As late-summer darkness blanketed Washington one night last month, the quarterback came to life. The familiar braids and right arm that hasn’t unleashed a regular-season NFL pass towered 74 feet over Pennsylvania Avenue.
Four months after the Redskins used the draft’s second pick on Robert Griffin III, the quarterback already hawks sandwiches and sports drinks and shoes and automobiles to accompany special media sessions and the trademark Superman socks. His projection on the Newseum’s granite tablet — etched with the First Amendment’s 45 words — snapped off passes and tossed a football then a high-top cleat in his left hand.
As the Capitol’s dome glowed a half-mile away, unable to compete with the newcomer, the quarterback surveyed his home.
“RGIII,” the projection read, “in lights.”
For four hours, the quarterback stood the size of a building. The stature matched the expectations heaped on Griffin’s each step, after the Redskins dealt three first-round picks to select him and handed over a $21 million contract to end the churn that’s seen 10 different quarterbacks start for the team in the past decade.
Griffin’s image owned the night, but not in the same way three Redskins quarterbacks — Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer and Joe Theismann — owned the position and the nation’s capital more than 22 years. They know about White House dinners and the president showing up at Redskins Park for practice and not being able to stroll down the street without being recognized and the political power packed into the owner’s box.
“It’s the greatest place to play in the world,” said Jurgensen, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who spent 1964 to 1974 in Washington, “the capital of the free world.”
“When the president of the United States says, ‘Hi, Joe,’ and you get the sense he knows who you are, that’s a pretty good stroke to your ego,” said Theismann, the team’s all-time passing yards leader. “That’s the world you play in. I don’t think you’d get that in Cleveland.”
Burden and blessing
The three quarterbacks understand the burden and blessing of playing sport’s most-dissected position in Washington. From 1964 to 1985, one of them led the Redskins in passing each season as they combined to throw 93 percent of the team’s passes. Each brought stability in his own way. Jurgensen’s smooth North Carolina drawl and ability to huck a football 80 yards. Kilmer’s red face, raspy voice, gutsy scrambling and Tebow spiral to match his days as a UCLA halfback. Theismann’s swagger and speed from days returning punts, as he rearranged much of the passing section of the Redskins’ record book. They didn’t just accept the pressure. They adored it.
But in the 26 years since Theismann’s career ended after Lawrence Taylor’s hit snapped his right leg, 26 different quarterbacks have started at least once for the Redskins. Break out the five quarterbacks with the most starts during the period: Mark Rypien (72), Jason Campbell (52), Gus Frerotte (46), Mark Brunell (33) and Brad Johnson (27). They combined to attempt only 45.9 percent of Washington’s passes in the 26 years. Even Rypien’s Super Bowl MVP in 1992 during parts of five seasons as starter only shored up the instability for a short time.
Big names and big money have tried to fix the problem and, more often than not, left town as big busts (or, in the case of Heath Shuler, one ‘solution’ who lasted 13 starts, returned with a distinctly less popular job: congressman).
“That’s been the biggest problem: We just haven’t had anybody play a lot of games at the quarterback position,” Theismann said. “Everybody in this city takes winning very seriously because there hasn’t been a whole lot of success here. This city has been somewhat starved for high-quality professional performances.
“Once you established yourself in this town, everywhere you go — everywhere — people know who you are.”
Take the November afternoon in 1971 when President Nixon and a swarm of Secret Service agents dropped by Redskins Park for practice following a 13-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Running back Larry Brown, shocked, thought it like the beginning of a political movie.
“Where were you when I needed you?” Jurgensen told the president, according to the Associated Press account of the visit.
At the end of practice, Nixon delivered an extended address to the team, quoting Gen. John Pershing and himself, tweaking the Senators, lauding his friend, coach George Allen, and detailing the pressure put on Jurgensen and Kilmer when Brown and Charley Harraway weren’t running the ball “up to par.” The president wasn’t finished.
“This gives me the right to call plays,” he said.
So, the AP story detailed, Kilmer tossed a screen pass to Harraway for a 10-yard gain at the president’s “animated” direction.
“The city,” President Nixon told the team in the American Presidency Project’s transcript of his remarks, “needed to have a team that was winning.”
