Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Ballad of the Redskins QBs

I've quit reading the Washington Post, so I'm not sure of the status of the alleged quarterback controversy here in DC. But considering that Patrick Ramsey looked unimpressive in the preseason while Mark Brunell looked sharp against second-team defenses, I assume Redskins fans will be calling for the hook after Washington's seemingly inevitable slow start. In no city is it more true that the most popular player on the team is the backup QB.

For as long as I've lived in the DC area, it's always been thus. I moved here early in 1998, as the Redskins were coming off one of their infrequent winning seasons -- and at 8-7-1, it was pretty much the least-winningest season that can still be classified as a winning season. Though the Capitals were advancing to the Stanley Cup finals, all the sports talk in DC was about the Redskins, as it always is. Specifically, the talk was about Gus Frerotte.

Since 1994, Frerotte had been strapped in on a quarterback carousel with mad Norv Turner at the controls. First the "competition" was John Friesz. Then it was Heath Shuler, the No. 3 pick in the 1994 draft. (Shuler was an epic bust, sure, but I don't think he was a bad pick. He put up huge numbers at Tennessee in a pro-style offense and was generally labeled a can't-miss. He missed, but at least he wasn't a basket case in the Leaf model. He's since made a fortune in business. Good for him.) After Shuler crapped out, Jeff Hostetler came in to push Frerotte. He didn't push all that hard, and in the 1997 season, it appeared Frerotte had finally won the job.

And so it was that in Week 13 of the 1997 season, trailing the Giants 7-0 on national television on Sunday night, Frerotte took a snap on the goal line. He's gonna take it in himself! Touchdown. And Frerotte chose to celebrate by head-butting the padded wall along the end zone. I can't explain it. It was the first season at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field); maybe the walls at RFK had more give. Regardless, Frerotte hurt his neck and was essentially done for the year. The game ended in a tie. (Also notable about the game was that with 48 seconds left in overtime, the reliably petulant Michael Westbrook took off his helmet to argue a call and got flagged for 15, pushing the Skins out of field-goal range. It was his signature moment as a Redskin, except for the time he beat up Stephen Davis in training camp.)

Frerotte was to return for the 1998 season but wouldn't stay long, as the carousel had begun to pick up speed. Over the ensuing seven seasons it would spin madly through five coaches and a dozen quarterbacks. Other teams may have played more quarterbacks during the period, owing to injuries or free-agent losses. But no club switched QBs based on coaches' whims or owner's box pressure more frequently than the Redskins. This team goes through quarterbacks like digital cameras go through batteries.

The 1998 season began with Frerotte the starter. It also started with seven consecutive losses. Paper Bag City in the stands at the Cookie. Frerotte went to the bench, and 28-year-old Trent Green became the starter. Green put up acceptable numbers (55 percent completions, 3400 yards and, most important, 23 TDs against only 11 interceptions), and it appeared the Redskins had their quarterback of the future. So naturally the team lost him in free agency. He signed with St. Louis, which had decided Tony Banks (remember that name) was not the answer.

The loss of Green was tempered somewhat by the signing of Brad Johnson, who had done well in Minnesota before getting thrown off Denny Green's own carousel in favor of Randall Cunningham, who would later be tossed for Jeff George (remember that name), who in turn would lose his job to Daunte Culpepper, but not before Green played footsie with Dan Marino. Got all that? The upshot was that with Brad Johnson at quarterback, Tre Johnson providing Pro Bowl protection, Stephen Davis developing into a featured back, rookie Champ Bailey turning into a shutdown corner, and new owner Dan Snyder not yet ready to start playing with the buttons, the team finished 10-6 and won the NFC East and its first playoff game.

With the Redskins seemingly poised to take the next step in 2000, the team signed as free agents the declining Bruce Smith, the decrepit Mark Carrier, the disinterested Deion Sanders and the disastrous Jeff George (as a "backup"). They thus ensured that that next step would be taken on surgically repaired, arthritic knees. On the first drive in the opening game, the Redskins offense marched straight down the field and scored a TD on the Panthers. And that was about it for 2000. Though the team started 6-2, someone upstairs wanted to see George play. In George went. Down went the season. A 2-6 finish got Turner fired (when the team was still 7-6), and interim coach Terry Robiskie came in to mop up.

