Last Friday afternoon in the Washington Redskins' offices, one old Skins QB, Sonny Jurgensen, was being grilled about the declining skills—real or imagined—of another old Skins QB, 36-year-old Joe Theismann, when who should walk in but old Golden Arm himself. Theismann, the 27th-rated passer in the NFL after three games, was coming off a woeful 19-6 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles the previous Sunday, the first time in 58 regular-season games—since Sept. 13, 1981—that he had failed to get the Redskins into double figures. Jurgensen waved him over. "Joe! Come in here and defend yourself."
Theismann frowned. "No. I'm tired of it."
Theismann tired of talking? Tired of breast-beating, cajoling and finger-pointing? Sounds serious. But it was that kind of week for the Redskins' alltime leading passer, a man who, two seasons after being named the league's MVP, was suddenly at the mercy of the boo birds. Theismann-kickers, seeing him down, were crawling out of the woodwork. "Theismann's like a gunfighter who has fiat out lost his nerve," said one assistant coach whose team had played the Redskins. (Thump!) "Thirty-five is the year quarterbacks hit the wall," added a respected NFL scout. (Thump!) "I call it the Bert Jones syndrome—the inability to wait that extra second before getting rid of the football." (Thump! Thump!) "Theismann's a risk as a starter."
Former Redskin Jim Hart went so far as to suggest that Theismann's Washington teammates had finally had enough of his abrasive me-firstism and were on the verge of mutiny. Theismann's bloodied but unbowed retort: "Most of the things being said are pure conjecture. We've had some problems with our passing, but they haven't been caused by one individual. The problem has been in getting our pass routes straight. A lot of this is sensationalism. That's rampant in this business. Quarterback is the most visible position, but it's also the most dependent position."
October 6, 1985
Another salvo was fired Theismann's way on Sunday as the reeling Redskins were drubbed 45-10 by the Chicago Bears, Washington's worst defeat since Joe Gibbs became coach in 1981. It was a game that the Redskins had billed as a must win, pivotal to a season that was fast slipping out of their control. Theismann again was something of a scapegoat, not so much because of his arm—he was 21 of 39 for 209 yards and two interceptions—but because of his foot. And not the one that he regularly slips in and out of his mouth. Called upon to punt for the first time in his NFL career, Theismann, filling in for the injured Jeff Hayes, shanked a one-yarder off the side of his instep. It gave the Bears the ball on the Redskin 14-yard line. "The guys said kick it right, so I kicked it dead right," Theismann deadpanned afterward. "That's the first time I've kicked a football in eight years. I guess I need some work." The Bears scored on the next play—six of a team-record 31 points in the second quarter—and they never looked back.
Theismann's troubles seemed to start on Sept. 9, his 36th birthday, which happened to coincide with the season opener in Dallas. Before a jubilant Cowboy crowd and a somnolent Monday night TV audience, Theismann threw a career-high five interceptions and completed just 15 of 35 passes for 206 yards as Dallas beat the Skins 44-14, the worst previous defeat of Gibbs's career. The "Happy Birthday, Dear Joe-oe" chorus sung by 62,292 Cowboy crooners did little to improve Theismann's mood, and later in the locker room he couldn't point his finger elsewhere fast enough, a quality in him that drives veteran football men batty. "I don't feel I threw many errant passes at all," Theismann told reporters. "I feel most of my throws were right at the receivers. Even the ones that were picked off were mighty damn close to the guys who were supposed to have the football."
To be sure, Calvin Muhammad had run the wrong route on two of the interceptions, and the Redskin receivers played without distinction. "I don't see any difference in Theismann," said Cowboy cornerback Ron Fellows. "The difference is in his receivers. They're not as aggressive as they used to be. Charlie Brown used to go get the ball."
Brown, a two-time Pro Bowler, missed part of last season because of injuries and during training camp was traded to Atlanta for guard R.C. Thielemann. That left the Redskins with Art Monk and Muhammad as their starting wideouts. Monk caught an NFL-record 106 passes last year. After Muhammad came to Washington from the Raiders in mid-1984, he had 42 receptions for 729 yards and four 100-yard games. "We spot-played Muhammad a lot last year," says Redskin wide-receivers coach Charley Taylor. "Ran him on fly patterns and that sort of thing. This year, as a starter, he's got the whole package. It's a very complex offense that takes some time to adjust to."
