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COMING HOME : It’s Been Quite a Trip for Jay Schroeder

Times Staff Writer

He came.

He saw.

He conquered.

But you could ask Julius Caesar, it’s not that easy.

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He fizzled.

In our nation’s capital, Jay Schroeder went up like a skyrocket and came down the same way.

Within five years of that spring when Homer Smith, then UCLA’s offensive coordinator, wrote letters to all those general managers, recommending that they look at this unemployed bust-out from the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, Schroeder experienced a lot. He became a Redskin draft choice in 1984, a starter in 1985, a 4,000-yard passer and Pro Bowl player in 1986, a problem in 1987 and a Raider in 1988.

He walked off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport Monday, the designated answer to Raider fans’ prayers. One of the local TV yokels asked him, breathlessly, if he was ready for the burden of quarterbacking a team in Los Angeles.

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Huh? This will be a walk in the park compared to Washington, a company town where the store shuts down Sundays for an escape-from-reality break, as government secretaries discuss bomb squad personnel in Georgetown bistros and network commentators vie for seats in Jack Kent Cooke’s box.

How fast did Schroeder take off?

How fast is there?

In 1984, he didn’t play a down. In ’85, he was still glued to the bench as the Redskins plugged on behind a familiar, if fading, figure.

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“The Redskins were going nowhere,” said Pro Football Weekly personnel maven Joel Buchsbaum. “They were a .500 team. Everybody was writing them off, but there was no way they were going to bench Joe Theismann.”

Fate stepped in, wearing Lawrence Taylor’s number. He broke Theismann’s leg in gruesome fashion on a play shown over and over on “Monday Night Football.”

While everyone was still shuddering, Schroeder, the unknown, relieved--and won.

“He had never thrown a single pass,” the Washington Post’s Tony Kornheiser said. “The first thing he does, he goes 45 yards to Art Monk.

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“In every single bar and restaurant in Washington, people turned to each other and said the same thing:

“ ‘Joe Who?’ ”

A star was gone and a star was born.

Behind Schroeder, the Redskins finished 5-1. In his first full season, they went 12-4, knocked the Rams out of the playoffs and stunned the defending-champion Bears in Chicago before falling to the champion-to-be Giants. Schroeder broke Sonny Jurgensen’s Redskin record, passing for 4,109 yards, and made the Pro Bowl.

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People marvelled at his size, his strength, his athleticism, his mental toughness (in 31 pro starts, he rallied the Redskins to victory in the fourth quarter nine times), his inexplicable poise (between his graduation from Palisades High in 1979 and Theismann’s injury in 1985, Schroeder had started one football game).

Kornheiser said: “He was the toast of the town. He did the things great stars do in Washington--they get exclusive contracts with radio stations and TV stations. He opened up his own restaurant.”

How fast did he fall?

How fast is there?

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In the ’87 opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, he suffered a sprained right shoulder and left the lineup. Maybe it was the aftereffects of the injury, or his insistence on trying to hit his patented big plays, but he would be in and out all season.

Says Buchsbaum: “Everything was terrific until teams started to throw those combination-type zones at him. They took away the deep pass and he wouldn’t go underneath.”

In Game 2, Doug Williams, who had not started a National Football League game since 1982, who had been offered around before the season, started and played well enough--18 for 30, 3 touchdown passes, 2 interceptions--but the Redskins lost, 21-20, to the Atlanta Falcons.

The strike intervened. The replacement Redskins went 3-0 and moved atop the NFC East.

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The vets returned. Schroeder reassumed the No. 1 job

In Games 6-7, he struggled--46%, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception--but Washington beat the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.

In Game 8, he went 16 for 46 with 2 interceptions as the Eagles upset the Redskins, 31-27.

In Game 9, Joe Gibbs, who had never hooked a starting quarterback in his eight years as a coach, took Schroeder out in the second period of a game with the Detroit Lions at home. At the time, the score was 3-3.

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You might ask why the quick move? D.C. writers did. Schroeder wasn’t having a bad day. He had completed 5 of his 10 passes and hadn’t turned the ball over. But Williams led the Redskins to a 20-13 victory.

