Mark Brunell watched from the sideline as Patrick Ramsey took almost every snap during 11-on-11 drills this past week at Redskins Park. The Redskins' new starting quarterback barked audibles while guiding the first offensive unit through myriad game situations -- short yardage, red zone, first and 10, third and long.
Brunell remained in the background as Ramsey interacted with offensive starters, admonishing a teammate for lining up in the wrong spot, offering praise after a good block or catch. As Brunell's backup, relegated to the scout team during practices, Ramsey could only experience all the work with the first team vicariously, observing Brunell.
Ramsey will make his 17th NFL start today against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, a considerable number of starts for a third-year quarterback. But it will be his first start this season and his first opportunity to establish himself as the franchise quarterback under Coach Joe Gibbs.
"I don't feel like it's starting over in the sense of being a rookie and never playing before. I have so much to build upon because I've been able to learn throughout this process," said Ramsey, 25, who started 11 games for the Redskins last year. "But you're going to start from snap one in this deal. You're not going to be ahead or you're not going to be behind when the game begins. And you're going to have to play smart."
Ramsey relieved Brunell in the second quarter of last week's 17-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals after another poor performance by the 34-year-old veteran, who was acquired by Gibbs in the offseason to bring stability and leadership to the offense. Ramsey's only other playing time this year came against the New York Giants in Week 2, after Brunell injured his hamstring. In his two appearances this year, Ramsey has two touchdown passes and five interceptions while completing 27 of 55 passes (49.1 percent). But the Redskins were behind in each game, with Ramsey entering after hardly practicing with the first unit the week before.
In his new role, Ramsey hopes to revive an offense undergoing one of the worst droughts in team history. Through nine games, the Redskins (3-6) haven't scored more than 18 points in a single week. Ramsey's task is compounded by Washington's most arduous stretch of the season: Next week, the Redskins will travel to play the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-1), who have the NFL's top-ranked defense, and then will face the New York Giants (5-4) and the Eagles (8-1) again.
Ramsey must display the qualities that prompted Gibbs to acquire Brunell -- manage Washington's run-heavy offense, throw the ball when necessary and not turn over the ball.
In Ramsey's rookie season in 2002, then-coach Steve Spurrier initially chose quarterback Danny Wuerffel over Ramsey for similar reasons that Gibbs plucked Brunell: an ability to make quick, smart decisions despite a lesser arm.
Ramsey will increase his chances to be named the starter for next season by adroitly directing Gibbs's offense, by displaying poise as much as passing with precision. Tailback Clinton Portis, the third-leading rusher in the NFC, remains the linchpin of Washington's offense; Washington's defense, ranked second, has helped to keep every game close.
"It's not an X's and O's thing right now with him. He'll handle that," quarterbacks coach Jack Burns said of Ramsey. "His biggest challenge is to be able to play with a lot of poise and let his physical [side] take over and just be comfortable in the game. It's not as much a learning curve as it is a leadership curve. It's a managing-situations curve.
"He's had success. He has had some things that haven't gone well. He's more prepared than most to be able to step into this situation."
After Gibbs named him the starter Monday, Ramsey prepared all week by directing almost all of the offense's practice plays -- more than 90 percent of them -- for the first time this season.
Gibbs's practices are broken down into three categories: individual, group and team drills. Individual sessions involve players from each position -- only the quarterbacks, for example. In the group segments, the quarterback works with receivers; running backs with tight ends; linebackers with defensive backs; and the defensive and offensive lines hold separate drills.
Brunell, Ramsey and Tim Hasselbeck, the third-string quarterback, rotated equally in the individual and group drills. But Ramsey received almost all 35 snaps during the team drills, which involve the full complement of defensive and offensive starters.
Ramsey went against Washington's first defensive unit, which generally has the best athletes, bringing him closer to game speed. Ramsey used the week to start grasping the nuances of each receiver's routes -- in real time. Ramsey began to get into a rhythm with the offense and form better timing on throws. "Different angles and different trajectories are necessary," Ramsey said. "And being able to go out there and practice and run, that is huge."
His teammates are making adjustments as well.
"Brunell is left-handed, Pat is right-handed," wide receiver Rod Gardner said. "One throws a little harder than the other. So it helps a lot to get readjusted."
Another important element for Ramsey was simply interacting and communicating with teammates during team drills.
