Mark Brunell is precisely the same quarterback he was a year ago. His mechanics are unchanged and there is nothing inherently different about him. Any impression that he appeared quicker and more elusive in the preseason, with considerably more oomph on his passes, was an optical illusion, Brunell and his coaches say, a byproduct of the second- and third-string defenses he was playing against, perhaps.
Physically, save for last season's hamstring injury, Brunell is in identical health tonight as he heads into his first start of the season in Dallas, and on this topic the Washington Redskins leave no room for debate. There was no magic elixir to account for the 35-year-old's dramatically improved performances the last six weeks, no velocity-inducing salve rubbed on his throwing shoulder, and no profound change in his offseason regimen. He is essentially the same man who struggled mightily and was benched midway through last season.
Now, though, he has a revamped system and new starting receivers to work with. Brunell is more steeped in the offense a year after being acquired, with what the Redskins consider a better game plan and more effective weapons, and the assumption is that with those changes will come renewed production from a passer who had had a beleaguered history in Washington.
"This year, I'm a different guy in that I've been in the system for a year," Brunell said, "and I think we've got more talent this year, I really do. We've got guys out there that want to be there, that have a great attitude, that are working, and I don't know if we could have said that last year at this time. But this year we can. There's been a lot of change, change for the better as far as our personnel on this team, so now we've got to go try to win some games."
No one bore the brunt of Washington's 2004 offensive ineptitude more directly than Brunell and Coach Joe Gibbs and, after an eight-game hiatus with Patrick Ramsey running the offense, they are reunited again, attempting to prove that they can get the ball downfield, score points and win games.
Given the results last year, there are plenty of doubters. That Gibbs was willing to replace Ramsey after three offensive series in Week 1 with Brunell clearly says something about his level of confidence in the two passers, and his eagerness to see Brunell, who was signed to a seven-year, $43 million deal including an $8.6 million signing bonus, get snaps in this modernized attack.
"I see him being spry myself, but I can't say he looks quicker or faster than last year," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "I haven't found myself thinking that way. I don't see any change; all I see is someone who seemingly knows what we're trying to do after being in it for a year. I see some decision-making -- him making quick decisions -- and I think he understands what we want. That's what I see. I don't see anything physically different."
Still, Brunell must play exponentially better than he did in nine starts last year, and faces an immediate challenge in Washington's archrival, on the road on "Monday Night Football." Brunell's best 2004 outing was against the Cowboys in Week 3, a few days after pulling his hamstring. Brunell concedes that the lingering hamstring problem hindered him "a little bit," and the 12th-year-pro bottomed out in the ninth game, going 1 for 8 for six yards on Nov. 14 against Cincinnati amid a torrent of boos from the FedEx Field crowd, leaving Gibbs almost no choice but to finally pull him.
Brunell's return in Week 1 was modest -- 8 for 14 for 70 yards without a touchdown or interception -- and the offense failed to get in the end zone in a 9-7 victory over Chicago. He was 1 for 5 throwing to Santana Moss, the new number one receiver, and did not work with Moss or counterpart David Patten at all in four preseason games. But Brunell's ability to protect the football -- Ramsey's biggest flaw -- against the Bears and his strong preseason play were enough to sway Gibbs back.
"To Mark's benefit," Gibbs said, "I think he's been really consistent with his play since we started back this year. I think he's been confident and sure."
"I think he's a threat," Dallas Coach Bill Parcells said. "He's still got some mobility. He's a smart quarterback."
Brunell, however, places little stock in his preseason success, realizing that many of the defenders he was facing in the second half of games ended up being cut, while he was working largely with reserves.
"In preseason, it's tough to gauge anything," he said.
After former receivers Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner bristled at Washington's ultra-conservative attack last season and were granted their wish to be traded, Brunell yearns to build chemistry with Moss and Patten, who have impressed teammates with their hunger and desire to work after practice.
Their addition, coupled with a bolstered offensive line and an offense no longer obsessed with quarterback protection, is supposed to make things better this time around. With Gibbs now a year back from his long retirement, plays should be called more swiftly. The Redskins finally added more three- and four-receiver sets, implemented the shotgun, brought in quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave (who worked with Brunell in Jacksonville), and have retooled the running game to fit Clinton Portis's strengths. Last year, the Redskins finished 30th in total offense, could not complete long plays and were considered by many to be running an antiquated scheme.
