Guns for Hire Teams in need of a passer should look at veterans like Mark Brunell

December 22, 2003

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 the 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.

Which is the bigger gamble: the aging veteran on the downside of
his career or the young, expensive talent who tore through
college defenses but could get chewed up in the pros?

"The risk is so high with a rookie quarterback," Rams general
manager Charley Armey says. "I think Eli Manning is going to be a
great player, but can you guarantee it? No. That's why if you can
sign a veteran who is proven and can do what you want him to do,
you have to go that way. You've got to, because [projecting] a
rookie's ability to manage the game and deal with the speed is
nothing more than guesswork."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Free-agent-to-be Brunell believes he has four good years left asa starter.

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