- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

The inevitable became official yesterday when Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs named veteran Mark Brunell the starting quarterback for the Sept.12 opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Four preseason games of at best mediocre play by young incumbent Patrick Ramsey determined a race that didn’t match the fan passions of past Redskins quarterback battles. Brunell never sparkled but played with just enough efficiency — particularly in his second start, an Aug.21 win at Miami — to secure the job convincingly.

Gibbs took great care to maintain the appearance of fair competition by rotating the passers’ starts, and yesterday the coach maintained a bit of spin control. He repeatedly talked up Ramsey’s future and important, if reserve, role.

“The thing I want to say is how pleased we are with our quarterback situation, period, and how much we think of Patrick,” Gibbs said after practice. “I talked to him yesterday and told him I think we’re going to be together for a long time. Obviously he has a huge role in what we’re going to do here because you’re always one play away.

“It’s just time for us to make a decision. We need to spend time with the quarterback and receivers on timing, which we haven’t been able to get, because we’re in and out, in and out, in and out.”

Brunell, a three-time Pro Bowl player during nine seasons (1995 to 2003) with the Jacksonville Jaguars, provides Gibbs with a track record of winning at this level. That experience seemed to permit him to remain calm the past month, while Ramsey, according to those close to him, probably tried too hard.

Few throws of consequence were made by Brunell during the open portion of training camp, and in the preseason he has just a 71.3 rating, based on 55 percent completions, one touchdown and one interception. But he never seemed rattled by the challenge of grasping a new offense with a 2002 first-round pick also contending for the post.

“I’m hoping my pressing days are long behind me,” Brunell said with a laugh. “I’ve just been doing it awhile. I like the offense. I like the guys that I get to play with. We’ve got a lot of talent, a great system, a proven system. [Now] it’s, ‘Let’s go out and make the right reads, do what you’re coached to do and lead the team.’”

Brunell was expected to start after he was acquired from the Jaguars in March for a third-round pick and given a seven-year, $43million contract. Partly for that reason, the race never held much drama. Brunell took the lead when Ramsey struggled in the Aug. 14 loss to the Carolina Panthers, and a week later the veteran assumed control by going 7-for-9 and guiding two touchdown drives against the Dolphins.

In recent years, injuries have dogged Brunell, who turns 34 on Sept.17. But yesterday he proclaimed himself “probably as healthy as I’ve ever been.”

Ramsey composed himself well in speaking to reporters, expressing disappointment at the outcome and hope that he won’t be needed in his new role.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Ramsey said. “I think there are things I could have done better in the preseason. And I think this is a result of that. Mark played well. I fully support him. It’s his job now, and I hope he leads us to wins.”

Friday’s blowout loss at St. Louis clinched the derby. Although Ramsey showed continued progress from the Panthers game, he missed several key throws, including one to open wide receiver James Thrash in the end zone.

For now, it remains unclear whether Ramsey struggled to execute the offense, couldn’t pick it up quickly enough or permitted his frustration with Brunell’s signing (Ramsey’s agent briefly lobbied for a trade) to affect his mind-set.

Regardless, this preseason was a big step back for Ramsey, who posted a pair of 300-yard games in the first few weeks of 2003 but eventually absorbed enough hits to exit in November. Ramsey seemed panicky in the pocket and unable to throw accurately.

“These past two games I felt more comfortable,” Ramsey said. “I certainly can get more comfortable than I have been. At the same time, that’s an excuse. I’m not making that as an excuse, but I can get more comfortable.”

Gibbs shrugged off the perception that Ramsey never mounted a serious challenge, saying reporters couldn’t see the race’s nuances in practice.

“You see the games, and everybody draws conclusions on that,” Gibbs said. “And really in games, even, [the quarterbacks are] in and out of there pretty quickly at times. … We think [Patrick is] smart. We think he’s tough. He’s got a great arm. It’s just a matter of us continuing to work.”

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