In the Spotlight: Mark Brunell

It may be quite obvious to say that the quarterback of any NFL team, especially one as rich in signal caller history as the Washington Redskins, is in the spotlight. However, in this case the light is particularly hot and intense.

A year ago, Mark Brunell was gone. Although he still was on the roster that was a mere formality. Patrick Ramsey had been named the starter after taking over for a struggling Brunell after nine games in 2004. Joe Gibbs wanted to stick with him but a 63.9 quarterback rating and a generally ineffective offense dictated otherwise. Jason Campbell was the heir apparent. Brunell was there only because the team couldn't afford the cap hit that would occur if they were to cut him.

Or that's what everyone but Joe Gibbs thought, anyway.

In minicamp last year, Brunell did show some improvement. Here is what was noted here soon after that:

It says here that the final chapter of the Mark Brunell story has not yet been written. The conventional wisdom now is that the ending was him getting yanked in a November game against Cincinnati at FedEx Field after being the primary reason that the Redskins offense had been awful for the first half of the season. He's still with the team primarily because they couldn't afford to cut him. At minicamp last month, however, there was a zip to his arm that was not evident last year, not even during the preseason. To be sure, it wasn't like he was tossing 60-yard bombs with accuracy, but he was zipping the ball in on deep outs with good accuracy. Given that very few NFL quarterbacks make it through a season without an injury and that Jason Campbell would not be the one to replace Patrick Ramsey if and when he should have to sit down, it's likely that Redskins fans will have to go through what would be their ultimate cringe moment—Brunell at the helm in an important game. And if that happens, according to what it says here, many of those cringing will be pleasantly surprised.

Of course, we got that cringe moment very early in the season. Ramsey was clubbed in the head by Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs about 20 minutes in to the Redskins' season opener and left the game rather woozy. Brunell came in and even though Ramsey appeared to be fit to return to the game soon after leaving it, Brunell stayed in and the Redskins didn't score a touchdown in winning 9-7.

The next day, Gibbs made a stunning announcement at his Monday press conference:

"I made the decision to start Mark. I know a lot of people will disagree with this and I understand that. For me, I felt like it was a decision that I had to make."

Gibbs was thinking that he would be the Brunell of old, the one who had led the Jaguars to two AFC title games, not the old Brunell that we saw in 2004. The following week in Dallas it was vintage '04 for more than 50 minutes as the offense failed to even threaten much and the Redskins seemed to be destined to lose to the Cowboys yet again.

The comeback from the 13-0 hole was all the more stunning because it came as the result of a pair of picture-perfect Brunell bombs to Santana Moss. That game served as a springboard to a strong comeback season for Brunell. He threw 23 touchdowns compared to just 10 interceptions. Brunell's quarterback rating of 85.9 compared favorably with his production in his heyday in Jacksonville.

To be sure, he had some ups and downs. Along with the rest of the team he was utterly ineffective in a 36-0 loss to the Giants and he threw three interceptions in Arizona. In the third quarter of the game against the Giants on Christmas Eve, however, he took a hit to the knees—one that, in light of today's new rules following Carson Palmer's injury might have drawn a flag—and couldn't finish the game. The next week in Philadelphia he appeared to be hobbled and it took a late interception by Lamar Marshall for the Redskins to pull out the win and clinch a playoff berth. In the Wild Card game in Tampa Bay, he was awful, throwing for just 41 yards as the Redskins' defense again came up with key takeaways that allowed the Redskins to emerge victorious.

The next week in Seattle his numbers were better but the offense could put up only 10 points. Whether it was due to the hit on his knee or his 35 years of age, it appeared that Brunell ran out of gas. Another year on the body doesn't engender much confidence that he can take the Redskins through a 16-game season, much less a deep playoff run that is the expectation for the team in 2006.

Gibbs is expressing full confidence in Brunell—for now, anyway. Todd Collins was brought in to take over the of QB slot formerly occupied by Ramsey. Collins was brought in largely for his knowledge of Al Saunders' offense, not for his ability to challenge Brunell for the starting job.

The wild card is Jason Campbell, the second-year quarterback who did not take a snap last year. There are those who say that Gibbs prefers a veteran quarterback, but they haven't looked at his history very well. Mark Rypien did get his first chance when Doug Williams had to undergo an appendectomy during the 1988 season, but over the rest of that year and the next, Gibbs chose a healthy Rypien over a healthy Williams on several occasions.

Gibbs has said that Campbell will get the lion's share of the work during the preseason. If he performs well, Mark Brunell had better make sure he's aware of the footsteps behind him.

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