- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Greatest Fans in Pro Football are at their wit’s end — which is not to be confused with the split end or the defensive end. It’s getting harder to slip through the supermarket checkout line without someone shouting at me, “When are the Redskins going to bench Brunell?”

I feel their pain. In fact, I’ve had a Grade 1 migraine ever since Joe Gibbs uttered the words “extremely well” Sunday — as in: “I thought Mark [Brunell] played extremely well from where I was standing.”

This was after his team had been trampled by the Colts 36-22, a score that only hinted at the one-sidedness of the contest. This was after his quarterback disappeared yet again when the game was being decided — only to resurface in the late going to pad his statistics against a prevent defense. “Extremely well,” Joe? Let me tell you what I saw from where I was standing.

I saw the Redskins take a 14-13 halftime lead, half their points courtesy of an 87-yard punt return by Antwaan Randle El.

I saw Peyton Manning — who did play extremely well — come out in the third quarter and drive Indianapolis to three straight touchdowns and an insurmountable 33-14 lead.

I saw Brunell, in the same quarter, answer Manning’s challenge by completing four of six passes for 22 yards, including a 3-yard dump-off to Ladell Betts on third-and-8 and a 2-yard dump-off to Betts on another third-and-8. If that’s playing “extremely well,” then it’s no wonder so many Redskins fans want a quarterback change.

Through three quarters, No. 8 was 14-for-21 for 120 yards and a touchdown. That was the kind of game he had, for all intents and purposes. The rest (13-for-16 for 106 yards and a last-minute TD) was just window dressing.

Brunell, alas, leads the NFL in window dressing. His passer rating tells you that. It’s currently 90.4, which puts him 11th in the league — ahead of, among others, Tom Brady (86.9) and Matt Hasselbeck (82.8). Does anyone seriously think Brunell has been playing better than Brady and Hasselbeck?

But that’s the thing about the passer rating. It tells you how a quarterback is doing statistically, but it doesn’t tell you when and where he’s doing it. An 11-yard screen pass to Clinton Portis on third-and-13 — the first throw Brunell made Sunday — counts the same as an 11-yard completion to the 1-yard line in a tie game with two minutes left. Which would you rather have?

Using a formula to determine the best passers in pro football is as dubious as using a formula to determine the best “all-around” players in golf. Have you checked the latter list lately? Tiger Woods is No. 1 — no argument there — and No. 2, with zero victories and just three top 10s in 21 tournaments, is … Robert Allenby.

Ladies and gentlemen, I humbly submit that Mark Brunell is Robert Allenby. He’s like that magician in the movie, “The Illusionist” — and Coach Joe is the police inspector who hasn’t quite figured out his tricks. Or is it that he doesn’t want to figure them out?

The evidence is there for everyone to see. Sunday, after all, wasn’t the first time Brunell has vanished in the second half. He has done it three weeks in a row now — a major reason for the Redskins’ three-game death spiral. Against the Titans, he went 5-for-16 for 77 yards and an interception after halftime; against the Giants he went 7-for-13 for 60 yards.

Rival quarterbacks Vince Young and Eli Manning, meanwhile, led their teams to touchdowns at the start of the second half — Young’s 74-yard drive putting Tennessee ahead 20-14, and Manning’s 69-yarder increasing New York’s cushion to 16-3. Taking charge like that — making the right play(s) at the right time — may not improve your passer rating any, but it does tend to improve your team’s won-lost record, which is a tad more important.

At least Gibbs didn’t say Brunell played “extremely well” after either of those games. His message following the Titans debacle was: “Mark was kinda like all of us. … The quarterback’s play often mirrors the rest of the offense.”

Coach Joe has a point there; the quarterback is, undeniably, a dependent creature. But Brunell is hardly surrounded by a bunch of stiffs. Santana Moss made the Pro Bowl last season, Clinton Portis is a perennial 1,500-yard rusher and only nine clubs have allowed fewer sacks than the Redskins (11). Seems to me if your quarterback’s play mirrors the rest of the offense, then you’ve got an average (or worse) quarterback. And if your quarterback’s play lifts the rest of the offense — as Peyton Manning’s clearly did, especially in the third quarter — then you’ve got an above-average (or better) quarterback.

But that’s Gibbs for you. He’s always thrown up a protective shield around his quarterback, knowing the pressure that comes with the position. It’s just that, these days, it’s getting a little ridiculous. Good thing Coach Joe is already in the Hall of Fame, otherwise his epitaph might read: “He thought Mark Brunell played extremely well.”

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