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Picking a quarterback can be a dicey decision

The Redskins, it's becoming increasingly clear, have a quarterback of the future (Jason Campbell, they hope), a quarterback of the past (going-on-35 Mark Brunell), but no quarterback of the present. This could turn out to be a problem, inasmuch as they still have 15 games to play this season.

Patrick Ramsey, who was supposed to be the quarterback of the present, has instead become a quarterback who keeps making a present of the football, gifting the opposition with an interception and a fumble in the first three series Sunday. It was no great shock, then, when Joe Gibbs benched him yesterday and turned, once again, to Brunell. Ramsey, in his fourth year as a pro and second under Gibbs, just isn't progressing the way you'd like. In fact, there are times, like the Bears game, when he seems to be going in the other direction.

"I'm looking toward someone really establishing himself as the quarterback," Coach Joe said. Ramsey, alas, wasn't able to do that, despite some encouraging play in the second half of last season. And so he'll join Campbell in assistant Bill Musgrave's Remedial Quarterbacking class.

No position in the NFL is quite as confounding as the quarterback position, perhaps because no position is quite as important. Teams spend millions of dollars every year on scouting, analyze prospects right down to their choice of boxers or briefs ... and then they draft Ryan Leaf second overall. Sometimes you wonder if it wouldn't be better to just flip a coin.

Especially when you look at the quarterbacks who've been showing up in the Super Bowl lately -- quarterbacks like Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme, who came into the league as undrafted free agents, and Tom Brady, a former sixth-round pick. It's the same with the Pro Bowl. Trent Green, who played in the game two seasons ago, was originally an eighth-rounder. Matt Hasselbeck and Marc Bulger, who appeared in that same Pro Bowl, were sixth-rounders. Brunell, a three-time Pro Bowler, was a fifth-rounder. No fewer than eight starting quarterbacks in Week 1, one out of four, were drafted in the fifth round or later (or not at all). You won't find that at running back or No. 1 receiver or lead cornerback.

Fact is, identifying and developing a quarterback is a dicey business. Which is why Heath Shuler, the third name off the board in the '94 draft, is running for Congress and Gus Frerotte, the 197th name off the board, is running the offense down in Miami -- and leading the Dolphins to a 34-10 win in Nick Saban's coaching debut. You just never know.

And we still don't know about Ramsey, not really. Because he was a first-round pick (albeit the last pick of the first round), he was expected to be The Man by now -- not a star, necessarily, but certainly the unquestioned starter. Instead, he's back on the sideline (while his successor at Tulane, second-year man J.P. Losman, starts in Buffalo).

But there's no set timetable for NFL quarterbacks, no one way to develop them. Peyton Manning played in his first Pro Bowl at 23; Green played in his first at 33. Or consider the two QBs taken in the first round in '95. Steve McNair was brought along slowly by the Titans for two seasons -- and wound up going to the Super Bowl; Kerry Collins was thrown into the fire by the Panthers -- and also wound up going to the Super Bowl (with the Giants in 2000). Everybody has a different learning curve, a different biological clock.

These were the things floating through Gibbs' head as he decided what to do with his quarterbacks -- or rather, they should have been the things floating through his head. He has Ramsey, who's struggling. He has Brunell, who's less mistake-prone but no more than a stopgap. And he has Campbell, who's nowhere near ready for NFL defenses (and hardly guaranteed to turn into Something Special).

His choice, as it turned out, was utterly predictable. After all, when young Mark Rypien had problems with fumbles in 1989, Gibbs sat him down and replaced him with veteran Doug Williams. When young Stan Humphries had kept throwing interceptions the following season, Gibbs sat him down and replaced him with veteran Jeff Rutledge. Why would Coach Joe respond any differently to the current crisis?

"Most of our quarterbacks, when they were young, had some setbacks in there," he said. "It's not unusual."

Rypien recovered from his setbacks and led the Redskins to the Super Bowl. Humphries didn't recover and was traded to San Diego (where he led the Chargers to the Super Bowl). With Campbell cooling his cleats in the waiting room, Ramsey's fate will probably be closer to Humphries' than Rypien's. Maybe if he can get away from Washington -- the high standards, fishbowl existence, the 90,000 seats -- he can still make something of his career. But it would be a surprise, after this, if he lasted much longer here.

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