Like Wile E. Coyote before his inevitable demise, everything was going smoothly for Washington's offense before last Sunday. But after the "Massacre in the Meadowlands," a 36-0 whipping by the New York Giants in which they had more turnovers and penalties (nine) than first downs (seven), the Redskins need some leadership.
Coach Joe Gibbs, who traded for quarterback Mark Brunell to be his team's leader upon his return to the Redskins in 2004, said the 35-year-old is just the guy for the job as Washington (4-3) prepares for Sunday's visit by four-time defending NFC East champion Philadelphia (4-3). A victory and the Redskins are back in the thick of the division race. A loss and they've got the basement to themselves heading to Tampa Bay.
"Mark's a born leader," Gibbs said. "He has a lot of confidence. He has been there, done that. He's been in really tough situations. All of those reasons instill confidence in those around him. (But) none of us are going to be able to talk a team into believing in something. The quarterback (position) - I don't care about personality or anything else - comes down to production. Can you play?"
After playing so poorly in 2004 that he was benched in Week 9 and his career appeared to be over, Brunell had experienced an amazing renaissance prior to last week's debacle. From his first touchdown pass to Santana Moss with 3:46 remaining in his first start of the year on Sept. 19 at Dallas through the Oct. 23 rout of San Francisco, Brunell completed 91 of 153 passes for 1,250 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception.
"The way Mark plays inspires other guys, the way he takes some tough shots and still makes those throws," 20th-year offensive lineman Ray Brown said. "Guys feed off of that."
The NFC's leading passer prior to last week, Brunell had never played better, not even during his three Pro Bowl years. But after passing for just 65 yards - while being victimized by several drops - before being relieved by Patrick Ramsey with 16:07 left at New York, Brunell needs to show Sunday that last week was a bump in the road, not the opening of a canyon that will send the offense tumbling back to the oblivion of 2004.
Moss said Brunell didn't change as the offense crumbled, staying calm and not panicking
"If Mark had been uptight, it probably would have been worse," Moss said.
"You're not thinking about cracking jokes when you're just trying to complete a pass," Brunell said. "(But) we try to keep it light. This is a game. I have the best job in the world. I get to go out with 10 other guys and test myself against a defense. I'm going to make sure we have fun doing it. I guess that's (leadership) to a degree. Whatever your team needs, hopefully as a quarterback, you can meet."
Quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, who previously worked with Brunell in Jacksonville, said he's "very steady and focused. That's why he's had the success he's had over the years."
Typically, Brunell wasn't fazed by the blowout, especially since it came on the heels of five straight strong performances.
"We've done some very good things," Brunell said. "We've scored points. We've moved the ball. We've had big plays. We're a good team that had a real bad day. We're not going to start worrying about 'What if?' and 'If we don't do this, then what?' You can't play like that. The hard part is that you can't do anything about it until Sunday night. "
SERIES HISTORY - The Redskins lead the series 74-62-5, including a 20-6 playoff victory at Veterans Stadium in 1990 that was the last game for blowhard Buddy Ryan - whom Joe Gibbs couldn't stand - as coach of the Eagles. The most memorable meeting was Philadelphia's 28-14 victory two months earlier, in which Ryan's aggressive defense knocked Washington quarterbacks Jeff Rutledge and Stan Humphries out of the game, forcing Gibbs to play rookie backup running back Brian Mitchell, a college option quarterback, at the spot. "The Body Bag Game" as it came to be known after the boasting of Ryan and Co., made the playoff triumph that much sweeter for the usually mild-mannered Gibbs.
Notes and Quotes
--LB LaVar Arrington's re-emergence could culminate with a start against Philadelphia. After playing sparingly the first three games and not at all on defense at Denver or Kansas City, the three-time Pro Bowl pick had seven solo tackles in the Oct. 23 rout of San Francisco and played nearly 50 snaps last Sunday.
In the first half, Arrington played primarily when the Redskins used a 3-4 alignment but he played almost the entire second half at
outside linebacker in the 4-3 package, replacing Warrick Holdman.
While the defensive playing time is in the hands of assistant head coach Gregg Williams - who only speaks to the media on Thursdays - coach Joe Gibbs said that Arrington had a good day during Wednesday's practice and "is in a lot of the stuff that we're doing."
