No matter how poorly he plays this Sunday, Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell will find solace in the fact that the fans will not boo him lustily or chant for his backup, Patrick Ramsey, to enter the game. With the Redskins playing in Detroit, Brunell will be shielded from the increasingly hostile environment at FedEx Field, but with another middling performance the public clamor for Ramsey will only intensify.
Coach Joe Gibbs, who has been loyal to his starting quarterbacks throughout his Hall of Fame career, has continued to assert that Brunell's experience, leadership and ability give the Redskins the best chance to win each Sunday -- "He's got guts galore," Gibbs said -- and Washington's 2-5 record and the struggles of Brunell, 34, have not quenched that belief. Gibbs said yesterday that he will continue to base his quarterback decision on that criteria even if the Redskins reach a situation where their record negated any realistic playoff chances, rather than shift to Ramsey in such a scenario given his age, 25, and potential.
"I've never been a rebuilding, look forward to the future [person]," Gibbs said. "No, I'm looking at the next game and how do we try to win the next game. That, to me, to learn the most about the players you're going to go in there with everything you've got as a coach and you're going to play the absolute best people you've got that week, and that's how you learn. You don't learn by trying to play young people, you know what I mean? You're trying to learn about your football team and the way you do that is to try to win some football games. . . . The best way to build for the future is to try to get wins, and that's our focus."
For his part, Brunell says his energy is focused entirely on Sunday -- "I give you my word I have no idea who we play after Detroit," the quarterback said -- and he is unwavering in professing that the offense is gradually improving under his stewardship.
"The numbers are not good, they're not where they need to be," said Brunell, who said he does not follow media coverage of himself or the team. "The passing game needs to be better, so I'm disappointed in that. I'm disappointed in the fact that the completion percentage and yards are not where I think we'd all hope they'd be. But we've got nine games left and hopefully we can turn it around."
Gibbs has been defending Brunell almost daily, and has repeatedly pointed to the quarterback's mobility, decision-making skills and toughness. The coaches began pursuing Brunell in January, considering him the best option available to run their offense, and swiftly acquired him from Jacksonville and gave him a seven-year, $43 million contract. Washington ranks 28th in passing yards and 31st in points scored this season; Brunell, who entered the season as the 12th-rated passer in NFL history, is having his worst season since becoming a starter in 1995, with a woeful 52.4 completion percentage, worst among all starting quarterbacks.
Brunell takes virtually all of the snaps in practices and is the focal point of game plans each week, while Ramsey is largely a spectator trying to learn through observation and in meetings; there are no plans to allot more snaps to the backup. Ramsey has impressed the coaches by increasing his knowledge of the system despite his limited role, Gibbs said, and he has looked good running the opposition's plays with the scout team.
"Is it ideal for him? No," Gibbs said of Ramsey. "Would you like to get him some reps in practice, yeah. But if you do that, I've found, you're taking a 10 percent thing and trying to project and you're going to take away [snaps] in practice every week, and you really can't do that to the starter. He's been great as far as attitude and everything, he's been terrific, and those guys are always one play away. It's a tough thing to go through, but that's part of the quarterback position."
Seemingly, Brunell has done just enough to keep his job each week. The Redskins pulled out a win in Chicago to stop a four-game losing streak late last month, and Gibbs believes that the offense made strides in the second half of Sunday's game against Green Bay, rallying for two late-scoring drives (one was negated because of an illegal motion penalty). "To me I looked at that as a great comeback," Gibbs said. The frequent chants for Brunell to be benched did not sway Gibbs's thought process on the quarterback position, he said, and he expects the coach and the quarterback to absorb a brunt of the criticism when an offense struggles.
Ramsey's tenacity and strong arm have earned praise from the coaches, but his tendency to force the ball into dangerous situations and lack of experience in a more conventional NFL system -- Ramsey's 16 starts came under coach Steve Spurrier's gung-ho offensive schemes -- have worked against him. Ramsey was outplayed by Brunell in the preseason and threw three interceptions in one half of football against the New York Giants in Week 2 when Brunell suffered a hamstring injury, but is capable of throwing the deep and accurate strike that has been missing all season.