Saturday, August 20, 2005

NASCAR never looked so good

Oh to be a fly on the wall at Redskins Park today as Joe Gibbs and his staff review last night’s tumultuous preseason performance in a 24-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
After games—especially losses—Gibbs is never going to say anything worthwhile about any subject or concerning any player. It’s always gonna be, “Yeah, I thought he got in there and competed real well” or some other inane non-speech that fills column inches in a newspaper but doesn’t really tell us anything. That’s Gibbs’ style—a player’s coach, defending them to the end—and history shows us his guys love him for it.
But what must he be saying to his staff and confidantes today? What does he really think about the state of the Washington Redskins in Year Two of the Messiah’s return? He’s probably wondering how he got himself into this mess (two words: Dan Snyder; he can screw up any good thing).
Put yourself in Gibbs’ place for a moment. Coming back to the NFL after such an extended absence, he knew he was walking back into an absolute disaster. One of the reasons he returned, he said, was to recapture the legacy he had spent a decade building here in Washington. He knew Snyder and Turner/Schottenheimer/Spurrier had made some disastrous choices, and it’s come out this year through various hinting-around-the-edges statements from the coaching staff that last year really was just about acclimating to the league and finding out what kind of players were actually on the roster—the “real Redskins,” to use a Gibbs phrase.
In order to bring stability to a nuclear reactor like the Redskins, Gibbs knew he was going to need a solid quarterback under center; a seasoned pro who would keep cool under duress and, most importantly, keep the ball going to the guys in burgundy and gold. Gibbs thought he had such a QB in Mark Brunell, one of the highest-rated passers in league history who was being pushed aside in Jacksonville in favor of a younger guy. The decision was questioned at the time, mainly because the Skins already had a first-round draft pick at the position in Patrick Ramsey, but everybody kinda said, “Well, it’s Joe, and we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
And then it all went to hell.
The 2004 season was a disaster in all the ways Gibbs hoped it wouldn’t be. Brunell was not just ineffective at QB, he was inept, forcing Gibbs to go to Ramsey in November. The kid from Tulane with a cannon for an arm looked just OK last season, but he at least made the team competitive and could throw the ball more than 20 yards, so Gibbs had no choice but to name Ramsey the starter for 2005, hoping, I’m sure, to quell the flames of Washington’s ever-present quarterback controversy.
But after months of off-season workouts, several weeks of training camp, and two preseason games, Ramsey looks no different than he has for the past three seasons (remember that game against New Orleans his rookie year where almost every throw was intercepted?). He’ll make a really nice throw, make you believe he’s finally getting it, then he’ll throw not just an interception, but an interception that looks like Ramsey was actually trying to hit the other team’s defender right in the numbers. He has all the physical tools, certainly, but he just doesn’t seem to have the head for it. There are only a handful of men on the entire planet who are capable of playing quarterback in the National Football League; what makes us think Ramsey is one of those guys, just because he can launch the ball 70 yards?
Gibbs, who has observed Ramsey more than any other person in the world the last year and a half, obviously saw the same thing, otherwise he wouldn’t have spent two No. 1 draft picks on Auburn’s Jason Campbell. That pick alone in this year’s draft was enough to spark a moderate amount of hubbub and controversy this spring and summer. But making matters worse this year is, yep, Brunell.
Fact is, No. 8 looks like a completely different QB this year; or, should I say, looks more like his old self—the guy Gibbs thought he was getting last year. Brunell says there wasn’t anything wrong with his arm in 2004, and maybe there wasn’t. He was coming off surgery, though, and he got banged around early in the year and pulled his hamstring; during last night’s television broadcast of the Bengals game, Joe Theismann said legs have as much to do with a quarterback’s power as anything on his body. Whatever it was, Brunell looks much, much better this time around—looks like a QB who could actually help the Redskins win some games this year, instead of just trying to help them not lose.
This is where Gibbs’ mind must be ready to ooze out his nose. What is he going to do? He’s already named Ramsey his starter, but he looks awful. Brunell looks good, but he’s been working against second- and third-stringers, many of which won’t be in the league next month. If Gibbs gives Brunell some work with the first string in next week’s game, that opens a whole other can of worms and we have ourselves a legitimate quarterback controversy, not one just hanging around the fringes.
I think, for better or worse, Ramsey will be under center come Sept. 11, Washington’s opening game of the 2005 season against Chicago. Gibbs showed last year how stubborn and/or loyal he could be by sticking with Brunell for so many painful weeks, even though it was obvious to the guy that mows the grass at FedEx Field No. 8 couldn’t throw the ball from here to there. Gibbs named Ramsey his starter, and he’ll stick with him, at least through the first month of the season.
Trouble is, after 13 years and only one playoff appearance, I’m sick of waiting around, I’m sick of looking toward next year. If it took Brunell a year to be the guy Gibbs thought he would be, then everything else be damned. Gibbs really has gotten himself into an even bigger mess than I think he could have imagined back in January 2004, but it’s time to win some football games.
I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but: It’s time for Mark Brunell to take the reins.