- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs did his best to steamroll any potential quarterback controversy yesterday by strongly backing veteran Mark Brunell.

At an afternoon press conference, Gibbs launched into a passionate, unprompted defense of his 34-year-old starter, who set the Washington area abuzz Monday night with a variety of seemingly errant passes in the Redskins’ 21-18 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Heading off any call for 25-year-old Patrick Ramsey, Gibbs described Brunell with a variety of superlatives, including “heroic,” and made it clear that the Redskins (1-2) don’t consider quarterback an issue as they enter a short week of preparation for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

“I think I need to say [this],” Gibbs said, alluding to media criticism of Brunell. “One of those guys who made a bunch of great plays, played his heart out, was our quarterback. I thought the guy played a great game. I think he made tons of plays. And I’m excited about the way he played. I told him so afterward.”

With just 16 points a game, The Redskins rank 24th in the 32-team NFL in scoring. Largely to blame has been Gibbs’ offense, which set a league record for points in 1983 (541, or 33.8 a game) but through three games this year has been extremely inconsistent.

The problems have gone well beyond the quarterbacks. Other players have dropped passes, blown routes, missed assignments, committed penalties and turned the ball over. And Gibbs himself acknowledged errors in game management yesterday. But the high profile of the quarterback position, along with Brunell’s seven-year, $43million contract, has focused much of the attention on him.

Interviewed in the morning at Redskin Park, Brunell acknowledged his play wasn’t perfect against the Cowboys. But he spoke in calm, optimistic terms.

“You know what? You’re not going to hit ‘em all,” Brunell said. “There are going to be guys that, if they’re there, you’re not perfect. You just go and get better, try to make good decisions. What I think was good was, coming off the seven-turnover game the previous week, we didn’t have any. That gave us a chance.”

Those looking solely at Monday’s final statistics might wonder why there is any debate at all. Brunell hit 25 of 43 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns, for a rating of 97.5. Considering the hamstring strain he suffered just eight days earlier, it’s hard to imagine he could have posted any better numbers.

But what the final stats don’t show is this: Brunell completed just two of his first 11 throws, missed targets and floated balls throughout the night, took five sacks, and padded his evening with 4-for-4 passing for 118 yards in the final 4:45.

Pressed on those issues, Gibbs told reporters “to go back and take a long, hard look at all that stuff.”

“Our quarterback in that game, that was one heck of a game,” Gibbs said. “Was it easy? No. Did he get rocked? Yeah. He got hit some. That’s a real good defense. They’re coming after you, consistently. Many times he bided time. Maybe it’s a little harder to see as a fan or whatever, but many times he was able to bide time and find things that were open.”

Such intangible skills, the product of experience, help frame the quarterback debate. Ramsey, the young gun, still doesn’t appear comfortable or instinctive in Gibbs’ offense. Brunell, by contrast, can manage situations but might not be able to make all the throws.

Several times this season observers have wondered whether Brunell still has the arm to get the ball deep or zip it into tight spots. Those questions lingered through much of Monday’s loss. But Brunell seemed to make a statement with his strong finish. His fourth-quarter, 15-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver Rod Gardner, for example, might have been his best throw of the night.

“I think you saw him firing stuff down the field,” Gibbs said. “I think Mark Brunell can throw the football. I’m glad he’s our quarterback. Let’s put it that way.”

Looking ahead, Brunell doesn’t expect his left hamstring, which held up well Monday, to be much of a factor against the Browns. Meanwhile, proud of the way his teammates remained composed Monday and rallied against a solid Cowboys defense, he believes the offense could break out in coming weeks.

“We are getting better,” Brunell said. “While perhaps it doesn’t reflect on our record, I think guys are starting to get more confidence and get an idea of how we expect to move the ball, what it’s going to take for us to be a really good offense. I’m really optimistic, and it’s early. Three games — 1-2, lot of football left. I feel good about where we’re at.”

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