Joe Theismann (1974-85) – The Under-appreciated Winner
Now that we’ve reached the best three quarterbacks in Redskins history, forget all that previous rubbish about losing sleep and crashing analytical software while compiling this list. The Top 3 were obvious, and ranking them was only slightly debatable. Joe Theismann landed in the three-hole, but he missed No. 2 about as narrowly as he missed the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I sense exasperation; it was anticipated. Let me explain.
Theismann’s career, admittedly, wasn’t always executed elegantly. First, there was the change in the pronunciation of his name while at Notre Dame from “theez-man” to the current “thighs-man” to rhyme with “Heismann.” It was amazingly cocky and, in 1970, way ahead of its time. We’d almost expect such a thing now. Theismann also loved to talk — about himself mostly — and sucked up to any camera and open mic. There was no interview he couldn’t talk into the ground, no camera he wouldn’t smile for and no pair of eyes he couldn’t make roll with his full-of-myself-ness (is that even a word?).
After being drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the fourth-round of the 1971 NFL Draft, his professional career initially fell victim to his convictions. Unable to negotiate a deal with the Dolphins, Theismann signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. He played three years in Canada before the ‘Skins acquired him from the Dolphins before the 1974 NFL season. Theismann reported to duty, but found himself buried on the depth chart behind starter Billy Kilmer and future Hall-of-Famer Sonny Jurgensen.
Theismann, desperate to be on the field or just plain crazy, was the team’s punt returner in ‘74 (yes, a quarterback returning kicks … the 70s was nuts, man). He played sparingly behind center for a couple of seasons, and didn’t take over the starting quarterback reigns until ‘78 at the age of 29, eight years into his professional career. And we pity Aaron Rodgers for his wait?
Theismann’s first few years as a starter weren’t bad; they weren’t good either. He was just “a guy”. Once Joe Gibbs arrived in ‘81, though, Theismann’s professional career blossomed in its 11th season. From ‘81 through ‘84, Theismann played at an elite level. He made two trips to the Pro Bowl, won the NFL MVP award and played in two Super Bowls. The star-crossed theme of his career revisited in dramatic fashion in ’85 when, at the age of 36, his football career ended with a catastrophic leg injury in front of a national T.V. audience on Monday Night Football.
The brashness, the struggle for a starting opportunity and perhaps the most famous career-ending injury in NFL history all work together to complicate Theismann’s legacy and muddy these fundamental facts: Joe Theismann was a winner and a leader. Theismann’s career record was an astonishing 77-47. He led the ‘82-‘83 team to Washington’s first Super Bowl title, and was instrumental in organizing team workouts during the strike that season.
Super Bowl XVII delivered the Redskins’ quintessential franchise moment: John Riggins shedding Dolphins defenders on his way to a go-ahead touchdown. But earlier in the game, it was Theismann who dove to swipe a deflected pass out of the welcoming hands of Dolphins defender Kim Bokamper just strides from the goal line. If Theismann doesn’t make that play, there’s likely no Riggins run and no Lombardi trophy.
Again, the greatness of Theismann was upstaged … by something.
Theismann, despite the late start to career, threw for a franchise-record 25,206 yards. He quarterbacked the team to its first Super Bowl and, despite Riggins’ and The Hogs’ greater fame and fan appeal, was the team’s unquestioned leader. Theismann led a 14-2 Redskins team (for my money, the best ‘Skins team ever) to another NFC Championship in ’84, but lost Super Bowl XVIII 38-9 to a hungry Raiders team. It was an especially bitter defeat for Theismann, who is remembered for throwing a terrible pick six to Raiders LB Jack Squirek just before halftime. It was, once again, an unfortunate moment that clouds the player Theismann was.
Washington was fortunate to have had Theismann as its quarterback, and it hasn’t seen his equal since his career ended in ’85. Had he won Super Bowl XVIII, Theismann would have been in the Hall of Fame and higher on this list. Did he? No. Is he beloved in D.C.? He’s not. But was he damn good? Absolutely, and fans of the burgundy and gold shouldn’t forget it.
The ‘Skins don’t officially retire numbers, but there are a few that aren’t issued: Theismann’s No. 7 is one of them. It is an ironically passive tribute to a player that was often his biggest and most outspoken fan.