both Brunell and Ramsey resemble his previous Super Bowl quarterbacks. Brunell is similar to a left-handed Theismann. He's mobile, can roll in the pocket or scramble and reads defenses well. Brunell also has the big-play cockiness needed from a team leader, a quality the bumptious Theismann never lacked.
As for the strapping 6-foot-3, 223-pound Ramsey, he has the same rocket arm, deep passing gifts, football intelligence and toughness when taking a hit as Rypien and Williams. Like them, touch passes aren't his strength and he has limited running skills, although Gibbs said on Sunday, "Patrick moves better in the pocket than Rypien, Williams or Schroeder."
While Brunell has 101 more NFL starts than Ramsey's 16, the 25-year-old clearly has more physical ability at this point. When the two run side-by-side passing drills -- Ramsey throwing to the right and Brunell the same pattern to the left -- the contrast is stark.
Ramsey drops back so much more quickly, releases the ball so much faster and has so much zip that his passes are often approaching his receiver while Brunell's are barely out of his hand. The contrast between enormous experience and past clutch performance vs. untapped potential couldn't be clearer.
While many fans know Gibbs won Super Bowls with three quarterbacks, few realize that, compared to some quarterbacks who won for him, the tandem of Brunell and Ramsey looks more like an embarrassment of riches than a stop-gap measure.
From a distance, it may seem the Redskins have one quarterback who's headed over the hill while the other has barely begun climbing it. However, it's more likely that, in Brunell, Gibbs has the most efficient quarterback he's ever coached. And in Ramsey, he may have the most talented young quarterback he's ever had a chance to develop in Washington.
In the past, Gibbs really did win with makeshift quarterback arrangements. During his 12 Redskins years, his teams had a quarterback rating of 81.3 -- a solid, but unspectacular level. Last year, 13 passers topped that level. Steve McNair graded out over 100.
In contrast, Brunell's career quarterback rating is 85.2 -- 12th best in NFL history. His worst season, an 82, was better than the norm for Gibbs's quarterbacks. Rypien's average rating under Gibbs was 83.3; Theismann's average mark of 82.3 wasn't far behind. Ramsey's career rating of 74.2 is comparable to those of Williams (78.5) and Schroeder (73.2) under Gibbs.
Just as statistically interesting is the crucial ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions. Brunell has a stellar 1.67 touchdowns for every interception (144 to 86). Ramsey's career ratio is 1.35 -- quite respectable for someone playing in an offensive system that many in the NFL considered an amateurish joke. Gibbs's quarterbacks combined for a 1.30 ratio, not even as good as Ramsey.
"That's good," said Gibbs yesterday, inspecting Brunell's impressive numbers in particular. "I can't drag him down."
The good old days always glow. But close inspection of Gibbs's old powerhouses is almost shocking. Five of his teams threw as many or more interceptions than they had touchdown passes, normally a recipe for mediocrity. Yet some of those teams had records of 10-6, 12-4, 10-6 and 9-7. When the quarterback play was actually excellent, ring up a Super Bowl.
Brunell and Ramsey know that whoever earns the starting job may be in the catbird seat. "I'm a real big fan of protecting the passer," said a grinning Brunell, knowing that is a Gibbs trademark. "This offensive system is not an experiment. It's proven. Will it work as well? We'll find out. Defenses are more complex now. But our own defense is as complex and aggressive as any defense we will see."
Of comparisons to past Redskins quarterbacks, Brunell says, "Quarterbacks are measured on Super Bowl wins, and I have zero to my count."
Ramsey appears to have prepared himself to the likelihood of learning from Brunell for a season or two.
"If it's this year, next year, the following year, I think I can handle any situation mentally," he said. "If I'm not the starter, I'm going to sit back and learn."
What both Ramsey and Brunell may learn is that Gibbs has maximized the talent of every quarterback he has ever touched.