The Washington Redskins were stumbling to their worst offensive output in 43 years last Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens and Mark Brunell was enduring one of the poorest performances of his 12-year NFL career, but the quarterback's thoughts never turned to the possible repercussions of his latest weak showing.
With fans around FedEx Field beginning to wonder if Coach Joe Gibbs might yank the veteran passer, and executives around the league starting to probe the inefficiency of Washington's offense, Brunell said he did not consider the prospect that he could lose his starting job only five games into his tenure with the Redskins. "It didn't cross my mind," said Brunell, 34.
Gibbs has defended Brunell, whom he acquired from Jacksonville almost immediately upon his return to coaching in January, throughout the tumultuous start to the season. Against the Ravens, Brunell went 13 for 29 for just 83 yards, posting his worst completion percentage in a game in five years. But Gibbs reiterated last week he has no plans to change quarterbacks.
"I don't think I would hesitate to do it, but also the thing is he earned that job and if you feel that they're fighting their guts out and doing everything they could and you look at it and say, 'This guy's not the problem, that would be the wrong thing to do,' " Gibbs said. "So there's a temptation there and you see it all the time, 'Let's change that person because it's an easy thing to do, and it takes the pressure off me or us or anything.' I want to try to do what's right, and right now Mark is the guy."
Redskins coaches say that in choosing Brunell over other veteran quarterbacks who were available last winter -- among them Kerry Collins, Jeff Garcia and Kurt Warner -- Gibbs was attracted by Brunell's toughness, efficiency, mobility and character. He was acquired to manage the offense, they said, eliminate mistakes and turnovers, and, as the theory went, let the running game led by newly acquired running back Clinton Portis open up possibilities for the passing game.
"We saw accuracy," Redskins offensive coordinator Don Breaux said, explaining the team's pursuit of Brunell. "We saw a guy who could deliver the long ball. We saw the ability to absorb what we were trying to get taught and we saw his experience showed itself up in various ways. That's what we saw."
Personnel officials with other NFL teams said they are not surprised that the offense has needed time to jell when considering Gibbs's 11-year absence and the normal learning period between players and new coaches. But the depth of the Redskins' malaise is attracting attention around the league, and some are questioning the wisdom of acquiring Brunell.
Several NFL analysts said the problems with the Redskins' offensive line and running game have contributed to Brunell's slide, but they add that the quarterback has been neither accurate nor consistent in his throws. "They haven't shown anything offensively at all except for maybe half of one game," said one NFL general manager who requested anonymity so as to not impair his relationship with the Redskins. "To me, the scariest thing for them is, 'How do you fix it?' "
'It's Really Frustrating'
Brunell entered the season as the 12th-rated passer in NFL history, with a 60.3 completion percentage. But he has gone five weeks without completing at least 59 percent of his passes in a regular season game for the first time in his career. He has been held below 200 passing yards in four of his five starts -- the lone exception being a 325-yard effort in a failed comeback against Dallas in Week 3 -- and has completed four or more consecutive passes on just four occasions. Brunell's 3.56 yards per attempt ranks last in the NFC, his 73.3 passer rating is second-worst among all NFC starters and his completion percentage (53.4) is second-worst among all NFL starters.
Brunell also has accounted for five turnovers -- two interceptions and three fumbles -- and bad exchanges with the center have become commonplace. Washington ranks 25th in passing yards and 29th in points per game. With virtually no deep passing game, the team is second-worst in the NFL in yards per play. The Redskins have yet to score three touchdowns in a contest -- Gibbs's primary objective each week -- and have been held to one offensive touchdown or less in three games.
"It's really frustrating, because I really believe we've got some good players," Brunell said. "And at some point in the future -- hopefully the near future -- we're going to be a good offensive football team. I really believe that."
Washington's rush to acquire Brunell, who played only three games last season because of an elbow injury and the emergence of Jaguars rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich, surprised other teams, given the abundance of quarterbacks available and the sense around the league that Brunell would generate lukewarm interest in such a market.
The Jaguars were eager to trade him before the free agency and trading period began in March and the Redskins agreed to give Jacksonville a third-round pick for Brunell, then signed him to a seven-year, $43 million deal including an $8.6 million bonus. Privately, other NFL team officials said they believed the Redskins had overpaid. Such claims have been levied at Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for years and are summarily discounted around Redskins Park. But should Brunell fail to last at least three seasons in Washington, there would be steep salary cap ramifications for the team.
Some NFL executives said they had concluded that Brunell's skills were ebbing.
"His big advantage was he was a mobile guy and he could throw the ball efficiently," said the NFL general manager, who studied Brunell closely in 2002 and 2003 as a potential free agent target. "But he started to look shaky and to us it looked like he didn't want to get hit, and this was before he got hurt [last September]. We thought he was slowing down and his mobility was going down. We talked to some position coaches who knew him from Jacksonville and they saw some of the same things."
Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who led Washington to its first Super Bowl under Gibbs and was an analyst on ESPN's broadcast of the Redskins-Ravens game last Sunday, said he has watched Brunell closely on film and disagreed that the quarterback is shying away from contact or is overly worried about the blitz. "I don't see a guy flinching under pressure," Theismann said. "I don't see any of that in him."
