Since the city is Washington, D.C., where the elected inhabitants adopted the expedient ways of the chameleon sometime during the first Whig administration, a reversal of form should be anything but suspect. Yet the phenomenon of a playboy coming on like a Trappist monk has generated both skepticism and excitement from Chevy Chase to Arlington. The reformed character is Christian Adolph (Sonny) Jurgensen, best known as a quarterback for the Washington Redskins and, as such, without peer in the art of throwing a football. Now in his 16th NFL season, Jurgensen has lost none of his skill at flipping a pass over or around a defender and into a teammate's mitts—an art which has resulted in 2,200 completions, 29,502 yards and 236 touchdowns. In brief, he is the NFL's No. 1 passer and, if that statement outrages fans of Johnny Unitas, think how the folks feel who sign Joe Namath's paychecks.
There is little argument, however, that at 37 Sonny is a changed man. A free spirit for whom training rules have, at times, been just too vexing, Jurgensen this year has been one of the hardest-working, cleanest-living members of the Redskins. Jack Armstrong, it would seem, has gone into the game for Hugh Hefner.
To appreciate the new Jurgensen, it is necessary to remember the old—the guy whose identifying mark was a six-pack gut. That Jurgensen, rumor has it, paid enough fines to meet the taxi squad's payroll and sneaked out of camp so often that his room in the players' dorm came with a sublease.
But that was before the Redskins' fifth exhibition game last year, when Sonny went down and out with a left-shoulder injury that sidelined him nearly the entire season. Like Namath, he got hurt trying to make a tackle, and the crushing blow to his athletic ambition may have stung his ego worse, since the Redskins rallied behind the quarterbacking of Billy Kilmer, who took the team to the playoffs with a 9-4-1 record, its best in 29 years. "The one thing I wanted to do was bring a winner to Washington," Jurgensen says wryly, "and I guess I did by getting hurt."
August 20, 1972
In his only 1971 start, which came in the 11th game, Jurgensen reinjured his shoulder and ended the year with but 16 completions for 170 yards and no touchdowns. Sonny, it should also be retailed, holds the NFL single-season record of 288 completions and has passed for 3,000 yards in five different seasons.
Nor was Sonny's existence blessed by any solace from George Allen, a coach whose approach to football precludes even cursory interest in Vietnam, busing, recycling or Fischer-Spassky—not to mention football players who can't play football. When the Redskins went off on a road trip, George left Sonny behind with, reputedly, the excuse that he didn't want him to get hurt on the sidelines. In Washington, Allen urged Sonny to sit in the stands with his family until Jurgensen convinced his coach that, like an injured Unitas and Namath, he could lend vocal support from the bench.
Thus, in 1972, Jurgensen has come to camp a new man. For the first time since 1966, he weighs less than 200 pounds and his belly is nearly fiat. Sonny's last drink was knocked back before Allen called his players to training camp. By then he had announced that Kilmer was still his No. 1 quarterback.
"That's the way it should be," Jurgensen says. "The fellow who did the job has it until someone takes it away, and you do that with performance."
So, as No. 2, Jurgensen may be trying harder, but there is nothing new about his lust to excel, as evidenced by his work in preseason routs of Baltimore and Denver. Playing in the second half after Kilmer worked the first, Jurgensen has given credence to Allen's claim that the Redskins have the best one-two quarterback punch in the game. Indeed, the competition has resulted in a dead heat; during their respective half-game stints, each quarterback has twice directed the team to a pair of touchdowns and a field goal.
Fortunately for Washington, Kilmer and Jurgensen are friends with great respect for one another. Says Jurgensen: "Billy's a very good quarterback. He knows his position and he's a leader. We try to help each other. This competition is going to make us better." Says Kilmer: "Sure, Sonny wants to play as much as I do, and it's going to help us because each of us can move the club. There's not that much difference between us that way. He's a better passer than I am, but we move the club in different ways. There's no animosity between us. We could split the team up if we let it get unfriendly. Winning is the objective, not who's going to play."
It is doubtful that one club ever had two quarterbacks with such disparate styles and got the same degree of effectiveness from each. Kilmer, voted Most Valuable Redskin last season, makes up in gung-ho leadership for his aesthetic failings as a passer. A Kilmer pass, in its wobbling flight, conjures up memories of Bobby Layne and Joe Kapp, while Billy's fiery inducements to his teammates are reminiscent of the take-charge attitudes of, right, Joe Kapp and Bobby Layne.
And while Kilmer's passes aren't pretty, they were good for 2,221 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago, sixth in the NFL and ahead of John Brodie, Roman Gabriel and Fran Tarkenton. A more valid complaint is that Billy's offensive direction generally requires more time, but the Redskins can afford it since they have a stout defense and a great bunch of running backs.
By contrast, Jurgensen plies his trade almost aloofly, but he can strike like lightning with unerring passes that sometimes seem to be delivered from a point no higher than his Adam's apple.
"If you're talking about passing the football, there's nobody better than Sonny," says Bobby Mitchell, a Washington scout who, as a Redskin, led the league in 1962 with 72 receptions. "There may be some guys who can throw the ball longer, but I'm talking about the passing game from 10 to 20 yards out, when the receivers are running slants and stuff so that you've got to get the ball to their hands. He's the best. He drops back with that ball low in the saddle and he can ship it past a defensive man before he knew what happened."
Late Friday night in Washington's Kennedy Stadium, Kilmer and Jurgensen superbly demonstrated their respective styles in a 41-0 humiliation of the Denver Broncos. While each put 17 points on the board before No. 3 quarterback Sam Wyche unleashed a 52-yard touchdown pass with 1:34 left in the game, the best job was turned in by Jurgensen, whose first pass of the night resulted in a 65-yard scoring play to Tommy Mason. Eight minutes later, a 70-yard Redskin drive was culminated by Jurgensen's 16-yard touchdown pass to Tight End Jerry Smith. For the half-night, Sonny completed six of seven for 144 yards and made it look easy.
Kilmer overthrew his receivers seven times and completed only six of 17, but, while one Redskin drive consumed almost eight minutes and 68 yards before ending in a field goal, Billy showed some lightning of his own when he drove the team to a touchdown in 96 seconds after an interception, the last play being a six-yard pass to Roy Jefferson.
One suspects, however, that Kilmer will have to throw all 17 passes to a beer vendor before Allen seriously entertains any thought about changing his status. If the Redskins win, George sticks with his people as resolutely as he trades draft choices—including those he doesn't have—for players long in the tooth. "I don't think there will be any rookies making our team," he said last week. "Nobody's going to get experience at my expense."
Of his quarterbacks, Allen said, "So far they've been excellent. Each will continue to play a half. Quarterback has never been a problem, as long as you pick one guy so that the other players know what they have to work at."
But won't sitting on the bench get Sonny down?
"If we're winning, it doesn't matter what one individual feels or not," said Allen. "As long as we win, it wouldn't bother me."
Later that evening, Jurgensen sat in the lobby of the Dulles Marriott Hotel. Turning down several teammates' invitations to join them for a drink, Sonny said, "They're really putting me to the test tonight. I've got an outside room at the far end of the corridor, with a door to the outside." Then he chuckled and went off to make bed check.