"I haven't been doing that. That's another added bonus," said Ramsey, drafted with the last pick of the first round in 2002. "Being out there with them, letting them see how you're going to be in the huddle. How you're going to react to things if they make a great catch or drop a ball."
In previous weeks, Ramsey comprehended the game plan in theory and did mental repetitions by watching Brunell.
"I can see it through Mark, but at the same time I can't see it from the pocket," Ramsey said. "I can't see it at the speed it's going to happen unless I'm out there."
Gibbs has streamlined his offensive packages for the Eagles game so that Ramsey isn't overwhelmed. Ideally, the starting quarterback gets in sync with the coach calling the plays -- with the Redskins, that's Gibbs -- and almost automatically knows the plays that coincide with certain game situations and formations.
Regardless, Ramsey's mind-set is almost as important as his understanding of Gibbs's offense.
"At this stage, he has to get that gunslinger mentality back," said Doug Williams, who played quarterback for Gibbs from 1986 to 1989. "Back in the Old West when the gunslinger came through the saloon door, he wasn't scared of anybody. Patrick Ramsey needs to be a gunslinger. That doesn't mean you throw the ball all over the place. That means you have confidence."
After last season, Ramsey had 23 touchdowns and 17 interceptions during his first two years in the league, and his career statistics, particularly a quarterback rating of 74.2, were higher than the only quarterbacks drafted ahead of him in 2002: David Carr of the Houston Texans and Joey Harrington of the Detroit Lions.
Ramsey appeared on the cover of the Redskins' 2003 media guide. But Gibbs's first move was to trade for Brunell. During the preseason, Ramsey completed only 45 percent of his passes and threw one interception without a touchdown. Ramsey's nadir occurred against the Carolina Panthers in his first preseason start. "That was a low point for me," Ramsey said. "I never played football that badly."
Brunell had played in offenses similar to Gibbs's. Ramsey's only NFL experience was under Coach Steve Spurrier and his Fun 'n' Gun offense, a quirky, quarterback-driven system heavy on audibles and longer passes. Instead of reading progressions -- the primary receiver, secondary receiver and so forth until he found the open man -- Ramsey was required to make time-based throws to areas of the field that receivers would be running toward as he released the ball.
Spurrier limited formations while Gibbs's offense is known for pre-snap motions and shifts. Gibbs likes to throw downfield occasionally, particularly on play-action; Spurrier emphasized long passes. Gibbs often limits the number of pass-catchers to maximize the number of players protecting the quarterback; Spurrier unleashed multiple receivers and sacrificed extra blockers.
"Earlier in the year and in preseason, Patrick felt that he picked everything up mentally," Gibbs said. "But some of the things that they were stressing last year, he brought up that [they] were kind of the opposite of what we do and teach."
Ramsey graduated magna cum laude from Tulane, obtaining a degree with a double major in accounting and finance within five years. Ramsey, who is blessed with a photographic memory, has been able to master Gibbs's offensive concepts. One area Ramsey appears to have improved on since training camp is his footwork. Although Ramsey doesn't move well outside the pocket, he has shown good presence, finding passing lanes and stepping into throws.
Ramsey has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, but perhaps his most impressive trait is his toughness. Last season, Ramsey suffered 30 of Washington's 43 sacks and was unofficially the most punished player in the NFL. "I've always said with a quarterback the most important thing there is character," Gibbs said. "And past character is toughness."
Ramsey's toughness also reveals one of his main flaws: holding the ball too long. Last season, Spurrier's offensive schemes were blamed for the sacks on Ramsey. However, the number of sacks greatly diminished after Ramsey injured his foot in November and was replaced by Hasselbeck. In Ramsey's two appearances this season, he has been sacked seven times.
"The main question about Ramsey is the decision-making," said one NFL general manager, who requested anonymity. "They blamed all those sacks on Steve Spurrier, but when I asked my scouts, they said that Tim Hasselbeck makes better decisions."
Gibbs, who has changed starting quarterbacks only four times as an NFL coach, has not spoken to Ramsey about the long-term stakes for the quarterback. And Ramsey insists that he doesn't necessarily view the quarterback switch as an audition to regain his old job. But the ramifications are clear.
"This is Patrick's election campaign," said Joe Theismann, the ESPN analyst who played quarterback in Washington from 1974 to 1985. "This is his chance to win another term."