From the looks of the patterns Muhammad has been running, the Redskins playbook might as well be written in Chinese. After Washington lucked past Houston in its home opener—the Oilers had two TDs erroneously called back in the 16-13 Redskin victory—Theismann's offense sputtered to a standstill against the previously winless Eagles. The quarterback's passing stats for the day: 15 of 34, one interception, one sack, zero TDs and a measly 124 yards gained. The 53,748 Washington fans, who had begun heckling the offense after the first possession, never let up as the Skins were held without a touchdown for the first time since Dec. 12, 1982.
"A lot of his passes were there, and the receivers dropped them," said Eagles free safety Wes Hopkins. "Maybe the Dallas game affected Theismann in that he was hesitant to stick the ball in there in tight coverages."
Theismann called a team meeting on Monday, Sept. 23 in an effort to clear the air by fouling it. "I've never heard a quarterback cuss and swear like he did," said one Redskin player. "But somebody had to step forward. The loss to the Eagles scared us. Everyone thought we'd breeze these first three games."
"Theismann seemed the same as ever physically," Mike Stensrud, the Houston nosetackle, said of the controversial Sept. 15 game. "But he had trouble reading defenses against us. His concentration was lacking."
Theismann has always had other interests during the football season—television commercials, appearances, and recently his high-profile romance with fiancée Cathy Lee Crosby. He opened his second restaurant in the Washington area the Thursday before the Eagles game. When things are going well, people say, "That's our Joe—businessman, actor and lovesick QB." But when the Skins are losing.... Says one opposing coach: "Playing quarterback takes complete dedication. I think his mind is in a lot of different places." (Thump!)
Redskin G.M. Bobby Beathard says, "We've gone through these off-field distractions since he's been here. No one does more off the field than he does, but he can handle it. He's the only guy I've ever seen who can. That isn't the problem, and neither is his age. When we win, he gets more than his share of the credit, and when we lose, it's the same [with the blame]. What we have to do is get our receiving group on track. We know from the films that they have not put forth a coordinated effort."
In the days leading up to the Bears game there was a special urgency around the Redskins' camp. Gibbs decided to talk about the fact that Muhammad has diabetes—an affliction he has played with his entire pro career—and allowed that the Redskins had tested the insulin level in his blood, searching for any possible clue that might explain the strange pass patterns he had been running. Theismann, for his part, assumed Muhammad had just been mishearing the plays. Before practice Theismann and the Redskin receivers often go over films to see what, if anything, they had all been thinking about out there. "Art Monk doesn't say much, Malcolm Barnwell is quiet, and Calvin Muhammad is a little mouse," Theismann said of the gatherings. "When I'm alone in a room with them, that's when people can really accuse me of talking too much."
For a while on Sunday, the t√™te-√†-t√™tes seemed to have paid off. On their first possession, the Redskins—looking like the team that has led the NFL in total scoring over the last two seasons with 967 points, an average of 30.2 points a game—took the ball and marched 59 yards in 13 plays, with the final seven yards by John Riggins. Seven-zip. Theismann, throwing confidently, kept the drive alive with three third-down completions. The Skins went ahead 10-0 in the second quarter on a Mark Moseley field goal. Then the Bears struck.
Chicago's Willie Gault took the following kickoff and raced 99 yards for a TD, a doubly catastrophic blow for the Redskins because Hayes—who also kicks off—had torn a muscle on the play. When the Skins were bottled up at their own 13-yard line during the next possession, Gibbs asked his two quarterbacks, Theismann and Jay Schroeder, which one of them would like to punt. "You decide," Theismann told him. Gibbs chose wrong. Theismann hit his shank, and one play later Chicago led 14-10.
The Bears were just getting started. On the next series Theismann was stripped of the ball on his own 22, and three downs later it was 21-10. On the Redskins' next possession it was three plays, then punt—this one a 22-yarder by Schroeder, who had last kicked as a junior in high school—and just like that it was 28-10, the Bears scoring on a dazzling pass from Walter Payton to quarterback Jim McMahon after a Statue of Liberty handoff. "I don't know what happened," said Chicago coach Mike Ditka after the blowout. "We really didn't do anything but capitalize on what they gave us. It was a very unusual game."
And it has been a very unusual season for the once-proud Redskins. Is Theismann burned out, suffering from the fabled Bert Jones syndrome? "You can't generalize," Theismann insists. "Jim Plunkett won a world championship when he was 36. I want it just as bad as I ever did." He adds, "You know what happens when a bear tastes honey? He doesn't walk away from it. He tears the damn tree down."
Says Thielemann, summing up: "Where Joe Theismann goes, we go."
So far, that's been right down the tubes.