- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Only five teams have run fewer offensive plays than the Washington Redskins.

Only two teams have been less successful on third down.

And only two teams have fewer offensive touchdowns.

During a 27-10 loss at Dallas on Sunday night that sent the Redskins to 0-2, their offensive issues continued to pile up: no running game without Clinton Portis, deficiencies in pass protection without that running game and a maddening inability to create and/or capitalize on scoring opportunities.

But despite Mark Brunell’s struggles — no touchdowns, 360 passing yards, a 67.7 rating and an unofficial eight throwaways — coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday No. 8 is not the No. 1 problem and will be the team’s starting quarterback for Sunday’s crucial game at Houston.

“Mark’s a little bit like the offense in general — a little inconsistent,” said Gibbs, whose offense has scored just one touchdown in two games. “I think he’s made some very good plays. It’s a matter of all of us getting into a groove.”

That Gibbs is sticking with Brunell isn’t surprising considering his numbers were far uglier in 2004, when he didn’t get the hook until the season’s ninth game. He revitalized his career in the first half of 2005 en route to helping lead the Redskins to the playoffs.

But toward the end of last year and the first two games this season, Brunell Version 2004 has reappeared. He has shown an inability to stretch the field vertically even with Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El at his disposal, is staunchly opposed to trying to thread a pass into traffic and occasionally gives up on a play early by throwing the ball away.

Brunell’s defenders — Gibbs and several teammates — yesterday said it’s not all his fault. The offensive line sprang a leak against Dallas (six sacks). The Portis-less running game hasn’t produced. And defenses are gearing up to prevent Moss and Co. from getting behind the safeties.

But as NBC’s John Madden said at the end of Sunday’s telecast, Brunell may not be the right quarterback to carry out Al Saunders’ offensive vision, a plan that requires precision passes to the boundaries and down the field.

Gibbs has been through the aging quarterback situation before. Before sustaining a career-ending injury in 1985, Joe Theismann had eight touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Asked whether Brunell has the arm strength required of Saunders’ playbook, Gibbs, who didn’t consider making a switch against Dallas, said: “That’s something Mark is always going to have to fight at this point of his career. I don’t see that [being a problem].”

Brunell didn’t point the finger at himself yesterday, instead joining the rest of his teammates by saying the entire offense needs to get better.

“It does [take time in a new offense], but we don’t have a whole lot of time,” he said. “It’s the regular season. You would hope that the time we needed was during training camp and preseason. These games count. We’re ourselves in a position where we don’t have a lot of continuity and aren’t making a lot of plays. In a very short period of time, we have to find a way to get things going.”

Brunell and the rest of the Redskins’ offense saw limited duty in the preseason. While Gibbs hinted he regrets the way he approached the exhibition games, Brunell doesn’t see the offense’s shaky start as a byproduct of not playing against live competition in August.

“While we didn’t do a lot of things in the preseason games, we did execute them over and over in practice,” he said. “I don’t think that’s hindered us at all. The plays we run during the game we work on all week in practice. It’s just a lack of execution on game day.”

The offense, which has converted just six of 27 third downs this season, took a step back in Dallas. In the loss to Minnesota, the Redskins moved inside the 10-yard line four times but had to settle for a touchdown and three field goals. Against the Cowboys, the Redskins didn’t get closer than the Dallas 21 (twice) until the final seconds of the game. The first drive, which ended in a field goal, was aided by two 15-yard Dallas penalties; the second, which ended with an interception, was set up by a Cowboys turnover.

Brunell’s first interception of the season was costly — it came at the goal line with the Redskins trailing 17-10 late in the third quarter. Dallas then drove 99 yards the other way to seal the game. For a change, Brunell was taking a chance by throwing into double coverage to tight end Chris Cooley, but the throw looked like a punt and was intercepted by Roy Williams.

“It was an errant throw, and you have to be very smart, particularly with a good safety like Roy back there,” Brunell said. “That was very foolish. It was a chance for us to change the momentum and get things turned around. You just can’t make those mistakes.”

Brunell hasn’t completed a throw longer than 37 yards this season, and the Redskins’ most effective completions have been swing passes. The downfield offense that succeeded so well for Saunders in Kansas City has yet to develop.

“We’ve certainly called plays that are ‘big’ plays and ‘special’ plays, and we haven’t been able to get the ball downfield,” Brunell said. “One of the things that’s made this offense so successful is the ability to get the ball down the field and make big plays. When those are dialed up, we need to execute. … We’re not going to stay away from those. We believe in the system and the philosophy behind it. We’re going to keep fighting and get better.”

Said Saunders: “I’m disappointed that we’re not more effective than we are right now. I thought we’d be a little bit further along and be able to do some things a little bit better.”

Brunell’s teammates remain confident he can lead the offense.

“I’ve got so much confidence in that guy,” right tackle Jon Jansen said. “It’s not anything about what he’s doing. We’re a team, and we have to give him a chance to be good, and we haven’t done that.”

Said center Casey Rabach: “Anytime [it] hits the fan, they’re going to look at one guy, and that’s the quarterback. He’s what drives the [car]. Mark still has got a lot, put it that way. Everyone still has 100 percent confidence in Mark’s ability to get this thing on the right track.”

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