Guns for Hire
Teams in need of a passer should look at veterans like Mark Brunell
Teams picking high in the draft next April and looking for a starting quarterback might be wise to explore another avenue: the veteran market.
Heading the list of available passers will be the Jaguars' Mark Brunell, a soon-to-be free agent who has the 10th-highest career quarterback rating in NFL history. Also expected to be up for grabs are two-time league MVP Kurt Warner (don't expect the Rams to pay him $6.1 million in 2004 to sit on the bench) and Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft, who has fallen out of favor in Cleveland. The Ravens' Anthony Wright and the Titans' Billy Volek, who have shown promise as late-season starters, are eligible for free agency. Then there's Jeff Garcia's situation in San Francisco. With fourth-year veteran Tim Rattay waiting in the wings, the 49ers must decide whether Garcia, who turns 34 in February and was slowed by injuries earlier this season, is worth the $7 million he's due to make in 2004.
"If you want to win now and not wait two or three years while you train a young guy, why wouldn't you pick up me or Kurt?" the 33-year-old Brunell said on Sunday, after watching from the Gillette Stadium sideline as rebuilding Jacksonville lost in the snow to the Patriots 27-13. "We not only can play well but also can help lead a team. We could do the little things a team might be missing that would help them win right away. With a first-round pick, it's always a gamble."
The top quarterbacks in the draft are expected to be Ole Miss flamethrower Eli Manning and, if he applies for early entry as expected, Miami ( Ohio) junior Ben Roethlisberger. However, selecting a quarterback high in the first round means forking over a hefty signing bonus and usually waiting several years to see if the passer develops into a star. For every Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper, there's a Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Cade McNown.
If you're as sure as you can be that Eli Manning's going to be every bit the player his brother is, then you move heaven and earth to take him. But if you're overseeing a team that's knocking at the playoff door—and in these days of quick turnarounds, what franchise isn't?—would you rather take a promising collegian or a proven veteran who might have three good starting seasons left?
Take Brunell, for example. A Jaguars starter for eight seasons, he knew his days in Jacksonville were numbered after the team's new brain trust—vice president of player personnel James Harris and coach Jack Del Rio—used me seventh pick in last April's draft to select Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich. After injuring his passing elbow in Week 3, Brunell had surgery to remove an infected bursa sac and lost his starting job to the rookie.
Nevertheless, in the seven seasons before this one, Brunell was the only quarterback in the league who ranked among the top 12 each year in passer rating. His averages per season during that stretch: 3,292 passing yards, 246 rushing yards, 60.6% completion rate, 18 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions. He's healthy again and eager to get back on the field. "One thing this year has proved to me, watching every week, is how much I love this game," he says. "I think I've got four good starting years left, and all I want to do with those years is make a run at winning Super Bowls."
Unless their quarterbacks show marked improvement down the stretch, the Cowboys and the Dolphins would seem to be excellent matches for Brunell. If the opportunity arises, he would be smart to take an incentive-laden contract from Dallas and play for Bill Parcells. After eight years under the stern Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville, Brunell should be prepared to handle the head games Parcells likes to play. In Miami, Brunell could lean on a strong running game led by Ricky Williams, but he's also talented enough to take over a game when the situation calls for it.
The 32-year-old Warner, now the backup to 26-year-old Marc Bulger in St. Louis, is a puzzler. Slowed by a hand injury that sidelined him for nine games last season, Warner looked like a lost sheep in his only start this year, a season-opening loss to the Giants in which he fumbled six times and was intercepted once. But his two MVP awards weren't a fluke. He just needs a fresh start.