- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

IRVING, Texas. — For the first seven quarters this season, watching the Redskins offense try to gain yards was like watching the Houston Astros try to hit when Roger Clemens is pitching. Quarterbacks missed receivers. Receivers missed passes. Running backs missed holes. Blockers missed blocks. Everybody missed the snap count. The offense had been one big misfire.

But something happened in the last four minutes last night against the Cowboys. All of a sudden, Mark Brunell, the 35-year-old quarterback Joe Gibbs trotted out to save the day — if not his reputation as an offensive oracle — started completing touchdown bombs to Santana Moss. A 39-yarder on fourth-and-15. A 70-yarder 71 seconds later. After making little headway on offense for most of the game, the Redskins improbably found themselves leading 14-13.

Almost as amazingly — we’ve come to expect these things — Dallas didn’t drive down the field in the last 2:35 for yet another of Bill Parcells’ “Drop dead, Joe Gibbs,” buzzer-beating field goals. Gregg Williams defense rose up and stopped the Cowboys not once but twice to preserve the most significant victory of Gibbs’ second term.

But where, exactly, did it come from? There was little in the first 56 minutes to be encouraged about as far as the Washington offense was concerned. Most of the time, it looked like it was stuck in either (a) the mud and (b) the 1920s. “If Coach Joe thought No. 8 was what the Redskins needed at this early crossroads,” you said to yourself, “if that’s what his gut told him, well, maybe he needs a new gut.”

The first half was particularly gruesome. The Redskins ran 28 plays and gained 85 yards. But if you subtract their 30 yards in offensive penalties, they actually moved the ball 55 yards in 28 plays — just less than 2 yards a snap.

As was the case, so maddeningly, last season, Brunell couldn’t get the ball to his wideouts. Santana Moss and David Patten, brought in to supply flash and dash, combined for one catch for zero yards in the first 30 minutes. Indeed, nothing seemed to have changed for the offense — despite the retooled offensive line, the introduction of the shotgun and an entire offseason of Deep Thinking.

You certainly couldn’t say Brunell was an improvement over Patrick Ramsey, to whom Coach Joe, in full Machiavellian mode, gave the bum’s rush last Sunday. Brunell might not have been as turnover-prone as Ramsey, but he was utterly toothless by any other measure.

He also made three mistakes in the first two series when he had a chance to give his team an early lift. First, he underthrew — a recurring theme for the southpaw junkballer — an open Moss in the back of the end zone. Then he took a sack on third-and-8 at the Dallas 27 that pushed the Redskins out of field goal range. And then he got picked off Terence Newman, who might have scored a touchdown if James Thrash, the intended receiver, weren’t such a good tackler.

Ramsey got off to a staggering start like that in the opener — and was banished to the bench, perhaps for all eternity. Brunell, though, kept getting sent back out there. What can you say? Love is blind.

And Gibbs’ blind spot for his veteran quarterback is approaching White Cane Territory. Seriously, when it comes to Brunell, Coach Joe can’t read the top line on the eye chart. You and I see a past-his-prime QB who doesn’t have much zip on many of his passes; Gibbs, on the other hand, sees, what, a Steve Young waiting to happen? A Ponce de Leon?

It wouldn’t be so distressing if the Redskins, during the Snyder Era, haven’t had the habit of making the same blunders over and over again. And now here was Gibbs appearing to be stricken with the same virus. He’s going back to Brunell after the way he played last year? What’s next, bringing in Mark Moseley to fill in for John Hall?

But with the Cowboys on the verge of their 15th win over the Redskins in the last 16 tries, Brunell inexplicably turned back the clock about five years and fired two lovely rainbows the length of the field. Moss ran down both of them, and not long afterward the Redskins were dancing off the field, hootin’ and hollerin’, with a 2-0 record — and a bye week coming up to prepare for the Seahawks.

What Brunell did was almost a Double Clint Longley. And it relieves at least some of the ache from that Thanksgiving Day long ago. We’ll know in a few weeks if it has any lasting effect on the Redskins’ fortunes.

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