Third in a seven-part series
Ginny Ramsey pulled up to Redskins Park 10 days ago to pick up her husband, Patrick, from work, as she often does when they have evening plans. The quarterback had just emerged from a meeting with Coach Joe Gibbs, during which he was informed that his starting job now belonged to veteran Mark Brunell, and he broke the news to his wife as they sat in their car outside the training complex.
Despite the demotion, this was not a somber occasion. Ramsey, 25, still wanted to join their friends for dinner and was enthused about the opportunity to learn from the coaches and Brunell, the 12th-rated passer in NFL history. Ramsey, after ascending to starter as a rookie in 2002, will be on the sideline watching when the Redskins open the season against Tampa Bay on Sunday at FedEx Field. After an open competition, he was ready to make the best of his new role.
"He was disappointed and I was disappointed," Ginny Ramsey said. "But we knew that whatever happened, it was going to work out and he knows Mark is a great, great quarterback and Patrick is excited that he's here now. He's excited to be able to learn and he's not letting this get him down and he knows it will help him grow as a football player."
Ramsey's rough day was a brief topic of dinner conversation, but he did not dwell on it. After originally bristling when Brunell, 33, was acquired from Jacksonville this winter and asking for a trade out of concern that he would not get an opportunity to keep his job, Ramsey grew to embrace the quarterback contest. He now considers Brunell a friend, and Gibbs quickly earned his trust and respect for the way he handled a situation that was potentially combustible.
"First of all, I think I could have played better," Ramsey said. "So I'm in no position to raise any kind of heck about any of this stuff. Maybe it's my upbringing or my faith -- maybe it's a combination of the two -- but anything I do I want to handle with class. You get blindsided by things at times, so it's hard sometimes, but you have to try to methodically think about how you should react to it and go from there.
"I don't think there's any need to draw attention to myself. God gave me the ability to do certain things and he's still got a plan for me here with the Redskins and I certainly don't want to -- especially so early in the season -- draw any attention or negative attention to myself that could distract this football team. I think we can be a good team and anything I do has to be to help that."
The decision to start Brunell did not surprise Ramsey, nor did the timing. Ramsey completed only 45 percent of his preseason passes, failing to score a touchdown and throwing an interception -- well short of Brunell's production -- as he continues to adapt to Gibbs's offensive system and mature. He knows there is room for improvement.
"I kind of had a hunch" Brunell would be named the starter, Ramsey said, "and the truth is that I would hope that Coach Gibbs would do the same thing for me if I was starting just so Mark could go in there and get a lot of reps in the final two weeks prior to starting the regular season. That's only going to make us better offensively."
Ramsey, who has made 16 starts and had consecutive 300-yard passing games last season, remains one injury away from running Washington's offense -- few teams get through a season with a healthy quarterback. He has to find a comfort zone again after a preseason that began poorly and never improved. He threw erratically and went 4 for 11 for 62 yards and an interception in the Aug. 14 preseason game against Carolina. Poor outings rarely carry over to their home life, Ginny Ramsey said, but Patrick was down after that game.
"Patrick was really upset with how he played that night and he thought that wasn't him at all," she said. "He could have done better and we talked about that a lot, but it's really hard for Patrick to get weighed down. He's been playing football for so long and he's learned over the years not to let a bad game or practice get him down. He was disappointed when he wasn't playing his best, but he was pretty good about keeping his chin up."
At Tulane, Ramsey faced considerable competition for the starting job in 1999 and 2000, and both times he was the winner. But he never had been tested in that manner since being drafted 32nd overall by Washington in 2002 and never by a quarterback as accomplished and well-compensated as Brunell. (Brunell signed a seven-year, $43 million deal; Ramsey has a five-year, $5.7 million contract.)
The struggle between Ramsey and Brunell was the biggest story of training camp, and the contestants were pursued by the media on an almost daily basis. Yet it never devolved into a quarterback controversy. There was no infighting or backstabbing -- no Ramsey guys or Brunell guys.
"Patrick's been through this kind of thing before with a quarterback battle," said Chris Scelfo, Tulane's coach. "He's a fierce competitor, but he also always handled it with pride, dignity and class. That's the way he was brought up.
"I know he wants to be the starting quarterback, but he understands what is best for his team. He knows that coaches coach and players play and he's going to do whatever it takes to help. He's very dependable and very accountable, and in today's society you can't always find that. Those two traits can carry you a long way."
Gibbs began studying film of Ramsey shortly after he returned to coaching in January and was instantly attracted to his arm strength, swagger and willingness to absorb a pounding and keep playing (a necessity given the porous blocking schemes of former coach Steve Spurrier). Gibbs has come to appreciate the way Ramsey conducts himself and emphasized the positives when informing Ramsey that he would be the backup.
