- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

Buoyed by optimism, energized by a change of scenery, secure in the knowledge that he is wanted and needed, Jeff George is beginning life in the NFL anew.

So this is what, four times now?

The Washington Redskins represent the latest stop on George's tour of the width and breadth of America's football landscape. Earlier this month, the 32-year-old quarterback signed a four-year, 18.5 million contract to back up starter Brad Johnson, although the implications are greater than that. As George has said more than once, he considers himself a starter.

And why shouldn't he? Except for the early part of last year, and discounting the occasional benching or suspension, George has always been a starter from Warren Central High School in Indianapolis to Purdue and Illinois (stopping briefly at Miami) and to the NFL in 1990, back to Indianapolis with the Colts and then to Atlanta, Oakland and Minnesota. The Redskins are George's fifth team in what will be his 11th season.

Seemingly in a constant state of readiness for the next move, George has been well equipped for traveling. It's hard to think of any player, quarterback or otherwise, who has lugged around as much baggage during the past decade. Via holdouts and temper tantrums and a general churlishness that inspired the application of such printed and spoken adjectives as "spoiled," "self-centered" and "arrogant," George alienated management, coaches, teammates, fans and the media all of whom marveled nevertheless at his ability to throw a football. He is considered among the best passers of his time.

As a quarterback, he has been considered something else. Coaches mysteriously disappeared after coming into contact with George. Teams avoided him. But along the way, something happened. Whether it was his marriage and the birth of his two children or his dad's heart attack that caused him to reassess things or just the inevitability of growing up George's personality and demeanor seemed to stabilize. Reports from his last two outposts in Oakland and Minnesota indicated peaceful coexistence.

George played well, if not always in good health, for the Raiders and Vikings, avoiding the misdeeds that had befouled earlier relationships. He got along with coaches and teammates especially the receivers, who knew George could deliver the goods, wrapped in a tight, catchable spiral. In neither place did George wear out his welcome, as he had in Indy and Atlanta. Then again, neither club asked him to stick around, although it's hard to pin anything on George for that.

Now he's a Redskin, coming off a season in Minnesota in which he replaced Randall Cunningham during the sixth game, finished third in passing in the NFL and took the Vikings to the playoffs. George's golden right arm is warmed up and ready to go should Johnson's history with injuries catch up with him. If not, George insists he is prepared to hold a clipboard. After playing for so many losers for so long, all he wants, he said, is a chance to get to the Super Bowl.

But George is more than an expensive insurance policy. As good as Johnson was last year, helping the Redskins win the NFC East and make the playoffs for the first time since the 1992 season, he is not Dan Snyder's guy. He was acquired by deposed general manager Charley Casserly before Snyder bought the club last year.

Jeff George is Dan Snyder's guy, and won't it be interesting to see what happens should Johnson play poorly for a game or two, or the Redskins fail to meet their high expectations? This town didn't invent the quarterback controversy, merely elevated it to high art. Consider, too, that Jeff George is Dan Snyder's kind of guy, as well. At least a few similarities exist between the two, from the brashness many have found unsettling to the oft-repeated claim that they are misunderstood, salt-of-the-earth types if you only get to know them.

In George's case at least, it might actually be true. Privately, questions about George linger and always will. Redskins coach Norv Turner, although he exudes confidence in George (how could he not?), is known to have some concerns. Publicly, the sentiment is that (a) George more or less has cleaned up his act or (b) his act was never that dirty in the first place.

"Just from my standpoint, the kid is one of the great ones," Mouse Davis said from his home in Las Vegas.

If anyone knows anything about offense, it's Mouse Davis inventor of the run-and-shoot, sage of the passing game. Davis coaches the Detroit Fury, which will start play in the Arena Football League next year. In 1995 and 1996, Davis was the Atlanta Falcons' quarterbacks coach and Jeff George was his quarterback.

"I don't think anyone throws the ball better than Jeff George," Davis said. "He did the things we asked him to do. He had that one problem on the sidelines, and that kind of overshadowed everything else. But I thought the kid was very team-oriented. A great talent. I enjoyed working with him. To me, he's exactly what you're looking for in a quarterback the gun, the accuracy, the tough kid."

But about that "problem on the sidelines." Early in the 1996 season, Atlanta coach June Jones took George out of a game. George responded by initiating a heated, animated and generally ugly sideline exchange with Jones in full view of fans at the Georgia Dome and a national cable audience. The next thing you know, George was being suspended and then released, just like that. A lot of people nodded and said, "That's our Jeff."

Yet Jones has insisted he bears no grudge against George, even though the Falcons tanked that year and Jones got fired. He eventually landed on his feet with flowers draped around his neck he's the coach at the University of Hawaii so maybe that helps explain his forgiveness.

