Right now, Jay Schroeder doesn’t have a mark on him.
No holes in his knees, no jagged scars crawling across his shoulders. On the inside, he’s unmarked, too. No doubts or memories of failure. No suspicions that he lacks what it takes.
For a 25-year-old quarterback to have a solid 6-4, 225-pound mint-condition chassis is rare. But for that same fellow to suspect that he’s lucky and nearly invulnerable is unique.
Just 10 starts into his NFL career, Schroeder has nine wins. In four of those victories, including two this season, the Washington Redskins trailed entering the last quarter, yet Schroeder led them back to victory.
Schroeder is Coach Joe Gibbs’ blank tablet. Has any quarterback with such physical gifts ever arrived on the NFL scene so totally unformed and, thus, so totally open to molding?
From high school in ’78, until November ’85, Schroeder never played a complete football game--hard as that is to believe. In two years at UCLA, he threw only 65 passes. Then, he became a minor league baseball player for four years with Toronto; he couldn’t hit the curve as well as he hits the slant. Next, he spent ’84 on the Redskins bench.
Last Nov. 18, when the career of Joe Theismann ended with a split-second snap, Schroeder was almost unknown. Now, after he has led them to a 4-0 start, the Redskins can hardly believe what they’ve got. And what he might become. His quarterly quarterback report card is so glowing that it’s important to remember he’s still a raw, sometimes inconsistent player.
“Jay has as strong an arm as there is in football,” says linebacker Rich Milot. “He’s patient and poised, not flustered at all.”
“He’s oblivious to the rush. He doesn’t even notice when somebody comes free,” says guard Russ Grimm. “He is more calm (under pressure) than Joe.”
“He’s poised, intelligent and plays within his boundaries. He gives off confidence. I’ve never seen him back away from anything,” says Jeff Bostic.
“He has great touch on the ball. He can bring it quick, and I mean quick. I call him ‘Jugs Gun’ because he can throw it 100 m.p.h., just like a baseball,” says tight end Clint Didier. “But he can also throw the other (softer) passes.”
“He can feel pressure and scramble. We’re getting better as he’s getting better,” says 300-pound tackle Joe Jacoby. “He’s cool in the huddle. He just has the aura about him. With two minutes to go (in San Diego), the line was more excited than he was. Then we go 69 yards in two plays to win.”
“For a coach, the most exciting thing is how he reads the field,” says Gibbs. “You watch the pass play develop--there are always two or three options--and you think, ‘Oh, Jay . . . ' and at that split second he goes right where you hoped he’d go.”
Now, foes toss bouquets. Star Seattle defensive end Jacob Green told Schroeder after one scramble, “ ‘Hey, you’re quick. You get out of there in a hurry.’ ”
Seahawks all-pro safety Kenny Easley was even more impressed, claiming after Sunday’s 19-14 defeat that, for the first time in his life, he’d felt he wasn’t part of any big play and couldn’t figure out why.
“Easley can change the face of the game,” said Schroeder. “We ‘formationed’ him out of the football game. . . . I thought I did a pretty good job of reading defenses--my best this year. They gave us a lot of looks.”
In the midst of all those Seattle tricks, Schroeder knew how to use a man in motion, or a formation shift, to lock Easley in place, and thus avoid him.
“Jay’s a very good deep thrower who works the safeties well,” says Gibbs. “From day one, the very first pass he threw to Art Monk (for 44 yards) against the Giants last year, he’s been great against two-deep coverage when we send out three men (deep).”
That pattern’s been a main reason the Redskins have already completed six passes for more than 50 yards. Even Sunday, when the game plan said to run first, then throw short, Schroeder spotted one of the few times Monk got man-to-man coverage. Result: 69 yards.
“We’ve been trying to get big plays back in the offense,” says Schroeder, not pointing out that, under Theismann, the Redskins deep threat disappeared in the first 10 games of 1985.
Gibbs, an avid NFL trend-spotter, thinks Schroeder’s arrival and his style may have come at a propitious time.
“The whole character of our team seems to have changed with Jay,” says Gibbs. “We were conservative, pound it out (on the ground), control it. . . . But the game’s changing. It doesn’t look like they’re going to let you pound it anymore. They’re going to come up and attack and make you throw deeper.”
Turned loose by Gibbs, Schroeder is eating up yardage at a pace that would break the Redskins’ season record of 3,747 (Sonny Jurgensen, ’67) by more than 400 yards. Schroeder’s already thrown for 1,038 yards, primarily to Monk and Gary Clark, who are catching passes at 1,400- and 1,300-yard paces. “The word will get around. Then we can throw under the coverage easier,” says Schroeder.
Because he reads those roving safeties well, because his strong arm seldom leads him into weak throws and because some of his bullets into traffic are almost too hot for anybody to handle, Schroeder has the best interception rate in Redskins history--2.13% (seven of 328).
No matter how you dice Schroeder’s work so far, it’s hard to fault. Sunday, when he was 14 for 26 for 195 yards, he had a 39-yard gain nullified, a well-thrown bomb called back with a 39-yard penalty for interference and a cinch 19-yard touchdown pass dropped.
At the moment, Schroeder is his only critic. He worries that he throws too often while backpedaling; that he’s going to get Didier killed hanging him up over the deep middle with balls that don’t arrive soon enough; and that he still throws a few short ones too hard.
Schroeder’s also wearing out Gibbs’ thesaurus. How many synonyms are there for superduper? “Done a great job . . . way beyond what you could expect after 10 games . . . been unbelievable.”
Redskins veterans remain restrained. “Getting confidence is important for a young team like this and for Jay,” says Jacoby. “But at the end of November and in December, that’s when it tightens up. Then you feel it.”
Will Schroeder feel it then? Or, protected by his victories and his line, will he still be unscarred?
As Schroeder says of those fourth-quarter tests that he seems to love, “No reason to get excited.”
Not yet maybe. But pretty soon.