Theismann did detect other flaws, however.
"I never felt that Mark Brunell was comfortable in the pocket one time in that game" against Baltimore, Theismann said. "He never dropped back and set his feet and threw the ball with confidence. I know he has to do that to be successful, and I know he can."
One AFC player personnel executive said Brunell's arm strength has been declining in recent years, a refrain becoming more familiar with the quarterback completing only three passes for more than 30 yards this season.
But Gibbs was quick to point out the zip on some of Brunell's longer throws that were not completed, and Brunell urged reporters who inquired about the velocity of his passes to pose those same questions to his receivers first. "Ask those guys," Brunell said.
Theismann, who was a willing scrambler in his playing career, said he has seen glimpses of himself in the latter years of his career in Brunell and supported Gibbs's decision to keep him as the starter. "I see a 34-year-old quarterback, and I know what I was at 34," Theismann said. "Mark throws the ball fine; Vinny Testaverde is 38 and he throws the ball downfield well," he noted of the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, who is 40. "Mark's got a couple of good years left in him, barring injury. The biggest thing will be keeping himself standing."
Lack of Protection
Doing so will not be easy considering the problems along the offensive line, a sore spot that Brunell's slump has overshadowed. Brunell has been forced to throw passes away to avoid sacks with great frequency and right tackle Jon Jansen -- the man entrusted with protecting his blind side -- will not play a snap this season while recovering from preseason surgery. "You can't just replace a guy like that with a 41-year old [Ray Brown], and Kenyatta Jones," the NFL general manager said of the platoon of substitutes for Jansen. "That is a huge loss for them."
Brunell has been sacked eight times over the past three weeks and opposing coaches have been stacking players at the line of scrimmage and blitzing aggressively because the Redskins' running game has been woeful for much of the season. Without a physical and athletic offensive line, the power running game Gibbs is known to favor will continue to suffer, and if Washington cannot run the ball then the odds of getting the aerial attack on track will remain long.
When asked which elements most make a quarterback successful in Gibbs's system, former Redskins Super Bowl quarterback Doug Williams, now a player personnel executive with Tampa Bay, responded, "Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm, Mark May, Jim Lachey, Raleigh McKenzie," rattling off the names of former stalwart offensive linemen who were known as "the Hogs."
"That's where it all starts, and they don't have those guys up front," said Williams, who scouted Washington in the preseason and attended the first game against the Buccaneers. "I think they're calling [the offensive line] 'the Dirtbags,' but they ain't 'the Hogs' yet. If the offensive line is not in sync and clicking, you'll have some problems, especially with today's defenses with people coming from all different angles" on the blitz.
Williams continued: "I think Mark Brunell is the perfect guy that Joe Gibbs loves. He's a veteran, he's savvy, he's got some mileage on him and he's mature. I think Mark has it all and he'll get settled in the system, but all the pieces of the puzzle are not together as far as the offensive line is concerned. That has not been there like Joe would want it to be, and you can't accomplish anything without that."
Portis has yet to find his way, either, and he was to be the focal point of the offense, carrying the ball upwards of 30 times per game and putting the quarterback and receivers in a position to succeed with defenses fearing the ground game.
Gibbs admits there are stark contrasts between the way Portis was used in Denver -- with quick cutbacks and lots of outside runs leading to consecutive 1,500-yard seasons -- and how he is called upon to run between the tackles in Washington. Portis has the quickness to explode through holes, but, at 5 feet 11 and 207 pounds, lacks the frame to plow through bulky linemen and linebackers.
"He's a tough kid, but he's not physical," one NFL front office official said of Portis, who was acquired in the offseason for cornerback Champ Bailey. "In that system, you have to be able to get through that first tackle a lot of the times, and when Portis gets hits, he goes down. That's not him."
Gibbs's play selection has also generated some debate, with Portis asserting after a Week 4 loss in Cleveland that the Browns knew what plays were coming. Gibbs's desire to maximize protection of the quarterback at the line of scrimmage, which means keeping more potential receivers in to block, could be linked to the lack of a deep passing game. The Redskins have had just one or two receivers on the field for many passing plays.
Brunell shunned the notion that the scheme was responsible for the stagnant offense. "The concepts that we're using have been going on for decades," Brunell said. "Joe didn't just resurrect this offense; it's been going ever since Joe Gibbs left and, again, it's been proven throughout the years."
In the end, perhaps Brunell's health and inner confidence will reverse the slide. He strained a hamstring in the second week of the season and had to leave in the second half of a loss to the Giants, but never missed another play. "To be quite truthful he probably could have sat out a couple of games with a hamstring, but he won't do it," Gibbs said. "I'm excited about getting him back to where I think he's totally healthy."
Mike Ryan, the head trainer in Jacksonville and a close friend of Brunell's, said the quarterback repeatedly shook off injuries and huge hits to stay in games and make plays for the Jaguars.
"Mark was all business when it came to Sunday," Ryan said. "He wanted to be on the field no matter what. He's a warrior, that's the kind of mentality he has. He has a fire inside to win that is very impressive."