This three-quarterback plan of the Redskins’ is a doozy. As I understand it, Mark Brunell is the starter, Todd Collins will come out of the bullpen if Brunell is unable to finish a game and Jason Campbell will take Brunell’s place in the rotation if he has to miss a start. Joe Theismann, meanwhile, will stay close to the phone.
Bravo, Coach Joe! I mean, any coach can have a No.2 and a No.3 quarterback. It takes guts to have a No.2A and a No.2B. (In fact, it’s too bad Collins and Campbell can’t change their numbers to 2A and 2B. But, hey, you don’t want to annoy new commissioner Roger Goodell right off the bat. He might retaliate by making the Redskins play their season opener on the road one of these years.)
Gibbs’ move harkens back to the time when quarterbacking was more of a group effort, if not a tag-team affair. Nowadays, the Starter is the Starter, the Backup is the Backup and the Clipboard Holder is the Clipboard Holder — all very stratified. In the 1950s and ‘60s, though, quarterbacks were often rotated from quarter to quarter, sometimes even from down to down. The position, in other words, was viewed like any other position. If you performed, you kept playing; if you didn’t, you started praying.
The Rams won an NFL title that way in 1951. In the championship game against the Browns, Bob Waterfield took most of the snaps, but Norm Van Brocklin threw the winning touchdown pass to Tom Fears. Five years later, the Giants conquered the league with the two-headed quarterback tandem of Charley Conerly and Don Heinrich. As Barry Gottehrer wrote in “The Giants of New York,” “Heinrich, a good short passer and master prober, would start every game. When Heinrich had opened up the defense with his short passes and running plays, Conerly, the master long passer, would replace him.”
Splitting the job didn’t always work. When the 49ers gave it a whirl in 1952 with Y.A. Tittle and Frankie Albert, it produced a disappointing third-place finish and an offense that conked out down the stretch. The problem, Tittle later recalled, was that neither quarterback ever adjusted to coming into a game “essentially cold.”
One way to avoid that, of course, is to alternate the quarterbacks on every play. Tom Landry did it a number of times with the Cowboys in the ‘60s and ‘70s — with Eddie LeBaron and Don Meredith, with Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. In mid-‘71, after switching back and forth between Morton and Roger Staubach, Landry finally settled on Staubach. Ten consecutive victories later, Dallas had won its first Super Bowl.
That was pretty much the end of the Two Quarterback Experiment in the NFL. The most creative use of quarterbacks since is probably Buddy Ryan’s unique strategy with Philadelphia in 1986. The Eagles had one of the worst offensive lines of all time that season, a hapless unit that yielded 104 sacks (still the record). They also had a starting QB, 35-year-old Ron Jaworski, who was about as mobile as the desk he now sits behind at ESPN. So in the first few games, Ryan inserted young Randall Cunningham in obvious passing situations, figuring his scrambling ability might enable him to (a) avoid the rush long enough to find an open receiver or (b) run for the needed yardage.
(One of those games, you may recall, was against the Redskins. The final score was Washington 41, Philadelphia 14, but Randall did manage to hit one pass for 8 yards and flee the pocket twice for 31 more.)
And now we have Joe Gibbs borrowing from baseball, designating a short reliever (Collins) and a long reliever (Campbell). Just wondering: If Todd enters the game with big lead — say, two touchdowns or more — can he still get credit for a save?
Actually, there’s some logic to this approach. Collins is much more familiar with Al Saunders’ offense than Campbell, having studied it for five seasons in Kansas City. Heck, that’s one of the reasons he was brought in — to serve as the kid’s personal trainer. Besides, if Brunell is forced out of a game, it might well be because the pass blocking has broken down. Better to expose an expendable veteran to such peril than the Quarterback of the Future.
If Brunell is out any longer than that, though, it makes sense, as Coach Joe says, to hand the reins to Campbell then so he can have “a full week” to prepare for his debut. It’s all about putting him in the best possible position to succeed.
As for the dutiful Collins, he can go back to the sideline and commiserate with the running backs, still miffed about the trade for T.J. Duckett. Unless, that is, he comes off the bench and has the kind of game Jeff Rutledge had against the Lions in 1990 (30-for-42 for 363 yards in roughly three quarters to rally the Redskins from a 35-14 deficit). Then it could get really crazy.