Had the Washington Redskins not held on for a 13-10 victory Sunday in Chicago, the outcry for a change of starting quarterbacks might have reached a fortissimo. Mark Brunell produced one of the least productive games of his 12-year NFL career and the Redskins won despite an anemic passing game on a day when the running attack finally exploded, the defense was again brilliant and the special teams performed adequately.
"Obviously, we'd like to hit some big plays," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We took about six shots in there [Sunday] and we didn't get them. I think what we'd like to do is step up our offense. We've not scored three touchdowns [in a game yet]. We're not where we want to be on offense. . . . Our passing game needs to step up and make plays. That's certainly an area we're concerned about."
The Redskins (2-4) could have pulled away from the Bears had the offense produced a few big passing plays, but Brunell completed only 8 of 22 passes for 95 yards with one touchdown, and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown that gave Chicago life and kept the game close to the very end. Brunell has completed only 51.2 percent of his passes this season -- second-worst among NFL starters -- and his 69.8 quarterback rating is worst among NFC starters. He also ranks last in the conference in yards per throw (5.4), Washington is 28th out of 32 teams overall in passing and the Redskins have been unable to develop any degree of a long passing attack as they head into the bye week, giving Gibbs his greatest worry before Green Bay visits FedEx Field Oct. 31.
Brunell, who was acquired from Jacksonville over the winter and signed to a seven-year, $43.6 million contract (including an $8.6 million signing bonus), was held below 100 yards passing Sunday for the third time in six games, and has thrown for more than 200 yards only once in his Redskins career. He has been held below 100 yards passing in consecutive starts for the first time in his career and although he entered this season with a 60.3 completion percentage, Brunell has now gone six straight weeks without completing at least 59 percent of his passes for the first time in his career.
Gibbs attributed many of the problems Sunday to poor pass protection resulting in several passes being knocked down at the line -- including the ball that was returned for a 70-yard touchdown by Jerry Azumah -- leaving Brunell with little recourse but to throw passes harmlessly to the sidelines.
"What Mark has done an exceptional job of is scrambling out of the pocket when he is under pressure, and making good decisions," Gibbs said. "And sometimes a good decision is to throw it away when things are covered. I think that happened several times when that was the situation and he made an excellent play out of it for us by not turning the ball over or doing something stupid."
Over the past two weeks, the passing slide has been most acute. Brunell, whose lingering hamstring problem should heal more thoroughly during the bye week, completed only 13 passes for 83 yards in a Week 5 loss to Baltimore, and is 21 of 51 for 178 yards, a worrisome 41.2 completion percentage over the last two games. The Redskins have not completed a pass for more than 21 yards in either game and on Sunday Brunell completed only four passes over the final three quarters, with only four players making a catch in the game despite facing one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.
"They did a good job in their coverage," Brunell said of the Bears. "I was very impressed with their secondary. They just made some plays against us."
Running back Clinton Portis plowed to a 171-yard game against Chicago and Gibbs called more than twice as many running plays as passing plays (47 to 22), but even with the team rushing so well and taking pressure off the passing game, the quarterback sputtered. Washington's wide receivers have caught only 13 passes over the last two weeks. Brunell has completed more than 17 passes in a game only once, something due at least in part to his tendency to throw the ball away if something does not materialize.
"If nothing's there, you get rid of it," Brunell said. "Our defense is playing good and the smart thing to do is to get rid of that thing and throw it out of bounds and live to play another play. This is what we do."
The offense is next to last in the NFL in scoring, averaging 14 points per game, and has been held to one touchdown in each of the last three games, amassing 36 points in that span. Brunell, 34, has contributed five touchdowns, but four of his six turnovers have been returned for touchdowns by the opposing defense. The quarterback said he has tried to avoid hearing much of the criticism swirling around him and asserted that he does not read the sports pages or listen to radio call-in shows. Gibbs has praised his leadership qualities and football intellect throughout these struggles, showing unyielding support through trying times.
But these same coaches used to routinely surpass 30 points per game with this offensive system and surely they envisioned better production from Brunell. Patrick Ramsey, who was the starter last season and has become close to Brunell over the past few months, believes the best is yet to come.
"I think Mark is holding up well," Ramsey said. "Mark's a battler, he's a veteran and he's been through this before. He knows what he did to get through it, he's solid and he's going to come out of this thing."