George's ridiculous contract meant that the next coach, Marty Schottenheimer, was obligated to make him the starter in 2001. When a quarterback known for a huge arm and a tiny head is asked to run a short passing game, you can predict the results. George, whose most notable accomplishment in Washington was declaring that leadership is an overrated quality in a quarterback, was cut after two games, which the Redskins lost 30-3 and 37-0. The backup was newly signed Tony Banks. A year earlier, the Ravens, like the Rams, had decided that Banks wasn't the answer. And the Ravens, like the Rams, won the Super Bowl after doing so. The Redskins had no choice but to make him their answer. And to make newly signed Kent Graham their backup answer. At this point, rookie Sage Rosenfels, a fifth-round draft choice, had the most experience in Schottenheimer's system. It's no surprise then, that after five games, the team was 0-5 and had been outscored 135-25, including a 45-13 loss in Week 3 to the Trent Green-led Chiefs. The Skins won their next five and finished 8-8. Schottenheimer had patched up his differences with some of the veterans, and the club looked ready to move forward. But Snyder's longtime crush, Steve Spurrier, was looking for an NFL job, so Marty was out.

Banks was out, too, and was off to Dallas, where Bill Parcells made an example of him by cutting him before he even got to camp. For 2002, Spurrier figured that the key to the offense that was so successful in college was putting it in the hands of two quarterbacks who had failed in the NFL: Florida alumni Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel. Rookie Patrick Ramsey was also in camp, because Snyder had wanted to pick a quarterback in the first round, regardless of whether there were any QBs worthy of a first-round selection available. Spurrier never seemed to like Ramsey but appeared resigned to having to play him at some point. Rosenfels moved on to Miami, where today he's third on the depth chart behind Gus Frerotte (there he is again!). The University of Florida guys immediately endeared themselves to the city by letting Spurrier give them Joe Theismann's and Sonny Jurgensen's jersey numbers (7 for Wuerffel, 9 for Matthews). That didn't go over well, and they got 17 and 6 instead. Of the two, Matthews showed the most promise, so Spurrier was determined to play Wuerffel. All three quarterbacks got playing time in the Fun N' Gun offense, and the Redskins finished 7-9, despite the Fun N' Gun offense.

By 2003, Matthews and Wuerffel were gone, and Ramsey was the starter. Washington watched with gruesome fascination as Ramsey was beaten within an inch of his life every Sunday and Spurrier slowly came unglued. Ramsey lasted 12 weeks, which frankly was a miracle, and the far-less-talented Hasselbeck brother, Tim, took over. Spurrier tried to talk Wuerffel into coming back. Wuerffel, however, knew he was done, which is the sort of thing you really expect the coach to figure out before the player. The Redskins and their $25 million coach finished 5-11, the team's worst record in nine years. Unable to cut his own throat with his visor brim, Spurrier quit instead.

Joe Gibbs, the legendary Redskins coach and really the only trick Snyder had left to pull out of the hat, returned to the team in 2004. His first acquisition was quarterback Mark Brunell. Though no one else wanted Brunell, though he had replaced by a rookie in Jacksonville, though he was in his mid-30s and five years removed from his last Pro Bowl season, the Redskins gave him an $8.6 million signing bonus that rendered him uncuttable. He was also unplayable. On the season's first play from scrimmage, Brunell handed off to Clinton Portis, who ran 60-some yards for a touchdown. It was Brunell's best work of the year. Pretty soon Ramsey was playing again. It wasn't until the 13th game of the season that the team scored 19 points in a game. The record: 6-10. Better than Spurrier's the year before, at least!

Which brings us to today. The preseason has folks in DC muttering again. Ramsey will start, but Brunell is on the bench, and the Redskins traded up in the draft to get Jason Campbell. Snyder's going to want to see him play, as will Gibbs.

Gus Frerotte, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Green, Brad Johnson, Jeff George, Tony Banks, Kent Graham, Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Patrick Ramsey, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell. Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs. The coaches change, the names change, the seasons change, but the carousel turns, turns, turns.

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