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Brunell just isn’t the man

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Well, Joe Gibbs proved his point. The Redskins could win with Mark Brunell as their quarterback. A mad, improbable dash in the final five weeks enabled them to squeeze into the playoffs for just the second time in 13 years -- and even make it to the second round.

But the real question, the question on which next season hinges, is: How much did Brunell have to do with the winning?

And the answer, if we're truly being honest here, is: not as much as a quarterback should -- especially if the team's goal is to get back to the Super Bowl.

Gibbs, I'm convinced, got everything he possibly could out of Brunell this year: 11 victories (counting the postseason), 23 touchdown passes, an 85.9 passer rating. That's Coach Joe's specialty -- getting the absolute maximum out of his QBs.

And Brunell, I'm equally convinced, gave the Redskins everything he had, everything left in his 35-year-old body. Folks, that's as well as Mark Brunell can play at this point in his career.

Here's the problem, though: It isn't enough. Brunell, it became clear as the season progressed, is merely a transitional quarterback for the Redskins, a guy capable of having some nice moments but incapable of being the Next Theismann or Next Rypien. And if the Redskins persist in pretending otherwise, they'll only be stunting the franchise's growth.

Gibbs ran plenty of interference for Brunell as his performance declined this season. He constantly talked, for instance, about what a tremendous "leader" No. 8 is. But isn't a leader someone who shows the way, who helps his club get off to a good start in games? Brunell led the Redskins to a grand total of two scores, 14 points, in 17 opening drives this year. (He didn't start the opener.) Three of those possessions ended when he personally committed a turnover (one interception, two fumbles); five others were three-and-outs.

In the final seven weeks, particularly, Brunell tended to start games very slowly. Only once did he have more than 33 passing yards in the first quarter. And check out his first-half passer ratings in the last five road games: 58.5, 22.5, 48.2, 50.5, 53.5. Sorry, but if you're going to be a great "leader," you have to do better than that.

(Fortunately for him, Gregg Williams' defense was playing out of its mind.)

Gibbs also talked about the offense -- and, by extension, Brunell -- being restricted because of injuries to David Patten and James Thrash. Granted, Jimmy Farris is no one's idea of a No. 3 receiver; but instead of dwelling on who wasn't there for No. 8, let's remind ourselves who was:

• Clinton Portis, who set a club record with 1,516 rushing yards.

• Santana Moss, who set a club record with 1,483 receiving yards.

• Chris Cooley, who set a club record for tight ends/H-backs with 71 receptions.

• Probably the highest-paid offensive line in NFL history. (And one of the better units in the league.)

• Gibbs, a master strategist.

I mean, come on, Brunell had plenty of weapons on offense, plenty of things going for him. (The stat that blows my mind is this one: Cooley and Mike Sellers combined for 14 TD catches.)

Still, the Redskins were held to less than 20 points in 10 of their 18 games, including both playoff contests. (And it would have been 11 if they hadn't had the benefit of overtime in the first Seattle game.) That's way too many. And while Brunell's overall passer rating was a respectable 85.9, the figure -- I humbly assert -- is inflated. Why? Because 11 of his 23 touchdown passes were little dink jobs measuring 8 or fewer yards. Eleven!

Put it this way: If Brunell was playing so great, why was Portis throwing passes in the playoffs -- both of them in scoring territory? You don't do that out of strength.

Yes, the Redskins took a step forward this season, a big step forward. But it's hard to see where the road leads from here, the quarterback situation being what it is. Brunell isn't getting any better, stepchild/QB Patrick Ramsey well could be traded in the offseason and young Jason Campbell might not be ready to be the starter, let alone to take over a team with such high expectations.

Coach Joe himself says the Redskins' 5-1 division record this season "will be tough to duplicate in the future." Actually, everything about the 2005 season will be tough to duplicate next year ... that is, if the quarterback picture remains unchanged.

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