During training camp in Carlisle, Pa., earlier that year, center Len Hauss and tackle Walter Rock took Jurgensen and Kilmer, newly acquired from the New Orleans Saints, out to a “place for fellowship.” They had “soda-pops,” Hauss remembered with a family-friendly chuckle, and made certain the quarterbacks would get along.
“George’s philosophy was defense is No. 1,” Hauss said. “Special teams are No. 1. Maybe the equipment people are No. 3 and the parking lot is No. 4 and the offense is No. 5.”
So, quarterback wasn’t the city’s glamour position. And instead of a tooth-and-nail competition, Kilmer and Jurgensen became — and remain — close friends (“George didn’t factor in the possibility of Billy and Sonny becoming drinking buddies,” Brown said). They cared less about who played than if they won.
The buddies quickly became the faces of the franchise. Around town, they were instantly recognizable. That suited Hauss when out with the duo, as he usually remained pleasantly unnoticed. No 74-foot murals were projected on Pennsylvania Avenue or likenesses sculpted from sandwich trimmings, like Griffin. Instead, gold “I like Sonny!” and burgundy “I like Billy!” bumper stickers were slapped on cars around the area as the debate over which quarterback to start intensified.
The quarterbacks pulled the same stunt when they drove together to lunch or to grab a “soda.” If Jurgensen saw a Billy bumper sticker, he stuck his head out the window and hollered at the driver. Kilmer did the same for Sonny bumper stickers. They found the exchanges hilarious.
Today’s billion-dollar NFL behemoth was embryonic in 1971. So, Jurgensen, who made less than $1 million over his 18 seasons, pitched Muriel Cigars.
“Hey coach, since when do you ride a Muriel?” Jurgensen asked in the TV commercial, tossing a football in the air.
“Since I signed your contract, Sonny,” Allen replied in mock exasperation, whistle draped around his neck.
Becoming a brand
Theismann, arriving in 1974 after three seasons in the Canadian Football League, established a virtual empire with a restaurant founded in 1975, radio and TV shows, commercials and his first endorsement: Igloo coolers.
This wasn’t Sonny, Billy and down-home bumper stickers. That didn’t stop Redskins fans from speaking their mind. Like after a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1980 when Theismann pulled into a full-service gas station.
“Well, you’re Joe Theismann, aren’t you?” the attendant said.
“Yes, I am,” Theismann said.
“You lost to the Eagles yesterday, didn’t you?” the attendant said. “Pump your own gas.”
When Joe Gibbs took over as coach in 1981, his quarterback’s sprawling extra-football interests didn’t sit well. At least that’s how Theismann remembers it. Gibbs wanted a quarterback, not a celebrity. In Washington, the line between the two blurred.
“He wanted somebody else to play quarterback, and I had to drive to his house and say, ‘Hey, I’m willing to give up all this stuff if you want me to,’” Theismann said. “I basically had to go over there and say, ‘Hey, coach, give me a chance.’”
Did Theismann surrender any of his empire?
“No, I didn’t,” he said and laughed.
A long-term solution
Griffin, of course, won’t need to beg to become the 50th starting quarterback in Redskins history. His low-key demeanor off the field leads Jurgensen and others to believe he is the elusive long-term solution. They note his intelligence, kindness to others and discipline.
“He looks to me like the type who, rather than be better than everybody else,” Hauss said, “he would probably take his offensive line out and buy them a soda pop after practice.”
But creating a franchise quarterback, a true solution, is a complicated task. Scan rosters from the days of Sonny, Billy and Joe and the slew of Hall of Famers — from Bobby Mitchell to Charley Taylor to John Riggins — leap out. These weren’t one-man (or two-man, in the case of Jurgensen and Kilmer’s platoon) shows.
“It’s being in the right place at the right time. That’s for everybody,” Jurgensen said. “The right system, having the right coaches. You have to have continuity.
“He’s doing it for the long haul. People are going to have to be patient. He’s going to have growing pains. He’s going to be spectacular at times and then he’s not. You learn more about people from losing than you do from winning. He’s going to be successful.”
And, as the Pennsylvania Avenue projection predicted, that elusive success is all that’s needed to keep Griffin’s name in lights.
“This,” Brown said, “is a quarterback town.”
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