"In point of fact," said Leigh Steinberg, Brunell's agent, "Mark was stuck in an offensive scheme last year that simply was not functioning. Any quarterback in that system would have experienced certain problems."
Steinberg, a prominent agent with a penchant for quarterbacks, said he studied Brunell closely last season. He heard the charges that his client was washed up, and consulted former players and talent evaluators, urging them to be brutally honest. "Unanimously, they said Mark's skill set had not precipitously declined," according to Steinberg.
Others around the NFL would disagree, and Brunell's statistics tell an ugly story.
Of the 32 highest ranked passers in this 32-team league, only A.J. Feeley (61.7) and Ken Dorsey (62.4) had worse passer ratings than Brunell's 63.9. Feeley is the number three quarterback behind former Redskins castoffs Gus Frerotte and Sage Rosenfels in Miami, the league's second-worst team last season, while Dorsey is the number three quarterback, behind journeyman Tim Rattay and rookie Alex Smith, for San Francisco, the NFL's worst team last season.
Brunell ranked 32nd in completion percentage (49.8), and worst in average yards per attempt (5.04), while the Redskins ranked 31st in yards per pass (5.59) and 31st in points per game (15). His most recent outing mirrored some of those numbers -- five yards per attempt, for instance -- and Brunell threw for 125 yards or less in six of his nine starts, and for 220 yards only once last season (325 yards and two touchdowns against Dallas). This is not a season the quarterback cares to reflect upon.
"I'm not going to really talk about last season anymore," Brunell said. "I'm tired of that. I know I'll probably have to answer questions until we turn things around, and I hope we can win some games and put that to rest. In my mind that was last year; this is a new year and a new opportunity. Entirely different football team. Entirely different situation."
In his last five starts, Brunell completed just 53 of 120 passes (44.2 percent), for 460 yards (3.8 yards per attempt), with four touchdowns and five interceptions. He was sacked nine times in that span, and registered a horrid quarterback rating of 48.6; by comparison, Ryan Leaf, a former second overall pick considered by some the biggest bust in NFL history, had a 50.0 rating in his career, throwing 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions in 26 career appearances.
"Our feeling as a staff," one AFC personnel executive said, "and I feel pretty comfortable saying there was a general feeling in the league, is that Brunell was going downhill in Jacksonville and he'd lost a step. Athleticism is crucial to him because the guy has to run to succeed, and we thought he didn't want to get hit anymore. And then he went and played with the Redskins and was horrible. I know he had a hamstring [injury] and Gibbs has said they have better talent this year, but common sense says a guy shouldn't be better two years later than he was at 33."
The executive said his team's scout assigned to the Redskins watched several preseason games, and saw some improvement in Brunell.
"Our guy says he looks better than he did a year ago, with more zip on the ball, but he was playing nobodies. He said you just don't know what you have there until you go against good players. The coverage is pretty basic in the preseason, and when it's the second team in there it's very basic, so you're going to have guys wide open a lot of the time if the quarterback knows what he's doing."
Gibbs was a staunch defender of Brunell's arm strength last season even as he failed weekly to complete passes of 30 yards or more, and remains confident in that aspect of play.
"We think Mark has plenty of arm," Gibbs said.
Moss and Patten have the speed to get behind defenses, and the staff is dedicated to finding a way to connect for chunks of yards.
"We're throwing the ball downfield a lot more," H-back Chris Cooley said. "And Mark has a lot more options right now."
But after missing all but three games of the 2003 season with injuries, and losing his starting position twice in the last two years, Brunell is trying to turn back the clock. He has not thrown for 230 yards or more in consecutive games since December 2001, and is 9-18 in 27 starts over the past three seasons (4-14 in his last 18). Brunell has not won consecutive starts since November 2002.
Yet considering how far he fell last year, even being back in this starting role is an accomplishment of sorts. Brunell reworked his contract to create cap room for the Redskins, was utterly professional when backing up Ramsey and is undefeated in 2005. This may well be his last chance to prove he can be a productive NFL starter, a few months after some thought his career, at least in Washington, might be over. Where once the debate was over whether Brunell would even remain a Redskin, he is now positioned to lead the team
"You hope [to come back]," Brunell said. "I didn't wonder [about being released], but you hope for an opportunity like this, and I'm really thankful to have it. But there's nothing given to you in this league. You've got to earn it, you've got to play hard and play smart, and I hope to continue that this season."