First, an admission: I never personally saw Sonny Jurgensen play. In my defense, I’ve rolled with gray beards (well, grayer beards than mine) that have talked up his legend my entire life. My impression is that Jurgensen was a player way ahead of his time. He was a gambler and a quarterback convinced the forward pass was the way to flat-line an opponent’s will.
Jurgensen started his career in ’57 with the Philadelphia Eagles and, back in the day when the ‘Skins got the better of divisional foes, was traded to Washington in ’64. He immediately teamed with future Hall-of-Famers Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell, and then added the historically under-appreciated pass-catching TE Jerry Smith (another player ahead his time) a year later to form a potent passing attack.
Unfortunately for Jurgensen, the ‘Skins defense, outside of linebacker Sam Huff, was terrible in the ‘60s, and the NFL was not yet at a point where no-huddle offenses, the shotgun formation and throwing the ball 50 times a game was accepted. Had “Jurgy” loaded that receiving talent into a DeLorean, filled the flux capacitor, hopped in the driver’s seat, entered 2013 on the time-dial and punched it to 88 M.P.H., I think he would have looked a lot like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. Instead, he was relegated to the limited offensive imagination of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The music was better then, but NFL offenses are cooler now.
When head coach George Allen took over for Vince Lombardi in 1970, it was effectively the end of the Jurgensen era. Allen, more enthralled with defense and winning games 10-7 as opposed to 34-31, acquired gritty QB Billy Kilmer in ’71. Jurgensen sustained an Achilles injury in ’72 that handed the job over to Kilmer — the game-manager Allen likely sought anyway — and “Jurgy” saw only sporadic duty until his retirement in 1974. It’s impossible to criticize George Allen — he is in the Hall of Fame and oversaw the third-best era in franchise history — but Allen was a coach for and of his time. He was Marty Schottenheimer when Marty’s run-run-pass-punt approach to offense was actually cool — and an on-field conservative Jurgensen surely was not.
Jurgensen’s aggressive play, propensity to play even harder off of the field (a fact that contributed to his perpetual, every-man pot-belly), and life-long commitment to the organization (Jurgy’s been calling ‘Skins game since ’81), has made him a D.C. cult figure. In the nation’s capital, Jurgensen is as beloved, if not more so, as Darrell Green and John Riggins. Travel with him inside the D.C. beltway, and I’m confident you’ll eat and drink all night without paying a dime (I’m available Mr. Jurgensen … have your people call mine).
Jurgensen’s election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in ’83 and “Grandpa Redskin” status seems to cement his lofty status on the countdown. He was, however, only 52-51-5 as a Redskins starter, and lacks any signature winning moment. That makes the gap between him and Theismann much thinner than a popular vote would indicate. But you won’t see anyone wearing Jurgensen’s No. 9 for the ‘Skins either, and since he can personalize his signature with “HOF” and Theismann can’t, that’s good enough for me to give Sonny Jurgensen the nod as the second best Redskins quarterback of all time. Cheers, Jurgy.