Twenty-two years ago, when Sonny Jurgensen was at his peak, the Redskins lost the first three games of the season. Although the rotund one had passed for 24 touchdowns the previous season, team president Edward Bennett Williams called Jurgensen to his office to tell him he was being benched in favor of Dick Shiner.
As in, who's Dick Shiner?
"It's not really your fault," Jurgensen recalled Williams saying. "But benching (tackle) Fran O'Brien wouldn't shake up the team much. It's too early to fire the coach. So, it's you."
"You mean I'm the fall guy?" asked the redhead.
"That's right," said Williams.
That Sunday, the Redskins trailed on the way to a 37-16 drubbing. "They suggested that I should go in to relieve Shiner," Jurgensen said the other day. "I suggested that I should not.
"I just said, 'No thank you. This was your choice.' Live with it."
Almost every modern quarterback who has ended up in the Hall of Fame has had to cope, in his own way, with the indignity of being benched, often in favor of someone who, in retrospect, seems almost a joke. Otto Graham was put down for George Ratterman, Bart Starr for Zeke Bratkowski, Bobby Layne for Tobin Rote and Johnny Unitas for Earl Morrall. Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield couldn't get out of each other's way and neither could Y.A. Tittle and Charlie Conerly. Even Joe Montana and Dan Marino have not started every game when they were healthy.
"It's happened to almost all of us," said Jurgensen. And now, of course, it's happened to Jay Schroeder, who, in his first full season last year, became one of only eight quarterbacks ever to pass for 4,000 yards.
The key to psychic survival in such spots is often anti-romantic: you need raw athletic arrogance. It's Jurgensen telling the Shiner faction to lose 99-0 for all he cared. It's a grim Schroeder stalking silently past the media a week ago Sunday; sometimes politeness really is weakness and "Go to the devil" is the proper phrase to tell the whole world.
"I've asked Jay how he feels," said Jurgensen. "He believes in himself. He doesn't seem to have lost confidence. But, deep down, I don't know."
Nobody but Schroeder can know that. Few ego blows in sports can match the benching of a young quarterback. People who throw balls for a living face common occupational hazards--injury, lost form, eroded poise and the rust of long benchings.
As Schroeder endures his blue period, he might recall his years in the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays and think not only of quarterbacks but of pitchers like Jim Palmer, Rick Sutcliffe, Bret Saberhagen and Mark Langston whose painful early experiences mirror his.
It's possible to crash but not burn. Palmer went 15-10 at age 20 and beat Sandy Koufax in the World Series. Yet, he spent most of the next two years in the minors. Baltimore didn't know if his problems were in his arm or his head and considered him nearly washed up--just as the Redskins don't really know if Schroeder's wildness comes from his shoulder injury this season or has its roots in the interceptions, defeats and concussion dealt to him by the New York Giants last year.
Sutcliffe went from rookie of the year to 3-9, then gradually fought all the way back to 16-1. And Langston, whose case may most parallel Schroeder's case, led the American League in strikeouts as a rookie, then tried to pitch through arm problems and went 7-14 the next year. Since then, all he's done is win the AL strikeout title two years in a row.
What Schroeder must avoid is self-pity, self-doubt and the natural desire to curl up in the face of long adversity.
In one sense, Schroeder would be luckier if he still were in baseball. In baseball, when you get shelled a few times, they send you to the bullpen to find yourself, then work you back into the rotation rather quickly. When you're wild-high with a football, the exile offers no such flexibility. You might be grounded two games or two years. That preys on the mind in a way that nothing in baseball, basketball or hockey can equal. You can be shelved indefinitely and kept there as insurance until, if you ever do return, you're not quite the same daring young animal.
"I told Jay for the last year-and-a-half, 'The game's not this easy. Everything fell in place quickly for you. You're only seeing the up side,' " said Jurgensen. "For the first time, he is seeing the down side. It's a learning experience, that's for sure. And he better understand that the second time is much more difficult. He's under that microscope now."
Jay, is it the injury? Your delivery? Your confidence? Did the league figure you out? Should you throw long less? Or short softer? Is it your footwork? Blah, blah, blah. With the friends Schroeder will have from now on, who needs blitzing linebackers?
For the Redskins as a whole and, therefore, for Coach Joe Gibbs, benching Schroeder was a reasonable move. Why? Because there were so many winning scenarios.
Doug Williams might bloom as he never did in Tampa. Or, he could hold the fort until Schroeder can regroup and come back throwing strikes. Or Williams, after getting his fair shot, might get hurt and Schroeder could re-inherit the job. All those plots would be Redskins-positive and Gibbs knew it. It's even possible that Gibbs' greatest concern is protecting Schroeder from too much failure too young. That might be wise.
However, there is an opposite view. Schroeder is gold, Williams is silver; their potential value is radically different. Why risk a golden future for a silver present? What if Jurgensen is right and the second time is "much harder"? Why put Schroeder to that test when it is not absolutely imperative?
After all, what were Schroeder's post-strike sins? He left a 3-3 game against Detroit in the second quarter. He drove the team the length of the field for a go-ahead touchdown against the tough Eagles defense with two minutes left (only to see the Redskins defense blow the lead). He managed a nearly flawless offensive game against Buffalo. And he pulled off a 17-16 come-from-behind victory over the better-than-average Jets. This is so shabby?
Williams' promotion is delightful theater. More power to him. And, someday, Schroeder probably will bounce back--like so many Otto Grahams, Sonny Jurgensens and Jim Palmers. Schroeder might even be toughened by his trials.
But what if he doesn't bounce back? For expediency's sake, the Redskins might have placed a double, and unnecessary, burden on Schroeder: "If he's really a great one, he'll come back and show it." That's the pat answer of the moment. It sounds pretty good.
Wonder if it's true.