If the FedEx Field crowd had its way, Mark Brunell's regime as starting quarterback would have ceased two weeks ago, when the 12-year veteran was booed consistently by Redskins fans during another inept performance. The vocal contingent of the fan base compounded its sonic assault almost as soon as Brunell dropped back for his first pass yesterday against the Cincinnati Bengals, and their hearty chants for understudy Patrick Ramsey morphed into a loud ovation midway through the second quarter, when Coach Joe Gibbs finally elected to insert the backup.
By then the Redskins were well on their way to a 17-10 defeat, thwarting all but the faintest of playoff hopes, and Ramsey struggled for much of his outing as well until hitting rookie H-back Chris Cooley in the end zone in the final minutes. Washington (3-6) produced all of its points after the game was basically out of reach, and its customary offensive slumber was coupled with a poor first half from the normally stingy defense, culminating in a fourth straight setback at home.
Gibbs failed to get running back Clinton Portis involved when the game was close -- Portis carried only eight times in the first half against the NFL's worst rushing defense -- and the offensive line collapsed by allowing five sacks. Ramsey, who finished the game 18 for 37 for 210 yards, likely did enough to merit the start Sunday in Philadelphia, although a final decision will come today after a staff meeting, Gibbs said.
"I'm pretty reluctant to make a change there," Gibbs said of the quarterback switch. "But I felt like at this point it was the smart thing for us to do. I thought it was right, and so I made that change. I know Mark is disappointed he didn't play better than what he has, and we need to see if we can get a lift. . . . In all likelihood it's probably good to give Patrick a chance here and see what he can do."
Gibbs had been unwavering in his loyalty to Brunell -- a quarterback he pursued immediately after returning to coaching and signed to a seven-year, $43 million contract -- and had defended him after each game. But once the Bengals went up 17-0 in the second quarter he quickly instructed Ramsey to get ready.
"It really was just, 'Get your coat off, get warm and go in," Ramsey said.
Ramsey, last year's starter at quarterback, took the field with 7 minutes 28 seconds remaining in the half. Brunell, 34, stood next to reserve center Lennie Friedman on the sideline, and there he would remain after going 1 for 8 for six yards with an interception. Over his last five starts Brunell, who said he was surprised by the quarterback change, completed just 53 of 120 passes (44 percent) for 460 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. In three of those games he failed to complete even 10 passes or total over 100 yards passing.
"Obviously, it's really frustrating," Brunell said. "On a team you never want to be the guy that lets the other guys down, and I feel that way. . . . It's tough. I haven't had to face this before."
In previous weeks Washington's top-ranked defense found ways to keep the team in games while the offense slumped, but not yesterday. The defensive unit lost another key starter as defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin left in the second quarter with a hip injury, casting what had been a Pro Bowl-caliber season into doubt. The Bengals converted seven of their 10 third-down attempts in the opening half to keep Washington's defenders on the field for long stretches.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer threw interceptions on his first and last attempts of the opening half, and in between those two errant throws he carved Washington's defensive backs like no other passer has this season. He completed 14 of 17 passes over Cincinnati's three scoring drives, during which the Bengals staked a 17-0 lead, a margin that appeared insurmountable considering the Redskins have yet to score more than 18 points in a game this season.
"We can't wait to come out to play until the second half," middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "We've got to play in the first half. We gave up 17 points in a half two weeks in a row at home. That's big. That's not our defense."
Repeatedly, Palmer, 24, produced improbable plays on third and long, sustaining possession for his team and picking apart Washington's secondary. He entered the game with a lower passer rating than Brunell, but by halftime was a commanding presence in just his ninth NFL start after watching from the sidelines all of last season as a rookie. The Bengals (4-5), who had not won on the road all season, went ahead for good about nine minutes into the game, when Palmer completed three passes for 31 yards and running back Rudi Johnson gained 21 yards on the ground, including a one-yard scoring plunge.
Palmer completed seven of eight passes on the next possession, finding Chad Johnson for a first down on third and seven at the 12 and lobbing a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Stewart, who stretched over linebacker Marcus Washington to grab the ball out of the air. Chad Johnson beat Shawn Springs and Sean Taylor down the right sideline for a 34-yard reception on third and 13 on the following drive, which set up Shayne Graham's 41-yard field goal.
"We just came out and attacked," said Marvin Lewis, who spent the 2002 season as Washington's defensive coordinator before becoming head coach of the Bengals in 2003. "That's been our battle cry: We come and attack."
Ramsey, 25, could not inspire a comeback. He completed just three of his first 11 attempts, with the 11th pass resting in the hands of Cincinnati cornerback Tory James, while several other wild throws could have been picked off easily. Ramsey's turnover-prone nature was the primary reason he languished so long on the bench -- his right arm is plenty powerful but not always accurate -- and he threw three interceptions against the Giants in Week 2 after Brunell left with a hamstring injury.
The Redskins, meantime, failed to capitalize on Palmer's mistakes and had what could have been a momentum-changing fumble on a punt return negated by Ladell Betts's ineligible downfield penalty.
The Redskins accrued just 105 total net yards through three quarters (only 36 through the air), were 1 for 10 on third downs over that span and held the ball for a mere 16:37 of play, causing most of the 87,786 in attendance to pour out early through the exits. "We waited too long to get it going," wide receiver Rod Gardner said.
Those who left early missed out on a touchdown march and Ola Kimrin's 33-yard field goal -- he was wide earlier from 47-yards out -- and a futile last-minute attempt to tie the contest that ended with an interception. The Redskins held on to the ball for 10:33 in the fourth quarter, with Ramsey connecting on 12 out of 23 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
"I got more and more comfortable as the game progressed," said Ramsey, who rarely received any snaps in practice as the backup.
"It's a tough situation to be in," Gibbs said of Ramsey, "but I felt like he also made some real good plays. I think he had real poise."
The Redskins have now lost seven of their last eight games at FedEx Field dating from last season -- the franchise was dominant at home at RFK Stadium under Gibbs -- and remain inconsistent. Washington has failed to win consecutive games since opening last season 2-0, and is 6-17 overall since then.