Now that Mark Brunell has become the highest-paid backup quarterback in the NFL, there are questions around the league about why the Washington Redskins invested so much money on a 34-year-old veteran who many believed was on the downside of his career when he was signed to a seven-year, $43 million deal that included an $8.6 million signing bonus.
A survey of eight NFL general managers or pro personnel directors revealed unanimous agreement that the Redskins paid too high a price in salary and compensation -- a second-round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars -- for a quarterback with a recent history of injuries who did not play last season after hurting his elbow in Week 4.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to affect their relationship with the Redskins, indicated that they understood why Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who always preferred to start an experienced quarterback in his first stint as a head coach in the league, was attracted to Brunell. But many said Gibbs picked the wrong quarterback.
"Two years ago, in my opinion, he [Brunell] started down, and then he hurt his elbow last year and didn't play again," said an AFC personnel director. "Now, there's nothing left in the tank. And why did they give him that $8 million signing bonus? I promise you, no one was interested in Mark Brunell at that price."
Another AFC general manager agreed. "Watching him in 2002 and 2003 and talking to people who were around him, the feeling was that he was a descending quarterback," he said. "No quarterback wants to get hit, but he really didn't want to get hit any more, more so than the average guy. I thought his mobility had gone downhill. All the directions were going downhill. Was he falling off the cliff? What does it look like now? But our scouting report was that you'd be suspicious of him as a starter, and even have questions about him being a backup."
A personnel director with another AFC team said Gibbs's decision to acquire Brunell -- his first major personnel move after returning to the Redskins in January -- and make him his starter over Patrick Ramsey was symptomatic of a deeper problem that Gibbs is having adjusting to coaching again after 11 years away from the NFL.
"I don't like to second-guess and I don't want to sound like I'm piling on here, but I think Joe is living in the past on this," said a personnel official with one AFC team. "No question, veteran quarterbacks don't make mistakes and can manage the game for you. But the game really has changed since he was in the league. It's more wide open, it's quicker, it's get the ball down the field in a hurry. The athletes on defense are even better -- faster, stronger and more athletic. You can't maximum protect, send two guys down field and expect to have a lot of success."
Said an AFC general manager: "The feeling was that Brunell was on his last legs. We played them [the Jaguars] last year and he didn't look good physically. He couldn't throw." The general manager said the shortcomings, if anything, seemed magnified this season. "I watched him this year a few times, and they had big problems on offense," he said. "They just seemed to be a step behind everything -- the play-calling, clock management. It just looked totally out of sync."
In the aftermath of his decision to make Ramsey the starter, Gibbs defended his acquisition of Brunell and signing him to a long-term contract last winter within weeks of his return to Washington.
"I disagree with the fact that it hasn't worked out. We've got a long ways to go," Gibbs told reporters Wednesday. "For me, his role and what's going to amount to what he does here for the Washington Redskins, we're going to find out over the next several years. Certainly, I don't think he is the only person that's keeping us from moving the ball on offense."
At a news conference Monday following the Redskins' 17-10 loss to Cincinnati, which dropped the team to 3-6, Gibbs insisted that there was "no problem with Mark's arm strength."
"We've been close a bunch [on completing long passes]," he said. "We're just not getting them in and making big plays. We're not getting the conversions on the big catch, and on the other side of that we've had some drops."
If Brunell stays with the team, the Redskins would have to pay him a base salary of $1.5 million and $1.43 million in pro-rated bonus money next season. But if they conclude he can no longer play, they would be faced with a significant salary cap conundrum unless they could convince him to restructure his contract.
Under the terms of his current deal, Brunell is also set to receive a $500,000 roster bonus on April 1. If he is cut or retires before that date, however, the Redskins would take a $7.165 million salary cap hit in 2005, league sources said. If he is cut or retires after June 1, the Redskins would take a $1.93 million hit on the 2005 cap, and a $5.7 million hit against the 2006 cap. For a team that already faces potential salary cap trouble in the next few years, the signing of Brunell could have long-term consequences.
