- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

It happened to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, who was a top right-hander one day and who lost the strike zone the next. The condition became known as Steve Blass Disease.

It happened to Rick Ankiel, a young St. Louis Cardinals pitcher a few years ago when his fastballs started locating the backstop more than the plate.

“It” is a sudden and mysterious inability to perform a routine task fundamental to a sport.

Batting slumps occur all the time, but when a veteran second baseman like Chuck Knoblauch or Steve Sax can’t make the easy throw to first base, people notice. It has happened to other pitchers, like Mark Wohlers; to catcher Mackey Sasser, who could not throw the ball back to the pitcher; and to golfers with the “yips” who miss every easy putt.

But rarely, if ever, has it hit a quarterback the way it has Mark Brunell of the Washington Redskins, who at this point can barely complete a pass.

Before being benched by coach Joe Gibbs and replaced by Patrick Ramsey in the second quarter of Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati, Brunell was 1-for-8 for six yards. In the game before that, a win over Detroit in which he threw just two passes in the second half, he was 6-for-17 for 58 yards. That’s 7-for-25, mostly on short and medium attempts, in the last two games.

Receivers dropped some passes but mainly Brunell’s throws sailed high or skidded low, traveled wide left or right. It didn’t matter if he rolled out or stood in the pocket, threw long or short, under pressure or given time.

The pro football world is baffled, if not stunned, by the rapid descent of Brunell, a 34-year-old veteran in his 12th season. Even quarterbacks-turned-analysts — who know how to play the position, love to talk about it and have just about have seen it all — have trouble recalling anything like this.

“In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d see Mark Brunell throw the football the way he’s throwing it,” ESPN commentator and former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said.

Said ESPN’s Sean Salisbury: “There have been some shockers this year — the way the Chargers have played, and the Bears and the Chiefs — but I’m no more shocked by any of those than I am by the way Mark has played.

“It’s hard to watch. If you turned on the TV and watched Mark play this season, you’d say something’s wrong. Is he hurt? Can he not throw it 15 yards anymore? He looks different, the way the ball pops out of his hand. It’s not like he’s 47 or he doesn’t have that desire. It just looks like he can’t get it done.”

In his last five games, Brunell is 53 for 120 (44.1 percent) with four touchdowns and five interceptions, averaging 3.83 yards per attempt. (The NFL average is 7.12.) The stretch includes a game against Green Bay in which he went 25 for 44 for 218 yards.

But wait, it gets worse. Brunell’s passer rating of 63.9 is the lowest among 32 quarterbacks with enough attempts to qualify. This is perhaps the craziest number of all, considering he had an 85.7 rating with Jacksonville in 2002, his last full season, and that his career 85.2 rating before this year was 11th in league history.

Even though some of the scamper is gone from his legs and his arm, never a cannon in the first place, has lost some zip, the left-handed Brunell always maintained his touch, completing 60.8 percent of his passes during his career. This year he stands at 49.8 percent.

Such a precipitous drop in two crucial quarterback indicators is practically unheard of.

Some have speculated that Brunell is still getting used to Gibbs’ offense, or that his options are limited because sometimes only two receivers go out on patterns. But that also affords Brunell more protection and doesn’t explain how he can’t hit an open receiver 8 yards away.

“That has nothing to do with the system,” Theismann said.

Is it mechanical? A loss of confidence? Brunell has acknowledged his poor play but has been loath to shed any light on the subject. Maybe that’s because he, like everyone else, is puzzled by what’s going on.

“If it’s a mechanical flaw, I think it would have been corrected,” Theismann said.

Said CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, another-ex quarterback: “It looks like his confidence is shot. Not just in himself but in the offense, the wide receivers, everything they’re trying to get done. He’s just not the same Mark Brunell.

“But he will never admit that he’s lost his confidence, because we don’t do that. It’s hard to come to grips with.”

Theismann said he has noticed all season that Brunell does not look comfortable in the pocket. “If you’re not comfortable with your feet, you cannot effectively throw the football,” he said.

Brunell’s time in Jacksonville became marked after the Jaguars took Marshall’s Byron Leftwich with the seventh pick in the 2003 draft. The plan was for Brunell to play while Leftwich watched and learned. Then Brunell would leave in a salary cap move, a savings of $8.5million.

Leftwich’s time came sooner than expected after Brunell hurt his hand in the third game last season, and the rookie played well enough to keep the job. But Brunell was still a hot item during the offseason. San Diego was enamored with him. Miami and Tampa Bay also were interested.

But the Redskins won out, trading a third-round pick, in large part because Brunell and Gibbs hit it off so well. Brunell was seen as Gibbs’ ideal quarterback — a smart, savvy veteran who could still move a little. The two also are men of strong religious convictions.

“A handful of people I talked to thought Mark would be comeback player of the year,” Salisbury said. “The comments I heard were 95 percent on the positive side.”

How things have changed. Salisbury ventured that if Ramsey plays poorly or gets hurt, the Redskins might be inclined to go with Tim Hasselbeck, the third-string QB.

“This has turned into a nightmare,” Salisbury said.

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