Brunell's knack for making plays remains
Mark Brunell knows the question's inevitably on its way. Before every game, during every interview, the numbers on his birth certificate...
Seattle Times staff reporter
ASHBURN, Va. — Mark Brunell knows the question's inevitably on its way. Before every game, during every interview, the numbers on his birth certificate — 9-17-1970 — are as important as the numbers that usually define the value of a football player.
He's old, OK. Close to ancient as far as NFL quarterbacks are concerned.
Old enough to play for Don James at the University of Washington. Old enough to start his NFL career under Mike Holmgren in his second season as coach of the Green Bay Packers. Old enough to play for 13 seasons and 147 games and pass for more than 30,000 yards.
So it didn't surprise Brunell, 35, when he heard the age-old — or is it old-age? — question again Tuesday. He even managed to deflect it before the person finished asking.
"Thank you," Brunell said. "I knew that one was coming."
For two years now Brunell has heard the whispers that he's past his prime. They started shortly before Joe Gibbs traded for Brunell from Jacksonville because he didn't believe the rumors, because he saw the Brunell that made five Pro Bowls (two as an alternate) and set 43 team records for the Jaguars.
Speaking from his home in California on Tuesday, Brunell's college coach summed the here-to-now in four words.
"Joe Gibbs just believed," Don James said.
Brunell started the first nine games last season, completed less than half his passes, posted his lowest quarterback rating since his second season in Green Bay. Washington finished 6-10.
The old coach's belief in the old quarterback didn't matter anymore. Patrick Ramsey would be the starting quarterback. Brunell would pass on the wisdom of experience.
"We didn't have a great season last year," tackle Chris Samuels said. "A lot of people got down on him for that. He's proven those guys wrong this season."
This has been the season where Mark Brunell has done enough. The old man has the starting job, more touchdowns and a better completion percentage and quarterback rating than a season ago.
He has played injured, returning from a knee injury late in the season against Philadelphia when Washington needed a win to stay alive in the playoff race. He's been a leader. And now he's coming back to Seattle, where they remember him for Rose Bowl wins and Huskies glory.
James remembers Brunell well. Remembers the quarterback from California he rated higher than Todd Marinovich. Remembers the spring practice when Brunell tore up his knee — "the most sickening injury I've ever been around," James said. Remembers the game against Purdue, one of Brunell's first starts, when he lined up one play under guard — "all those butts look the same," James reasoned.
Holmgren remembers, too. Remembers the way Brunell used his legs as weapons. Remembers Brunell's innate ability to accelerate out of the pocket and into the open field.
"He was a smart, team player," James said. "He was everything you would want in a quarterback. He wasn't a blowhard, but he didn't lack in confidence."
Brunell might have lost some of the legs along the way, but he never lost that confidence. Not last season. And not last week, in the playoffs against the top-ranked defense of Tampa Bay.
Age completed 7 of 15 passes for 41 yards, while Washington set an NFL low for a winning playoff team with 120 yards. Beauty hopes to return this week against an improved Seahawks defense that won't remind anyone of Tampa Bay.
Brunell did not fall back on excuses afterward. Even Tuesday he said his leg felt fine against the Buccaneers, fine this week. That's part of being a leader, part of being Mark Brunell.
"People are going to say what they want to say," receiver Santana Moss said. "It sells. It's real nice to see him be the Mark Brunell he's always been. You can't change his name or change what he's done over one year."
Brunell knows as well as anyone that Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks — Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien — over 30. He also knows that any quarterback over 30 is running out of chances.
That's why he ducked a question directed at his year specifically — "I don't want to" — but still addressed what this season means.
"There are a lot of reasons you go into these games wanting to win," Brunell said. "For me, [knowing time is running out] is one of them. The biggest thing is to do it for the team. The opportunity may not come again. It's good to be playing again. It's good to be having success.
"You think about all that when the season is over. When you can sit down and reflect and realize how special this year has been."
With that, Brunell exited the media room having answered the familiar question wearing unfamiliar colors. Washington State colors. Or close enough.
"I try not to think about it, but yes, it is maroon," Brunell said. "Hopefully [Saturday] we'll be wearing all white [uniforms]."
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.com
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