"He and I got along fine," Jones said. "It was just one of those tough deals."

George's agent, Leigh Steinberg, said marriage helped reshape George's perspective. And, he said, so did the long convalescence of George's father, Bob, after his heart attack.

"That was a seminal event," Steinberg said. "All he ever wants is a home, some structure and stability."

George concedes that having a family has forced him to put less pressure on himself.

"I'm a husband, I'm a dad and that's my No. 1 job, and then football," he said a few weeks ago during a brief question-and-answer session when he was introduced to the Washington media. "I'm just having fun, and that's maybe I something I couldn't say in the early part of my career." (George did not respond to several requests, through Steinberg's office, to be interviewed for this story.)

"Here's the bottom line," Indianapolis Colts president Jim Irsay said. "People change as they get more mature and they get older. He's in his 30s. He's married. He has kids. His responses are different. Admittedly, he has regrets about things he's said and done.

"But this guy's a good guy. We had some terrible difficulties off the field, but let's put it in perspective. In the context of some real bad things that have happened in the league, he was far from crossing any of those lines… . Jeff is a changed guy. He'll be fine. I wish him well."

This comes from a person who, as Colts general manager, traded two starters and a first-round draft pick for the chance to take George No. 1 in 1990, then sat back and watched as George and the Colts endured a tortuous four years marked by dashed dreams and bitterness, by pouting and sulking and by a 36-day holdout in 1993 that George never felt compelled to explain not even to teammates who believed their quarterback abandoned them. Said lineman Kevin Call at the time: "I don't see how he can mend any fences. I think he's pretty much let the team down. You don't forget these things."

Shortly thereafter, a newspaper headline screamed, "Is Jeff George the Most Hated Man in the NFL?" It was a British newspaper, meaning that George's reputation had now gone global.

It finally came out that George, in the middle of a six-year contract worth more than $12 million, didn't hold out for more money; he wanted out. The pressure of being the local hero deemed the savior of a faltering franchise was too much.

"Being a hometown kid, I think that presents more problems than you can imagine," said Ted Marchibroda, who in 1992 became George's third coach with the Colts (following Ron Meyer and Rick Venturi).

Said Steinberg: "When Jeff came out of school, I asked him what his aspirations were. He said three things: to be the first pick in the draft, to be the highest-paid player in the history of the draft, and he said he'd love to go home and play. And guess what? All three things happen. That doesn't reality-base someone real well for the travails and struggles of being a professional athlete."

In 1995, the Colts gave Marchibroda some reality-basing by firing him. He is one of six coaches, college and pro, to be let go within one year of having George as his quarterback. Now a radio commentator on Colts games, Marchibroda's feelings have mellowed.

"He's a very fine individual," Marchibroda said of George. "He comes from a good background, a good family… . It was more a question of maturity than anything."

George's problems with Indianapolis and its fans originated from his college days. He remained in-state coming out of high school, choosing Purdue, and there was great joy in Hoosierland. But after Purdue coach Leon Burtnett, who built a pass-happy offense around George, was fired and replaced by run-oriented Fred Akers following George's freshman season, the quarterback transferred to Big Ten rival Illinois after indicating he would go to Miami. That didn't set well with the home folks.

Still, George's return to Indiana and the Colts was viewed as a chance at redemption. He had a strong rookie season, but both his and the team's performance soured the next two years. In 1992, he missed six games with thumb and hand injuries. And he didn't handle the adversity particularly well. Among other things, he was quoted as saying, "Why do I get booed? Here's the honest answer: Because I'm good and I'm good-looking."

The fans again turned, this time for good. They mocked his family, insulting his grandmother at games and taking special delight in recounting when George, as a freshman at Purdue, got hurt and his mother actually came onto the field and rode with him on the cart to the training room. Letterman never got better material than that.

Toward the end of the 1992 season, George was yanked for Jack Trudeau during a game. He threw his helmet on the sideline and exchanged angry words with Marchibroda, a preview of coming attractions. Then he held out during training camp, being fined $4,000 a day. He returned as Trudeau's back-up, won back the starting job, but for all intents and purposes was finished in Indianapolis.

In 1990, Atlanta player personnel director Ken Herock had sent the No. 1 pick in the draft (which would be George) to the Colts for offensive tackle Chris Hinton and wide receiver Andre Rison, plus a first-round pick. He made the deal reluctantly because he wanted to draft George but already had Chris Miller at quarterback. Miller wasn't the answer, and now Herock had a chance to get George again. After the 1993 season, he traded what proved to be two first-round picks to Indianapolis for George.