Williams started Game 10 against the Rams in Washington, played well enough--26 for 46, 308 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception--but the Redskins lost again, 30-26.

Then, with Williams out with a bad back, Schroeder started Game 11 against the Giants. The Giants led, 19-0, but Schroeder rallied the Redskins to a 23-19 victory, completing 28 of 46 passes for 331 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Then things really got intense.

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Who’d start Game 12?

Williams noted that Gibbs’ policy had always been that a starter couldn’t lose his job because of injury.

Gibbs said he’d never said that.

Writers said he had, too, numerous times.

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Show me the tape, Gibbs replied, laughing, I’ll deny it.

Williams, told that Schroeder was getting the No. 1 job back, had tears in his eyes.

Schroeder started Games 12-13 and played decently as the Redskins beat St. Louis and Dallas.

In Game 13, Schroeder had an OK day at Miami--19 for 38, 272 yards, 1 interception--but the Redskins lost, 23-21.

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In the final regular-season game at Minneapolis, Schroeder threw two early interceptions and departed for good. Williams picked up his third relief victory of the season.

Williams got the playoff nod. He had a fair day against the Bears, a hard one--9 for 26, 2 touchdowns--against the Vikings, and then the night of his career in the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the world caved in on Schroeder. When he was lifted in the Lions game, he failed to go on his own radio show and wouldn’t talk to reporters, although he later said he regretted his actions. He didn’t come back for the Super Bowl parade. His sideline bearing was deemed “aloof.” The word immature began to be applied to him.

Said Buchsbaum: “You’ve got a guy who’s 27 years old. He’s got a great arm, great size, great speed. But if he doesn’t grow up, you’ve got a problem.”

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Says Schroeder: “I think that’s from outsiders looking in. There’s a lot of people who don’t know you personally. They can write a lot of things. But I know what I was dealing with and I know I was dealing with it the proper way, for myself.”

Schroeder began camp listed No. 2 and unhappy about it. He asked to be traded to the Raiders as early as February.

There were talks with Gibbs, but by the end of the exhibition season, the two men were completely estranged and Schroeder was running No. 3, behind not only Williams but Mark Rypien as well.

Gibbs told writers Tuesday in Washington that the conversations had convinced him that Schroeder had to go, that Schroeder had complained not only about him, but about other members of the organization.

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“I could understand if it was just me,” Gibbs said. “I told him it would be normal for him to be upset with me because I was the one who pulled him when he thought he shouldn’t be pulled. But some other things he told me--there was no way his situation could ever work. That pretty much did it.”

Schroeder, however, insists it was just Gibbs.

“It wasn’t anybody else in the organization, or the players,” Schroeder said. “It was just a situation between me and Coach Gibbs. It just seemed like every little thing started building up and making it a lot more difficult for us to work together.”

Now it’s a situation of a different kind between Schroeder and Mike Shanahan.

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There is little doubt that the new coach pushed for the deal. With all the hardships it imposes, it gives the Raiders the one thing they’ve lacked since the franchise bogged down in mid-decade: a quarterback they can believe in, someone whose mistakes they can endure with the knowledge that he’s a good bet to get beyond them. After opening the last two seasons behind the untried Rusty Hilger and Steve Beuerlein, who were No. 6 and 4 draft picks, respectively, it’s a new era.

The era, however, is young, with several players suggesting that they mourn the departed Jim Lachey and sympathize with Beuerlein. Add to that the problems posed by having a rookie coach, a new offensive scheme, a newly rearranged line and two quarterbacks learning as they go, and you’re talking ultra-challenge.

On the other hand, Schroeder is 27, he’s home, he’s earning $900,000 annually and he has a situation made to order for him to be . . .

What?

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A savior?

Players never cop to such dreams but when the question came up at Monday’s press conference, Schroeder ducked slowly.

Was he going to be a savior?

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll wait and see.

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“I’d like to think of myself as someone that can play the game. My style seems to fit into the style here.

“It’s not just me that’s going to be out there. There are 11 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense, all the special teams. It’s not just going to be one guy that’s the savior.”

There’ll be one guy that everybody’s watching closely.

We may have to wait a while but we’re definitely going to see.

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