- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Patrick Ramsey will be the Washington Redskins’ starting quarterback Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles — that much we know.

But who will be under center for the Redskins next week? Or next month? Or next year?

That’s where things start to get complicated and where considerations like the salary cap and the upcoming free agent market could prove just as significant as any on-field developments over the season’s final month-and-a-half.

For now and the foreseeable future, the job is Ramsey’s. Joe Gibbs didn’t technically announce Monday that Ramsey will start all of Washington’s remaining seven games, but the coach acknowledged he wants to take a long, hard look at the third-year quarterback before making any more changes.

That should provide some level of comfort to Ramsey, who waited nine weeks to get the nod over veteran Mark Brunell and now faces the daunting task of back-to-back road games against two of the NFL’s top teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Make no mistake, Gibbs and his coaching staff want to see how Ramsey handles his first two starts of the year. But they won’t attempt to draw any real conclusions until they’ve given him an extended look.

Ramsey seems to understand that, saying he regards the next seven weeks as “an audition to lead this football team.”

“I know there’s a plan,” he said. “I know there’s a reason for this. I just have to try to make the most of this opportunity and help us win games.”

But what then? What happens after the Jan.2 season finale against Minnesota (assuming Washington doesn’t rally from a 3-6 record to make the playoffs)?

Gibbs isn’t ready to tackle his team’s long-term plans quite yet.

“My focus is always the next game,” he said. “I think the best way to prepare the franchise is to make the absolute best preparation that you can. I think our players feel the same way. We want to try to get some wins here.”

One week at a time or not, Gibbs and the Redskins will face some tough decisions in January. They must decide whether Ramsey truly can be their franchise quarterback or whether they must start all over again from scratch. And they must decide whether Brunell is worth keeping as one of the league’s priciest backups or whether they are better off releasing him and taking the massive salary cap hit that would accompany such a move.

Seven weeks from now, the Redskins should have reached a firm decision on Ramsey. The 25-year-old quarterback will have had ample time to learn Gibbs’ offense and shake off any bad habits lingering from his two seasons under Steve Spurrier.

Many around the league and inside Redskin Park believe Ramsey can be a highly successful NFL quarterback. But all agree that he’s got seven weeks to go out and prove it, or else Gibbs will have no choice but to turn in another direction in 2005.

Gibbs always could decide to go back to Brunell at some point, but given the 34-year-old’s atrocious play through the season’s first nine games, that appears unlikely. Thus, the Redskins will have to decide whether to keep Brunell as a backup or cut him.

Either scenario will cost the club money. Brunell signed a seven-year, $43million contract last spring that included an $8.6million signing bonus. If he stays in Washington in 2005, he’ll count $3.433million against the salary cap. If he’s released before April1, when he’s due to earn a $500,000 roster bonus, the Redskins would be saddled with a $7.167million cap charge for a player no long on their roster.

The more likely scenario would have the Redskins waiting until June1 to cut Brunell, after which his cap charge could be spread out over two years ($1.933million in 2005, $5.734million in 2006). Still, that’s a hefty number for a club already expected to face serious cap problems in 2006.

If Ramsey does not pan out as a starter, his future in Washington also will be in limbo. Signed through 2006, Ramsey will count $1.722million against the cap if he stays next year, $1.24million if he’s released before June1 and $620,000 for two straight years if he’s released post-June1.

After all that, Gibbs still would need to go out and find himself another quarterback. The upcoming free agent market isn’t likely to be littered with big names, but there are a couple of interesting possibilities.

Drew Brees is having a career year in San Diego with 18 touchdowns, three interceptions and a sparkling 108.7 passer rating. But the Chargers are almost certain to play first-round pick Phillip Rivers next season, and that means Brees — who is in the final year of his contract — is going to be in high demand. Knowing all this, San Diego could decide to slap the franchise tag on Brees and then seek to trade him.

Jon Kitna’s name has been mentioned, but Carson Palmer’s backup in Cincinnati is signed through 2005 and has expressed a desire to remain with the Bengals. Kurt Warner, too, is under contract through next season, but with the Giants now turning to rookie Eli Manning, the one-time league MVP could become available next spring.

One final intriguing possibility is Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle’s Pro Bowl quarterback and brother of Redskins third-stringer Tim Hasselbeck. Matt Hasselbeck is in the final year of his contract, and the Seahawks have yet to make any serious attempt to re-sign him. If he makes it to free agency, Hasselbeck could be an attractive target for the Redskins.

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