That includes snaps at defensive end in passing situations.
"I'm working to get better, I'll let the coaches worry about (who starts)," Arrington said. "I just want to be ready if my number is called."
--While Washington's defense has already lost six starts to injuries - all in the secondary - and figures to add that total against Philadelphia, the offense has been remarkably healthy. If left tackle Chris Samuels can overcome his sprained knee to start on Sunday, the Redskins will have reached midseason without losing a start on offense to injury.
BY THE NUMBERS
5 and 7: The Redskins have lost five straight games to the NFC East rival Eagles in Washington and seven in a row to them overall.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"Mark's one of the funniest guys in the huddle. I never played with a guy (before) who's making jokes in the middle of the game. You're looking around like, 'C'mon!' You're laughing. That's letting you know you've got a guy who's having fun with this game. Mark knows that we're prepared and going out there and making those plays for him. I guess we're giving him that confidence in the huddle." - Redskins WR Santana Moss on QB Mark Brunell.
--LDT Cornelius Griffin didn't practice Wednesday because of a hip flexor injury that sent him to the sideline after two snaps last Sunday. Griffin is questionable for Sunday.
--RDT Joe Salave'a didn't practice Wednesday because of the plantar fasciitis in his right foot that sent him to the sideline in the second half last Sunday. Salave'a is questionable for Sunday.
--RDE Phillip Daniels didn't practice on Wednesday because of the sprained ankle he suffered last Sunday. Daniels is probable for Sunday.
--LT Chris Samuels didn't practice on Wednesday because of the sprained right knee that sent him to the sideline in the second half last Sunday. Samuels is probable for Sunday.
--TE Robert Royal didn't practice on Wednesday because of a strained calf he suffered last Sunday against the New York Giants.
Offensively, the Redskins will try, as usual, to have Santana Moss spark the attack. If the Eagles repeat the Giants' success in controlling Moss, Brunell will look more for H-back Chris Cooley. And after the running game was a nonfactor in New York, Gibbs will want re-establish Clinton Portis against the Eagles' 21st-ranked run defense.
Defensively, the Redskins are praying that they can assemble a semblance of a front four with Cornelius Griffin, Joe Salave'a and Phillip Daniels all ailing. While Terrell Owens' likely absence makes blitzing more tempting, the Redskins would like to keep Eagles QB Donovan McNabb in the pocket because he's so effective on the move. At the same time, they don't want to let running back Brian Westbrook kill them underneath.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Redskins RT Jon Jansen vs. Eagles LDE Jevon Kearse: After missing all last year with a torn Achilles' tendon, Jansen has played all season with one or two broken thumbs. Like the entire Redskins team, Jansen struggled last week. Kearse, who's having a down year with just three sacks, is questionable after spraining his right shoulder last week at Denver. Kearse didn't practice on Wednesday.
Redskins WR Santana Moss vs. Eagles CB Lito Sheppard: Moss had been burning up the league until being held to four catches for 34 yards in last week's debacle in New York. Sheppard, who went to his first Pro Bowl in 2004, is the No. 1 corner for a secondary that was considered the NFL's best last year. However, the Eagles rank 25th in pass defense and gave up six completions of at least 20 yards in last week's one-sided defeat at Denver.
Redskins FS Sean Taylor vs. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb: If standout WR Terrell Owens - who's listed as doubtful - doesn't play, there will be even more pressure on McNabb to make plays. McNabb doesn't run nearly as frequently as he once did, but the swift and hard-hitting Taylor could well have the main responsibility to make sure that No. 5 doesn't kill the Redskins with his feet either by rolling out or running.
If Griffin can't play, either Ryan Boschetti would make his second career start or Cedric Killings would make his second career start, his first since 2000. If Salave'a and Griffin both can't play, Boschetti and Killings would start with undrafted rookie Aki Jones the lone backup. DEs Renaldo Wynn and Demetric Evans would pinch-hit inside, but Evans is first in line to start if Daniels can't. If Griffin, Salave'a and Daniels are all out, Evans would make his first start of the year with Nic Clemons, who has played in one career game, the lone backup outside other than pass-rushing linebackers LaVar Arrington and Chris Clemons.
If Samuels can't play, 42-year-old Ray Brown would make his first start at left tackle since December 1994.