"For them, it's all cap management at this point because it's obvious he can't play," said an AFC general manager. "They wouldn't have switched to Ramsey if they thought he could still play. He [Brunell] is probably not the kind of guy who wants to take a pay cut. Maybe he will. They can go to June 1, but if they cut him, they'll have a couple of big hits. It's a [salary cap] disaster, no question."
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' vice president for football operations, declined to be interviewed for this report.
An NFC general manager who proclaimed himself "a big Mark Brunell fan," said he could understand why Gibbs has been so enamored of Brunell. He described the quarterback as being "very intelligent and a great competitor" for many years with the Jaguars, and added "there's no question he commands respect in the huddle."
"As far as managing the game, I'm sure Joe thought that he was the perfect fit," he said. "But you also have to factor in that he's 34 and he's taken a lot of hits over the years. You have to think they wanted to win right away, and Joe has always gone with a veteran. Any coach, really, wants to play the guy with the experience. It gives them a comfort zone, and Joe probably had that with Brunell.
"But there's also a certain point in time when they can't do it any more. I don't think anyone expected Brunell to struggle throwing the ball like he has. I see the statistics every week, and it's pretty easy to see something is missing. Throwing the ball, that's usually a physical thing. I know his mind hasn't gone south, but the quarterback position starts with the lower body. You have to have leg strength and foot strength, and after all those years, maybe he lost some of that."
Brunell's numbers have been abysmal. A career 60 percent passer, this season Brunell has completed 49.8 percent of his throws, last in the league. His 63.9 passer rating also is last among starting quarterbacks, and Brunell has failed to complete more than 10 passes or throw for more than 100 yards in three of the last four games.
"A lot of people were surprised when they paid what they did for him and also gave up a number two pick," said another NFC general manager. "Jacksonville clearly was going to cut him at some point, there was almost no question about that. I'm sure their thinking was to get a veteran in there right away, learn the system and go from there. They gambled, and so far, they've lost that gamble."
Because he was still the property of the Jaguars, the Redskins were not allowed to work out Brunell before making the decision to trade for him.
Veteran quarterback pickings were rather slim in the offseason free agent market. Several big names were out there -- Kerry Collins (now with Oakland), Kurt Warner (New York Giants), Jeff Garcia (Cleveland) and Vinny Testaverde (Dallas) -- but all had flaws, just as Brunell did. Of those four, all of whom began the season as starters, only Warner is playing on a winning team, and he was benched this week in favor of Eli Manning after several ineffective performances. The Dolphins also signed A.J. Feeley, who has backed up Jay Fiedler most of the year, and will start tomorrow.
The Redskins used their first-round draft pick, fifth overall, to select Miami safety Sean Taylor, a promising prospect who has had several off-the-field problems, including a recent arrest for driving while intoxicated. Ben Roethlisberger, who is having an outstanding rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was still available on the draft board, but nine teams in addition to the Redskins passed on him. The Steelers took him with the 11th overall pick.
There has been some speculation in Washington and around the league that Gibbs's loyalty to Brunell may also have something to do with the fact that both men are devout Christians. But the general managers and personnel men interviewed for this story dismissed that idea.
"Joe wants to win games, period," said an NFC general manager. "I'd be shocked if that had anything to do with it."
Said another NFC general manager: "Religion has nothing to do with it. You have to win games. No way that's a factor."
An AFC personnel official said he thought Ramsey, 25, who is also a devout Christian, should have been the starter from the beginning. "He [Gibbs] had a kid right there. He had starting experience, he was a number one pick, and that's a pretty good starting point," the official said. "If you want a veteran to be the relief pitcher and help the young guy, that's what you do. Do we know if Ramsey can play yet? Not really. Maybe he played so bad in preseason, Joe felt he had to go with Brunell. But you can't approach it with a patchwork approach any more. They've got to go with younger guys and let them play. Joe is 63, maybe he feels he can't wait that long. He's finally made the change. All you can do is wait and see."
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.