From his awkward position sprawled along the 10-yard line with his face nearly buried in the turf, Mark Brunell had a limited view of his fumbled handoff to running back Clinton Portis that gifted Tampa Bay a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter yesterday afternoon at FedEx Field.
But for all of the commotion around him, the quarterback's mind was clear: He had committed an egregious mistake that jeopardized the Washington Redskins' chances of winning their season-opening game, and he was ready to take full responsibility for it.
Brunell turned in a modest performance in the Redskins' 16-10 victory. But what he lacked in offensive fireworks -- 13 for 24 for 125 yards and no touchdowns -- Brunell, who will turn 34 this week, compensated for in grit and leadership. When he returned to the sideline following that critical fumble, the 12-year veteran immediately sought out Coach Joe Gibbs to tell him it was his mistake, then went about rallying the offense behind him.
"When things all of a sudden go bad like that," Gibbs said, "that's when Mark Brunell came right back, looked me in the face and he was into that ballgame the whole way. That would shake a normal person up, but he's been in there, he's seen a lot. We have a fumbled exchange and they take it in and everything looks like it's falling apart. . . . And he kind of brought us all back together there through a real tough time."
Brunell, who was Gibbs's first personnel target upon his return to coaching and signed a seven-year, $43 million contract with the Redskins, got off to a nice start, completing 5 of 8 passes in the first quarter. Washington led 7-0 and churned the ball for 10 minutes 21 seconds of the opening quarter.
But the second half got underway in a very different fashion, with the offense bogging down and Brunell unable to spread the defense by passing.
He fumbled the ball on the Redskins' second possession of the third quarter, after which the coaches decided to bring in Cory Raymer at center for Lennie Friedman, a switch that did not help and lasted one series. After taking his second snap from Raymer, Brunell lost his footing -- he appeared to step on the foot of either Raymer or right guard Randy Thomas but is unsure exactly what happened -- and dropped to his knee. Portis was unaware of the mishap and prepared to take the handoff as he normally would; Brunell could barely reach the runner, the ball fell to the ground and Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber recovered it and eased into the end zone.
"That's my fault," said Brunell, who unseated Patrick Ramsey for the starting job in the preseason. "I thought I could get it to Clinton and it was very foolish. I know better than that. I thought I could get it to him. . . . But when you're backed up like that it's just best to tuck it, fall down and go on to the next play."
The turnover did not affect Brunell's demeanor, however. His teammates said he was unflappable in the huddle and established a soothing presence for the rest of the offense.
"He's loose," tight end Walter Rasby said. "Mark has such a great presence in the huddle. He keeps us relaxed and he'll joke every now and then; that gets us going, that's what you need. He'll make a call or a check at the line and he'll look at you and say, 'You liked that, huh? You liked that?' Stuff like that."
"He's a great guy, man, a great leader," guard Derrick Dockery said. "He's real down to earth. You really want him in the huddle with you. He always stays calm and never gets mad at anybody. He's the kind of guy you look up to."
Thankfully for Brunell, he did not have to look up at his offensive linemen yesterday. The Redskins' revamped line -- without injured tackle Jon Jansen -- held Tampa Bay's feared defense without a sack after conceding six sacks to the Buccaneers at FedEx Field last season
"Our protection was great," Brunell said.
Brunell did absorb two crunching hits from defensive end Ellis Wyms as he released the ball -- "Is that who that was?" Brunell said afterward -- but had ample time in the pocket and was effective throwing on the run.
"He took some hits, so I'm not satisfied," Thomas said. "We're a very humble line and we know we can do better than we did."
Brunell, the 12th-rated passer in NFL history, will surely have better passing days as well. He launched a few clutch throws -- hitting rookie H-back Chris Cooley for a 16-yard gain at the end of the third quarter with Washington at its 16, helping the Redskins maintain field position. But Brunell also overthrew his targets several times.
He is best quantified by his record, however: Brunell is 64-51 as a starter in the regular season and has thrown only seven interceptions in his last 19 starts (522 passing attempts).
"It probably wasn't really pretty on the offensive side of the ball," Brunell said in summarizing his first game as a Redskin. "But we got it done."