Some had questioned George's toughness, but not Herock, who noted that as often as George was sacked with the Colts (144 times in four years), he almost always got back up. The Falcons had a fancy offense authored by new coach Jones and Mouse Davis. George was the perfect triggerman.

To be sure, Atlanta had an offense. What it didn't have was a defense. George was superb in 1994, but the Falcons went 7-9. He was even better in 1995, and the Falcons went to the playoffs, losing in the first round. But George and the team started slowly in 1996. On a Sunday night, the 0-3 Falcons played host to Philadelphia in a game televised by TNT. With Atlanta down 23-10 late in the third quarter, Jones replaced George with Bobby Hebert.

George went bonkers, cursing and screaming at Jones, following him up and down the sideline. Jones yelled back and pointed for George to get out. The cameras got every delicious second of it. Following the 33-18 loss, Jones suspended George for four games. Then Falcons president Taylor Smith decided to release George altogether.

"It was all blown out of proportion," said Herock, now the Green Bay Packers' vice president of personnel. "They made a mountain out of a molehill. The thing could have been prevented, should have been prevented. They could have [made the switch] at halftime."

Davis said he could see the quarterback change coming for weeks and, like Herock, wished it hadn't happened when it did.

"I just wanted to get Jeff on the phone, calm him down," said Davis, who was stationed in the press box. "He was gonna be the guy again, and very soon. It wasn't as if anyone beat him out. He needed to bide his time awhile. But when you blow up, the coach is gonna respond the same way, which is what June did. The next thing you know, you've got an unworkable mess on your hands."

Davis did not want George suspended. But other coaches supported Jones, who said he had no choice. This wasn't George's first sideline outburst that year, but it would be his last.

"I knew at the time this probably would cost me my job, because he was the key," Jones said. But, he added, not taking strong action "would have compromised my leadership ability with the club, with his teammates. You can't tolerate certain things, and if you do, you've got real problems with the rest of the group."

George, according to Jones, "has got a different personality from your normal quarterback. He leads by example, but he's not real vocal. He doesn't talk a lot. It takes a little while for him to lead."

Davis concurs, saying George is "not quite as charismatic" as other quarterbacks, that he's "more of an introvert than an extrovert." But, oh, that arm.

"He has the best arm, the best accuracy, of any quarterback you'll see," Davis said. "Other quarterbacks are in awe. He can throw from any angle. He's got to have something abnormal about his body. Different twitch muscles, or something."

Whatever it was, Oakland wanted George, and he played well for coach Joe Bugel and the Raiders in 1997. He led the league in passing yards, but again was undermined by a lack of defense. So was Bugel, who got fired. Then in 1998, George suffered a groin injury and started just six games.

While recuperating, George volunteered on his radio show that he was through for the year. Club officials found this interesting, considering no determination had been made. That made some waves, but it wasn't what prompted his release after the season. George had a big contract, and the Raiders were over the salary cap. Besides, new coach Jon Gruden wanted a more mobile quarterback. He signed Rich Gannon.

Steinberg shopped George around, with no takers. Meanwhile, less talented guys like Kerry Collins and Doug Pederson were getting snapped up. Asked why he wasn't interested in George, Chicago Bears coach Dick Jauron whose quarterbacks were Erik Kramer, Jim Miller and Moses Moreno replied, "Because he's never won." Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who got Glenn Foley from the Jets, was quoted as saying, "Jeff's not the type of leader you bring in to help in the locker room or to develop a young quarterback." St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil said Trent Green, who left the Redskins for the Rams, was "not as big a risk as Jeff."

The Vikings finally signed George to back up Cunningham, and he was there when Cunningham faltered. George competed 177 of 305 passes for 2,541 yards, 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and his 95.5 rating was his highest ever. He went 9-3 as a starter. Yet despite wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss lobbying to keep George, coach Dennis Green, who is obsessed with his 1999 draft pick Daunte Culpepper, would not offer George a multi-year contract."

"I know Jeff, and he's a tough kid," Ken Herock said. "When he played that run-and-shoot, you talk about a guy getting hit. The guy wants to win, but he's been frustrated by bad teams. They say he can't win. Well, that's a bunch of crap.

"All these people who say all these things about him don't know him. They don't know the real Jeff George. You hear the media, these announcers make broad statements about him. Jeff is a bright, sharp kid who's been pushed around from bad team to bad team. Now he's with a good team. And I'll say this: After they see him throw in minicamp, see him throw in training camp, everyone will wonder why he's not the No. 1 quarterback."

The same thought might occur to Dan Snyder, and to Jeff George, too.

Won't this be fun?

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