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.