For those four or five seconds, before the yellow flag lying on the field became obvious to everybody, it looked as if Mark Brunell was going to be the hero. Okay, the defense had delivered him to victory's doorstep by shutting down Brett Favre in the second half. But what a story it was going to be for Brunell, to come back the way he did to win the game after sailing passes over the heads of open receivers, after being booed time and again by a resentful home crowd that has come to sound like Philadelphia.
For those few seconds, with 2 minutes 43 seconds left in the game, it looked as if Brunell had thrown his third touchdown pass of the game, to only one interception. It looked like he was about to win a game late, and flip the script on Favre, his old buddy and former teammate. But there was the problem of that yellow hanky sitting on the grass right in front of the Packers' bench. Not only did a dubious penalty (still not explained satisfactorily) nullify the touchdown pass to Clinton Portis, but Brunell threw an interception on the next play to essentially end the game. "You go from one extreme," Brunell said afterward, "to the next." And there's no bigger extreme swing in sports than going from winner to loser.
Brunell, even in his disappointment, answered question after question. He talked about the passing game "making some progress," and about how "we're getting there."
But are they? What's more meaningful in the Monday morning analysis of yesterday's 28-14 loss to the Packers, Brunell's two touchdown passes set up by the Redskins' defense, or the two killer interceptions, or those hideous third-down passes that didn't come close to connecting with open receivers? Even Brunell said of missing Laveranues Coles twice on third down: "Those third downs were key. He ran nice routes to get open. That can't happen. You have to get the ball to the receiver."
Brunell didn't blame anybody but himself. He didn't give one of those practiced, disengaged answers about being booed seven plays into the game, about hearing fans chant, "Ram-sey! Ram-sey! Ram-sey!" at least three times during the game, urging Coach Joe Gibbs to insert last year's starting quarterback, Patrick Ramsey, into the game. "You never want it to happen, and you certainly hear it," Brunell said.
And he's going to be hearing about it all week, too, because for the seventh time this season the Redskins' defense did its job -- yes, holding the Packers to 20 points before that fatal interception is doing the job, especially when you're missing both starting safeties and the guy on the other side firing at you is James Bond -- but the team has just two victories to show for it.
It seems Brunell does just enough each week to allow Gibbs to come into his Monday news conferences and declare Brunell his starter and that Brunell is hardly the only problem on offense. Brunell was 8 for 22 for 95 yards against the Bears, but the Redskins won. Brunell threw for a bunch of yards in the fourth quarter back on that Monday night against the Cowboys, and it was enough to stay ahead of the posse. He's got the lowest completion percentage of any full-time starter in the NFL, has had the lowest third-down conversion rate in the league, but the games are close so he keeps his job.
It's hard to live in Washington and be dispassionate about the position of quarterback, which means it's easy to live in Washington and overreact to what the quarterback does.
After each game this season, I've gone into the opponent's locker room and asked a veteran defensive player with credentials to tell me about Brunell. And each week I've been told that Brunell is most of the problem, that their defensive game plan is to gang up on Portis until Brunell completes some passes downfield, that defensive coordinators are convinced Brunell can't do that any more with any consistency.
So, yesterday I asked Packers safety Darren Sharper the same questions. Sharper, who lives here in the offseason, isn't some trash-talking irritant; he's one of the NFL's smartest and most insightful defensive players who is sorely missed right now in the Packers' secondary because of an injury. Asked what the defensive game plan was against Brunell, Sharper said: "Knock him down. He doesn't want to get hit. The plan -- and you can see other teams doing the same thing on film -- is to not let him set his feet. Make him roll out. Hit him enough, and sooner or later it'll mess up his accuracy. He's not the same quarterback he used to be. Look, I played against him in Jacksonville, and he was a very, very accurate passer. But in the pocket now, his passes sail. He has to roll out now; maybe he sees his receivers better. I don't know if he's as comfortable in this offense or what. But he's not the same quarterback."
Okay, so Brunell almost certainly did enough against the Packers to keep his job, but after hearing Sharper echo what the Giants, Cowboys, Browns, Bears and now Packers have said about him, isn't it fair to wonder if what Brunell is doing is enough? And it's even more difficult to assess Brunell favorably on a day when his opposing number is Favre, a sure-to-be first-ballot Hall of Famer who in some ways had as much of an up-and-down day as Brunell.
Favre was 14 for 18 the first half for 234 yards, including two beautiful deep balls which helped put the Packers ahead 17-0. With safeties Sean Taylor and Matt Bowen out of the lineup, the Redskins' secondary knew what was coming. "I told the guys before the game, and we had some guys who were seeing him for the first time, 'They're going to let Brett Favre do his thing,' " cornerback Fred Smoot said. " 'He'll be ready to throw it from the time he steps on the field.' "
But after the defense settled in and changed some blitzes and coverages at halftime, Favre completed only six of his final 15 passes and threw a total of three interceptions, with the final two nearly letting the Redskins back into the game. You hold Favre to 289 yards passing, a 61.3 passer rating and one touchdown while picking him off three times, you've done a nice day's work, particularly with neophytes filling in at safety. Even in victory, Favre said afterward: "I'm not pleased with the second half, with the way I played. I'm frustrated with my performance."
Thing is, Favre has earned the benefit of the doubt over a long career, and not just in Green Bay where nobody calls for the backup, but even with opposing players. Favre told the story after the game about several Redskins defensive players, "telling me, 'Hey man, it's a pleasure to be on the field with you,' " and admitted it happens every week now.
Once upon a time, when he was a youngster back in the early 1990s, Brunell was one of the million guys who has backed up Favre in Green Bay the last 14 years, and the two men had what Favre called "a long discussion before the game. We rekindled some old memories."
After the game, the first Redskins player Favre went to was Brunell. Favre had heard his friend being booed and the chanting for Ramsey. "His career," Favre said of Brunell, "has been a lot different from mine in some ways. He's trying to help Joe Gibbs start over here, to get them back to where they were. And it's a tough position to be in. I feel for him. I heard the boos. I just wanted to tell him to hang in there. He's a strong person. I have a lot of respect for him and I just wanted him to know that."
Without victories, Brunell may need to find support wherever he can, and even then, it may not be enough.