- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS — Joe Gibbs always has and always will prefer veteran quarterbacks. Just look at the ages of Gibbs’ three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks during his first stint as coach of the Washington Redskins: Joe Theismann (33), Doug Williams (32) and Mark Rypien (29).

The question surely on the minds of Redskins fans today is whether Mark Brunell — on track to become Washington’s 17th starting quarterback since Gibbs originally retired in 1992 — has a chance to realize similar success at age 34 and beyond. The consensus opinion around the NFL scouting combine yesterday was that Brunell still has plenty of football left in him.

“He can win games,” said Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who has faced Brunell more than a dozen times over the years. “I have great respect for him. And there’s no question in my mind that he can start for somebody.”

That somebody will be the Redskins, who came to terms with Brunell late Thursday on a seven-year, $43million contract. Brunell is all but sure to be traded from Jacksonville to Washington on March3 for a third-round draft pick, completing the transaction.

Gibbs, who will make his first public comments since the deal was finalized today at the combine, said previously that 24-year-old incumbent Patrick Ramsey will have an opportunity to compete for the starting job. But it seems highly implausible the Redskins would give Brunell an $8.6million signing bonus to serve as a backup.

That means Brunell is all but guaranteed to become the next in a long line of starting quarterbacks to come to Washington over the last decade-plus.

“I’m excited,” Brunell told the Florida Times-Union on Thursday night. “The Redskins are a great organization, and I’ll be going to a good situation for me. It’s also going to be an honor to play for someone like Coach Gibbs. I can’t wait to get started.”

Brunell had known for some time his address would be changing after nine years in Jacksonville, but as recently as two weeks ago, he had no reason to believe Washington would be his final destination.

Benched after three games last season because of an elbow injury, Brunell wound up losing his job to rookie Byron Leftwich. The Jaguars intended to release him before March3, and Brunell intended to become a free agent with a number of probable suitors.

But the Redskins jumped into the fray and opened trade discussions with Jacksonville. Gibbs flew to the area Feb.9 to meet with Brunell, and the two had an unusual bonding experience; the coach, a diabetic, was driven by the quarterback to a local hospital to receive an insulin shot. And before any other clubs could get seriously involved, the Redskins had commandeered the market on Brunell.

“It was a one-horse race,” said San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, who gave up his pursuit upon realizing a trade was the only option.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t teams around the league intrigued by Brunell.

“He can play,” Smith said. “He’s got a lot of experience. I think he’s outstanding, and I think it was not only the Chargers but a lot of other teams who believe that.”

League personnel chiefs who came to that conclusion believe Brunell can regain his previous form and sustain it for at least a couple of years. He’s not the same mobile, high-flying quarterback he was in 1996, when he led the second-year Jaguars to a surprise AFC Championship game appearance against Tennessee. But, many believe, he’s also not the same quarterback who spent most of last season behind Leftwich and David Garrard on Jacksonville’s depth chart.

“Mark went through a difficult situation this year,” Fisher said. “We all understand the decision that the organization made, and we understand why. I think there’s a positive from that: He’s healthy. He didn’t take all the punishment this year. His legs are in good shape. … He’s a very talented player, and I think he’s an exceptional leader, also, based on my observation and the tough games we played against him.”

Still the ninth-highest-rated passer in league history with an 85.2 rating, the left-handed Brunell was selected in the fifth round of the 1993 draft by Green Bay. Despite limited playing time behind Brett Favre, he was highly regarded and in 1995 was traded to Jacksonville for third- and fifth-round draft picks.

Brunell’s career immediately took off. He started 13 games for the expansion Jaguars in 1995 and wowed fans with both his arm (15 touchdown passes) and his legs (238 rushing yards). A steady, consistent performer, the California native became the most famous man in Jacksonville — a likeable, winning quarterback who had an indelible impact on the community.

A 2002 winner of the NFL Players Association’s Byron “Whizzer” White Humanitarian Award, Brunell has received accolades for the foundation that bears his name, which seeks to help children facing chronic or life-threatening illnesses. He also has built a reputation as one of the NFL’s most publicly religious players.

“Friendship is extremely important to him,” agent Leigh Steinberg said. “Church is extremely important to him. Family is extremely important to him.”

Brunell’s popularity began to decline in recent years, though, as the Jaguars plummeted from a perennial playoff contender to one of the league’s bottom feeders. His record as a starting quarterback the last four years was 19-30, though he didn’t shy away from criticism.

“Mark always shouldered the responsibility,” Steinberg said. “Mark never criticized the team or the fans, even in the roughest of times. He never, ever lashed out. He’s a man’s man.”

In Washington, Brunell will have an opportunity to resurrect his career — and make pretty good money in the process. But he doesn’t figure to come close to seeing the end of his new contract.

The Redskins gave Brunell seven years, but that was simply a tactic to minimize his impact on the salary cap. One-sixth of the $8.6million signing bonus ($1.43million) will count against the cap each of the next six years. Brunell likely will play two to four years in Washington, with all the remaining bonus money counting against the cap the year following his eventual release.

Two to four years of good health with the Redskins is hardly a sure thing, though. Brunell still has not played since suffering his elbow injury last September, and he has had two concussions since 2001, causing a few around the league to question whether his best days are long behind him.

“He is in absolutely perfect health,” Steinberg said. “Is he going to leap over offensive linemen the way he did in the 1996 playoffs? Probably not. But if the question is whether he’s an aging quarterback, he’s not. He’s going to just roll along now for the next four or five years.”

If Brunell can join Theismann, Williams and Rypien as veteran Super Bowl quarterbacks, Redskins fans probably would settle for just one.

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