When the Washington Redskins badly need yardage, and the game is on the line, quarterback Mark Brunell will usually begin rolling to his left. Brunell, a left-handed passer, has been at his best this season when throwing on the run, and, with little else working in the passing game and the club lacking success downfield, the rollout play has become something of a hallmark for the team.
The bootleg -- in which Brunell fakes a handoff in one direction, rolls out to the opposite side and looks for receivers in that part of the field -- has been the Redskins' most effective passing tactic through six weeks, producing results in games when nothing else seems to work. Of Brunell's five touchdown passes, three have come on rollouts to his left, and in recent weeks some of his only significant completions have come on bootlegs and rollouts when he hits receivers near the sidelines.
With Washington ranked near the bottom of the NFL in points per game and passing yards -- and Brunell having failed to throw for 100 yards in consecutive games -- it appears likely that bootleg plays will remain part of the repertoire coming out of the bye week.
"Mark's able to buy time for himself on that play," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "He's an excellent athlete that has good, quick feet and like all of these quarterbacks who are adept at doing this, he can drift away [from oncoming defenders] and he can buy a little time for the receivers and he can make somebody miss and he just keeps it alive. So we're trying to sell that to our players, that you cannot give up on him [on rollout routes], because he's capable of making some of those plays. You always have to be aware of that with him."
Redskins receivers have been unable to get open much in the last two weeks, so Brunell has often been forced to throw the ball away high to the sidelines or to scramble for a few yards on the rollout, earning praise from Coach Joe Gibbs for being smart enough not to gamble by throwing into heavy coverage.
While the rollout play can lead to confusion in the defense and result in considerable yardage, it also forces the thrower to one side of the field and limits his ability to find receivers on the opposite side because of the difficulty of throwing across one's body on the run and the dangerous nature of such cross-field passes.
But the scheme also allows for improvisation from the quarterback and receivers, who can devise ways to avoid coverage on the fly and make linebackers choose between rushing the passer or dropping back into a pass-defense mode. At times, Brunell and his receivers have been able to find a chemistry and feel for where the ball should go, as was the case in Week 3 when he and Rod Gardner connected 10 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns, with Gardner often using the extra time created by Brunell's rollouts to beat his opponent and find seams downfield.
"I love it, I love it," Gardner said of the bootleg plays. "I've made a few plays that weren't even supposed to come to me where he's done that and scrambled out and made a play. Brunell is great when it comes to scrambling ability and making plays out of the backfield."
"Those bootlegs, they're off play-action where we're showing them we're going to run the football and then we don't," Brunell said. "So that's helped us quite a bit. Basically, if you can get them to think you're running the football in one direction and keep it and boot up you're at an advantage, and we've got some great route combinations and I think the guys do a great job with it."
Although Brunell will do what he can with his voice inflections and mannerisms to indicate to the defense that the Redskins will be running the ball on such plays -- he is astute at delivering the fake handoff and tucking the ball behind him as he rolls out -- he said 99 percent of the sell job is done by the offensive linemen. In many cases, the offensive linemen will get in a four-point stance -- keeping their leverage close to the ground as they would on an obvious running play -- and maintain their shoulder pads at a level to connote that a run is coming as well.
"You don't want to fly out with your arms spread out wide," said tackle Ray Brown, a 19-year veteran. "You want to give them a true run look. You don't want to peek [across the line] and what I do sometimes is scream, 'Run, run, run,' so the defense might think 'run,' those kinds of things. And I just make sure I keep my pad level up and don't show pass protection and you try to sell the run and then become a pass protector."
Both of rookie H-back Chris Cooley's goal line touchdown catches have come off of such plays, and it has become a staple in Washington's red-zone offense, with Brunell finding receiver Laveranues Coles a few times as the second option downfield on the left side -- with Cooley covered -- to get the team inside the 10-yard line. Brunell's mobility and accuracy were two of the primary reasons he was acquired, and with him stuck in perhaps the worst rut of his career, it may take a Sunday full of effective rollouts and bootlegs to get him back to the level at which he has played throughout his career.
"Mark has always been an exceptional athlete," said Cleveland quarterback Jeff Garcia, who plays very much in Brunell's mold. "I remember watching him in college when he was at Washington being able to create on the run and being able to improvise when things break down around him. . . . He's very comfortable throwing on the run and I think now whoever he plays for takes a special look at that and utilizes that and that's something that is one of his strengths and something that the team is going to obviously use in terms of trying to create a comfort zone for him."