- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

It’s been decades since Sonny Jurgensen strutted to the line of scrimmage, scanned the defense and hurled a sidearm touchdown pass for the Washington Redskins. But once again, the Hall of Fame quarterback was back in the news.

A fixture on the team’s radio broadcasts since 1981, Jurgensen recently caused a stir during an interview with Redskins coach Jim Zorn after an inartistic, 9-7 victory over the lowly St. Louis Rams. He not only questioned a play called by Zorn — an incomplete pass thrown by running back Clinton Portis on third-and-goal — he flatly told Zorn that if he were the quarterback, he would have called something else.

“Well, then, I would have to take you out of the game,” Zorn replied.

In a media-saturated environment that Jurgensen never experienced as a player, the exchange drew considerable attention. The two later smoothed things over, and Jurgensen downplays any talk of a rift with Zorn. Flashing his toothy smile, he seemed amused that people made such a fuss about it. But he doesn’t regret the confrontation, nor has he changed his mind.

“When you played and he’s coaching, right after the game, you’re very emotional,” Jurgensen said in that distinct voice that scrapes a higher octave. “I get emotional. I try to hold it, but it was disappointment, emotions, play-calling and thinking the game. I disagreed with the call. … Why do you have the halfback throw the thing when you pay the quarterback to throw the ball? That’s the main reasoning.”

Surprisingly, Jurgensen calls play-calling “overrated.” But that’s from the perspective of an old-school quarterback who cheated fate with a single-bar face mask. It was less about calling the plays than it was asserting authority in the huddle and getting the most from his teammates. He favored simplicity over what he calls “foolery,” and still does.

“It’s not the script, it’s execution,” he said. “You go in the huddle. You say, ‘Give me some time here. We will score a touchdown. We can do this.’ It could be the worst play you called, but you’ve got everybody believing it’s a good play. You execute it. You walk off the field.”

It was a simpler game when Jurgensen played from 1957 through 1974 for the Philadelphia Eagles and, more famously, the Redskins. “I’d have liked to play for more money,” he said, “but it was a great era. And the reason is, it was a players’ game. It’s a coaches’ game now.”

Play-calling might be overrated, but “you controlled the game,” he said. “You were able to use psychology in the huddle. I think I have the best seat in the huddle. I’ve argued with coaches about this. I disagree with it. I have the best feel for the game. I know who wants the ball and doesn’t want to block, because I’m talking to them. ‘Can you beat a guy on your pattern? Because if you can’t, I’ll throw to somebody else.’”

Sammy Baugh is considered the greatest Redskins quarterback and Joe Theismann put up bigger career numbers in yards and completions for the club. But Christian Adolph Jurgensen II ranks among the NFL’s most prolific and accurate passers. Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, a favorite target, once said he “could hit a gnat from 50 yards away.” Jurgensen’s career with the Redskins was relatively short. It began in 1964 after a trade from Philadelphia and essentially ended in 1972 when he tore his Achilles tendon and became mainly a backup. He retired in 1974.

Most of Jurgensen’s teams lacked a strong defense or running game, or both, and he never came close to winning a championship as a starter. He believed the Redskins were on their way when the legendary Vince Lombardi arrived as the new head coach in 1969, but he died the following year after just one season. “He was the best,” Jurgensen said. “I played for nine different coaches, and he was the only one that knew what was going on.”

Beyond his abilities, Jurgensen also was a personality, a charismatic, swaggering gunslinger known for a pot belly drooping over his belt (“I didn’t have a good enough tailor,” he has said) and a taste for the nightlife, which neither he nor anyone else disputes. “The stories are true,” said Sam Huff, his long-standing radio partner and former roommate with the Redskins. Jurgensen likes to say the comparatively straight-arrowed Huff “looked after my bed” during road trips.

To more than one generation of Redskins fans, Sonny and Sam are the two older guys who played a long time ago and now critique the team’s performance on the radio, sometimes arguing like an old married couple. In fact, that’s how play-by-play man and occasional referee Larry Michael described them.

“It’s a constant give and take,” said Michael, who replaced the veteran Frank Herzog in 2004. “They almost know what the other’s gonna say before they say it, which allows them to counter each other. It happens from the time they sit down in the booth all the way down to the locker room show.”

Huff shuns the “married couple” comparison, but acknowledges that he and Jurgensen are close beyond friendship. The two go way back together. Way, way back, to 1957, Jurgensen’s rookie year in Philly and Huff’s second season with the New York Giants. Huff, also a Hall of Famer, was a violent tackler who helped define the middle linebacker position. After he also came to the Redskins in ‘64, the two veterans hit it off immediately. “I swear, I’m closer to him than my own children,” he said. Sonny calls Huff “the brother I never had.”

Both are 75 years of age (Jurgensen is older by less than two months), but both look much younger and carry a youthful exuberance with them into the booth. The chemistry between them is obvious — “You can’t do what we do if we didn’t like and respect one another,” Huff said — but each has his own style.

Huff, befitting the position he played, is more animated and reactive. Jurgensen can get excited, too (ask Zorn), but takes a more measured, analytical approach. “I still watch the game as a quarterback would watch a game,” he said.

A close friend of owner Dan Snyder, Jurgensen spends considerable time at Redskin Park, although not as much as when he did television, working with former WRC sports anchor George Michael. He lives in Naples, Fla., and loves to play golf. During the season, he resides mainly at his McLean, Va., town house, preparing for the broadcasts and making appearances. He remains a recognizable and popular Redskin.

“I enjoy the game, I enjoy still being around the game, studying the game as I did when I played,” he said. “I prepare myself, I read everything you can read, I study the teams [the Redskins] are gonna play. I’m going over it all the time. Because I enjoy it. … I know you just think, ‘Well, I guess that’s just being an old rag arm.’ But I played the game.”

But like many fans, Jurgensen is not enjoying what he sees every week from his team. “They’re not playing to their capabilities,” he said. “It’s frustrating to watch it, to watch the execution. You want ‘em to play better.”


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