"I talked to him for a long time about what we think of him and how much he means to us," Gibbs said. "And nothing has changed. I think he's smart, tough. We're looking forward to a long future for him."
Ramsey knew little of Gibbs outside of his three Super Bowl victories when he took over, and the haste with which the Hall of Fame coach pursued Brunell left many NFL people sure he would automatically be handed the starting position. Ramsey had those same concerns but decided he wanted to remain in Washington and fight it out after a few consultations with Gibbs. Everything they spoke about -- from Gibbs's plans for Ramsey to the way he equally split their playing time in training camp -- unfolded as Gibbs said it would.
"He was 100 percent true to his word," Ramsey said. "And as I got to know him and as we went along in this process I realized that he's always going to be that way. If he tells you something, you can count on it."
"Our concern from the beginning back when all of this started was if it would be a fair process," Ginny Ramsey said, "and I know that Patrick feels that Coach Gibbs is a man of his word. I haven't got to meet him yet, but Patrick has told me several times, 'Ginny, once you get to know him, you'll understand. He's honest and sincere and I trust him now and I'll trust him in the future. He did what he said he was going to do.' "
Brunell has become a Ramsey advocate as well. There were no signs of contention between the quarterbacks, even during their first spring minicamps, and their relationship continues to blossom. "Mark and I are closer than I ever expected us to be," Ramsey said. They have shared many meals out, golfed a few times and are eager for their first hunting trips. They are country boys at heart who prize their families and religious beliefs. Ginny Ramsey said she has developed an affinity for Brunell after speaking with him a few times at Redskins Park and is excited to be able to meet Brunell's family now that they have settled in Northern Virginia.
"He's very easy to get along with," Brunell said of Ramsey. "We're both quarterbacks -- both competing for the same job -- but we've become friends and we'll continue to become even closer friends. I like Patrick. I think he's a great guy and I think he's got a bright future in the NFL -- no one would deny that -- and it's been a pleasure to work with him.
"He's got a lot of character and we have a lot in common. He's got a strong faith, which really impresses me, and he's got a great relationship with his wife, which impresses me. His marriage is very important to him and he's got his priorities in order. For a young man of 25, he's way ahead of the game. I've got a lot of respect for Patrick."
Since being named the starter, Brunell has been getting about 80 percent of the snaps in practice -- which Ramsey was accustomed to in the past -- leaving the backup to spend most of the afternoon observing. Ramsey watches every throw Brunell makes, assessing if he would have gone to the same receiver, and seeks out Brunell whenever he has a question. "When Mark gets a rep I'm focusing on why something worked or didn't work," Ramsey said. "You almost play it out in your head like, 'Hey, I would go to [receiver] X here or Z here.' And if Mark does something different then it's, 'Hey, why did you do that?' I have to learn that way. I think that's tremendously important."
Ramsey's new position is a departure from what he has experienced to this point. He had to forget Spurrier's wild offensive schemes -- urging him to force passes deep and strive for a big play -- and adhere to Gibbs's more conservative system, with an emphasis on finding safe passing options, eliminating turnovers and pounding teams on the ground.
"My biggest thing was and still is probably knowing when enough is enough," Ramsey said. "I've been programmed to throw the ball downfield at all costs, and at this point I have to understand when it's necessary to check the ball down."
All of the hits unleashed on Ramsey took a toll. He was admittedly jumpy early in the preseason, getting acclimated to playing behind a reinforced offensive line after last season's pass-protection debacle. "At first that was difficult, especially when the live bullets started coming," Ramsey said. "It's not a lack of trust in anyone or the system, it's just the way I was accustomed to playing, and fortunately I don't have to play like that anymore. I think it's still an adjustment period, but in time it's only going to get better."
Ramsey made strides in his last few preseason appearances, although he has not produced at near the levels he reached in the past. So he will continue to work with this staff of renowned coaches, he will get a daily education from Brunell and he will wait patiently for his chance to get back on the field in a game.
"I know I can play," Ramsey said. "But I think I need to refine what I can do. I have the ability to make all the throws and I know I can make all the decisions; I just have to refine those things and that can come much more quickly than many other things you're trying to work on. So I feel good about it, but it's certainly not something I can sit back on and say, 'It's just going to come.' I need to work at it.
"My confidence in my ability is still there. I need to gain confidence in myself in this offense, but I think my ability to make the throws and make the reads and make the play is still there. But I can certainly do better in this offense than I have."