Christian A. Jurgensen III, 40, of Mt. Vernon, Va., thanks you for your patience and understanding. He would like to have been with you sooner, but it took a while to scrape off the rust from a carcass that, in its day, has had legs, shoulders, ribs, elbows, ankles and knees—to say nothing of pride—bent in all kinds of ways. But in this pro football season, the year of the Quarterback Shuffle, it was appropriate that Sonny Jurgensen, a creaking relic and a virtuoso who goes back so far in the sport you sometimes wonder whether he came before plastic helmets and low-quarter shoes, should return to the Washington Redskins' backfield and the headlines. And because he has, because of what he has been up to these past few Sundays, nostalgia has a chance to overthrow madness in the league standings.
Last Sunday in the chill of his home stadium, before a loving crowd of 53,879, Jurgensen faced one of the more serious challenges of a bumpy career that has now spanned 18 seasons. He had to prove that the miracle he had worked the week before in strapping a last-gasp, theatrical 20-17 defeat on the Miami Dolphins was not a pure accident. What the ageless maestro did against the New York Giants was throw 17 completions in 30 attempts—he had about five others dropped—for 174 yards and the 249th, the 250th and the 251st touchdown passes of his professional lifetime. The Redskins breezed to a 24-3 victory and, as usual, Sonny did it all sorts of ways. Handing off with aplomb. Beating the clock. Peering through the hands and arms of defenders bearing down on him, which is all that a quarterback usually sees, and finding the open man. Sometimes not finding him and jogging for safety—you can hardly call what Sonny does running. He pitched one touchdown to Roy Jefferson, a wide receiver, another to Larry Brown, a halfback, and another to Moses Denson, a fullback, and became a spectator in the fourth quarter after the game became a laugher.
There was a time when a good many people argued that Jurgensen was the best passer in the game. When he was fit, they said, without bandages on his ribs or knees, no quarterback could approach him in throwing long, throwing short, throwing quick, dissecting defenses, arousing his team, working the clock. The only thing was, everybody said, Sonny was unlucky. He got hurt a lot, and he had to play for bad teams, first at Philadelphia, then at Washington. And he had to play for such leaders of the coaching community as Hugh Devore, Buck Shaw, Nick Skorich, Bill McPeak, Otto Graham and Bill Austin. He would also have played for Joe Kuharich, except Kuharich traded him from Philadelphia to Washington for Norm Snead, which turned out to be a strategic maneuver ranking up there with Napoleon's invasion of Tolstoy.
"I'm a good trivia question," Sonny said a couple of nights before he beat the Giants. "Name all my coaches."
October 28, 1974
Some people forget Vince Lombardi, but no one has trouble naming George Allen. It is no secret that Allen would be more comfortable with Jurgensen's good friend and on-the-road roommate, Bill Kilmer, operating at quarterback. Allen likes to win games 13-6, with the defense dominating. Sonny likes to win them 41-40, throwing 50 passes. Last Sunday each man had it his own way. Allen's defense made the big plays—a blocked punt and two interceptions—that gave Sonny the opportunity to win the game in the air.
What had brought Sonny back to the center of attention was the Cincinnati game two Sundays earlier. The Bengals were stopping the Redskins cold, and Allen decided to change quarterbacks the way most of the other NFL coaches have this year. Pastorini for Dickey at Houston, Sullivan for Lee for Sullivan at Atlanta, Harris for Hadl at Los Angeles, Del Gaizo for Snead for Del Gaizo at whatever town the Giants are in these days, Scott for Manning at New Orleans, Owen for Morrison for Reed at San Francisco, Livingston for Dawson at Kansas City, Poverty for Money on Wall Street.
Anyhow, Jurgensen entered the Bengal game in the fourth quarter, threw 20 passes, completed 12 for 104 yards and two touchdowns, which made the final score 28-17. The following Sunday, Allen started him against Miami, and in the last few minutes Jurgensen hit six of seven passes, the final one for a touchdown, and Miami was stunned 20-17. The admiring Kilmer said, "He's the master." It was such a glorious performance that on Wednesday, three days later, Allen went so far as to tell Jurgensen he did a good job. And the quarterback spot belonged to him once again.
"I'm still rusty," Jurgensen said after the Miami game. "I can't throw as far as I used to, and I can't move and throw on the run like I used to, and I probably don't have as much sting on the ball. I didn't even know whether I could make the team this year, but I thought I'd give it a try because I don't feel old."
Against Miami, rusty was the right word for Jurgensen. In the first half, before he got properly warmed up, he threw three interceptions. Still, the crowd stayed with him.
"They knew the defenders were the only guys I could find open," he kidded. "Fans do a lot for a quarterback. I have confidence I can still throw pretty good, and every year you get better at looking at the other team's window dressing."
Window dressing is what the defense does to fool the man behind the center, but few defenses ever fool Jurgensen for long. He has seen too much. "There's always something open, if you can find it," he says.
Sonny has some actor in him, and against the Giants he was in true character, clasping his helmet in disbelief at officiating calls, scooping up a handful of dirt in disgust, either with himself or because of a dropped pass, and looking at times as if he would not be able to raise up from one knee after he had called a play in the huddle. He simply looked hurt, as many 40-year-olds do, whether they are going down the hall to the water cooler or going for touchdowns.
But he was even more in character on the way to the first Redskin touchdown just as the first half was about to end. A blocked punt gave Washington the ball on New York's nine with 1:31 to go, but Sonny had no time-outs left. After three plays it was fourth and goal on the two, and the clock was running. Thirty-three seconds remaining.
Jurgensen lined up his team without a huddle and called something at the line of scrimmage, probably something like, "Somebody get open, damn it, on one." Roy Jefferson did, doing a quick out at the flag, and Jurgensen hit him in the numbers, as they say. That made it 7-3, and there was no indication that the poor Giants were going to score again. Essentially, the game was over, as long as Jurgensen's rust did not produce any critical interceptions in the second half.
As it happened, it was the Redskins who came up with the interceptions, one by Brig Owens and another by Chris Hanburger, and Sonny got to keep the football—and keep it in the air—most of the third quarter. It was the kind of situation Jurgensen relishes. Throw, throw, throw. In one streak he hit six out of eight. And he took the usual licks.
"You don't get to see half the passes you complete," he had said earlier. "You're on your back. And frequently you have to throw straight at a defensive guy, actually aiming at him, and hope your receiver is running his route properly so he'll get to the ball first."
On those occasions when Jurgensen was buried under a heap of Giants, his wife Margo cringed in the stands, wondering if it would be the knee this time, or the elbow, or the ribs, or the shoulder.
"He wouldn't know how to spend his Januaries if he didn't have to have an operation," Margo has said.
Still, though the Redskins obviously are a more exciting team with Jurgensen at quarterback instead of Kilmer, who can say which is the better one? Kilmer took Washington to the Super Bowl when Jurgensen was on crutches. Kilmer runs a more balanced attack. Sonny himself has no doubt that Kilmer can do the job. One of the pleasant things about pro football is the relationship between these two. They are better than just good friends.
"Whiskey is a dandy," says Sonny. The name does not derive from Kilmer's preference in beverages but rather, as Sonny explains, because' "he's got a whiskey face. Look at it."
Says Jurgensen, "We're about to become a good football team. I think we're finally on the road. I hope part of the reason is that the guys know what a good relationship Whiskey and I have. They'll play for either one of us."
Right now, they are playing for one who inspires legends.
As Roy Jefferson said after the victory over the Giants, "It was all Sonny." And as Sonny himself said later in the evening, "On days like this you feel like you can play forever. Wouldn't that make old George Blanda hot?"