- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Washington Redskins head into Sunday’s game at Dallas with momentum, confidence and — get this — an outside shot at the playoffs. That makes it worth considering what might have happened if the Redskins hadn’t waited until late November to start playing decent football.

Or, to be more specific, where the club might be if it had changed quarterbacks earlier.

“In the playoffs,” one NFL general manager said.

No issue will haunt Washington more this offseason than coach Joe Gibbs sticking with quarterback Mark Brunell through nine brutal starts. By the time Patrick Ramsey got the nod in the second quarter of the Nov.14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Redskins were well on their way to 3-6 with a season-killing four-game stretch looming.

As it turned out, Washington’s season was killed. But this week it was resurrected by the broad mediocrity of the NFC. Suddenly the Redskins could squeak into the final wild-card spot by winning their last two games and by having a few other games around the league fall their way.

In other words, another win earlier in the year would make all the difference. And as far as some observers are concerned, that win would have come if Gibbs had yanked Brunell earlier.

“They’re not asking Ramsey to do a whole lot, but he’s just so much better than the other guy,” the general manager said. “Based on what I’ve seen, there’s no question in my mind that they’d be in the playoffs right now.”

Perspective from within the team isn’t so critical. Interviews with a number of players and club officials in recent days revealed no serious second-guessing of Gibbs. However, given the opportunity to speak privately, some of those interviewed confirmed there were questions about whether Gibbs waited too long.

“I know there were a lot of different guys that felt that way,” one player said, adding that he tried to ignore the situation himself.

Gibbs defended his handling of the position this week, saying both the initial decision to start Brunell and subsequent choices to stick with him were correct.

“What we did, I think, was the right thing to do,” Gibbs said. “We put it out in preseason. They all competed for it. I think it worked out how it was supposed to work out. Then as I went forward during the season, to me, it was the right timing. Everybody else, I’m afraid you’ll have to suffer with my thoughts and my timing. Everybody else may have a different opinion.”

No one would argue that Ramsey, who completed just 44.8 percent of his preseason passes, deserved to start the season ahead of Brunell. But as the weeks progressed and Washington’s offense sank to the bottom of the NFL, there appeared to be two logical points at which a switch could have occurred and potentially turned around the season:

• During the Oct. 24 bye week, after Brunell threw for less than 100 yards in each of the previous two weeks. Washington was 2-4 and had two full weeks to get Ramsey up to speed. Even if the Redskins didn’t beat Green Bay on Oct.31, Ramsey’s increased experience might have reversed one of several later losses.

• After the Nov. 7 win at Detroit. Brunell returned from the bye weekend and played just well enough against the Packers to convince Gibbs things were headed in the right direction. Even conceding that, Brunell’s 6-for-17 performance against the Lions (58 yards, two second-half passing attempts) could have sparked change. Instead, Brunell got one more start and staked Ramsey to a 17-0 deficit in the Bengals game.

“I think it was a process that worked out,” Gibbs said. “I wouldn’t have changed it week to week. As a matter of fact, I think back to the Green Bay game, the man made some of the best plays I’ve seen in a game, actually won the game for us in the fourth quarter. I still remember that, and I’m not going to forget it.”

The organization, at least for the foreseeable future, seems likely to support such thinking. Those interviewed for this story generally supported Gibbs, saying no one figured Ramsey would adjust as well as he has and that the offense had, and to a lesser extent continues to have, broad issues.

“People can always second-guess anything,” one player said. “Guys could have blocked better. He could have made a few more throws. Guys could have caught a few more balls. I thought it was a whole offense thing.”

More significant, however, is the impact Gibbs’ three Super Bowl rings have had in repairing fractures in the franchise. One club official said the atmosphere has changed starkly from the past two years under coach Steve Spurrier, when Spurrier’s indecision made second-guessing easier.

Added one player: “I left it up to Gibbs. I figured he knew what he was doing.”

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