- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Quarterback changes in the NFL almost never happen soon enough for the fans — or the sportswriters, for that matter. Coaches, after all, aren’t fantasy league owners; and at the QB position, in particular, a certain amount of patience is required. Joe Montana wasn’t built in a day.

In fact, Montana didn’t become the 49ers’ starter until midway through his second season, about the same place Jason Campbell, the Redskins’ new quarterback, is at in his career. A year later, Joe Cool won his first Super Bowl. It can happen that quickly … or not at all (see Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith).

It’s the not-at-all part that gives every coach pause, makes him think long and hard before he replaces a known quantity — even a known quantity who’s clearly on the downside — with an unknown one. This is why Joe Gibbs stuck with Mark Brunell through thin and thinner, until he might have been the Last Man in Washington who thought Brunell should still be playing. Finally, after a dismal defeat at Philadelphia on Sunday that dropped the Redskins to 3-6, he took No. 8 off life support. Or should we call it Gibbs support?

That’s the most troubling aspect of all this. Coach Joe was supposed to be the solution for the Redskins, but lately — because of his stubborn refusal to bench Brunell — he’s become part of the problem. When he praised his passer after a largely ineffective performance against the Colts three weeks ago, he might just as well have said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

The storm surrounding the Redskins isn’t quite in the Katrina class, more like a Category 2 or 3. But something is definitely howling, whether it’s the Winds of Change or the fed-up fans. After all the offseason hype, the Snydermen are off to a worse start than the 49ers (4-5), a club they bludgeoned 52-17 a year ago — and then raided in the offseason by signing Andre Carter and trading for Brandon Lloyd. (Obviously, the Niners knew something about those two that the Washington brain trust didn’t.)

But back to Gibbs. He was lured out of retirement to restore the Redskins’ good name, to return the franchise to glory, but his 20-23 record so far is worse than Norv Turner’s last five seasons (41-37-1) and Marty Schottenheimer’s one (8-8). Just as discouraging, his offense, once the envy of the league, turned strangely passive — almost risk averse — with No. 8 running the show.

Brunell seemed much more concerned about avoiding a bad play than making a good one. Even though, statistically, he was getting the best pass protection of his career — he was on pace to be sacked just 21 times — he was more inclined to dump the ball off than to take a shot downfield. In the World According to Bruney, games are won by … not losing them.

Still, Gibbs kept giving him chances — second chances, third chances, 36th chances. Indeed, there were times when Coach Joe appeared more determined to make a point (e.g. that Brunell was His Guy) than to make the playoffs. He got lucky last year; when his quarterback hit the wall down the stretch, the running game and Gregg Williams’ defense carried the club to a postseason berth. But this year Gibbs’ loyalty to Brunell has cost the Redskins dearly. Had he made the switch to Campbell sooner, the season still might have been salvageable. At the very least, the kid would have gotten more playing time — which would have made him even more ready to roll next year.

Loyalty is an admirable trait but only to a point. In Coach Joe’s case, his dogged support of Brunell — and Joe Theismann before him — suggests a reluctance to do the Machiavellian things every coach must do. Brunell was hurting the offense, holding back the team, but Gibbs just couldn’t bring himself to bench him. It’s the same with Coach Joe’s staff. I mean, he’s reassigned an assistant or two over the decades, but has he ever actually fired one?

So it wasn’t surprising yesterday that Gibbs’ heart didn’t seem entirely in it. The Redskins’ problems aren’t just the quarterback’s fault, he said. “It’s all of the 53 players. It’s the coaches and particularly myself.” But after the offense crossed into Eagles territory five times Sunday and came away with only three points, his powers of denial, though strong, finally gave out. “I’m going to make this move [to Campbell],” he said, “and hopefully get more production.”

History will show that Mark Brunell was a 2-year miscalculation, one of the biggest mistakes Coach Joe ever made. Earlier in his career, when his arm was stronger and his feet quicker, Brunell might have been the ideal quarterback for Gibbs, but that Brunell no longer exists. The one who does won all of one playoff game for the Redskins — against the Bucs, though his role in the victory was negligible. He threw for a grand total of 41 yards.

Coach Joe might have been thinking of that, too, when he decided to turn to Campbell. The Redskins, after all, are headed to Tampa this weekend to try to regain their self-respect. Some things, like 41-yard passing days, you only need to see once.

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