Here's what you do if you own a $50 million football team and its star quarterback is about to be blindsided: you sit in the glorious sun atop the roof of the Dickinson College press box and you scream across the hundred yards to your star quarterback, "Watch out, Joe!"
Joe didn't watch out. And a surly Baltimore Colt flattened Joe Theismann, causing Jack Kent Cooke to fall silent, which is a feat worthy of note. When someone said to the owner, "You don't want Joe hurt," Cooke reminded the interloper, "You heard me, didn't you?"
In this first operation of the new Joe Gibbs offense -- a seven-on-seven drill and a controlled scrimmage -- Theismann completed 23 of 37 passes for 275 yards. That is, certainly, the kind of Theismann these Redskins need, and the quarterback knows this season will be -- in his own words -- "a big examination" of how good he truly is.
The sainted George Allen is on record as saying Theismann needs only a compatible offense to move to the first rank of pro quarterbacks. Allen, naturally, is an authority on that incompatibility, having created it. Allen hated offense. So whenever Theismann tried a daring play, such as a pass that flew more than three yards, Allen called the old folks' home for Billy Kilmer.
Allen's old linebacker and successor, Jack Pardee, spent three seasons perfecting the sainted one's methods. The Nfl had become an air war. Laser beams streaked far through the sky, with John Jefferson catching them. But Pardee sent the Redskins to battle in a 1942 tank. And who was that young blond kid peering through the cockpit slit?
Poor Joe. If ever a guy has been miscast, it has been Theismann. He is as brassy as a truckload of trombones. If you look up cocky in the dictionary, there is his picture. He's strong, he can run and he can throw. But for eight seasons, Theismann has played in an offense predicated on the idea that a three-yard pass was a risk taken only after getting insurance from Lloyds of London.
His statistics last season were impressive. Theismann had the best year of any Redskin quarterback since Sonny Jurgensen was fat. He completed 262 of 454 passes, 57.7 percent, for 2,962 yards. These numbers don't show, though, that Theismann almost never threw deep.They don't show that he seldom dared the unpredictable. They tell you nothing of of how good Theismann might be in an offense as brassy as its quarterback.
A conversation with the quarterback . . .
Q: What's the difference between your old coaches and Gibbs?
Theismann: "Joe is the first offensive-mined head coach I've played for. Defense-minded coaches, like George and Jack, don't like to take chances. They feel like their defense will get them out of almost every situation and their offfensive is in position to create problems for them unless they can keep certain reatraints o it . . . We were much more conservative under Jack than in previkous years, because then you got to call your own plays, so the games fit the personality of the quarterback.
"With Jack, we took the approach we were not going to make mistakes on offense, we were not going to try and force an issue, we were going to play percentage football. You can't play percentage football today and win. Unless you're willing to wing it, the odds are going to catch up with you. You have to take chances."
Q. You need the people to take chances with, don't you?
"I'm excited not only with the philosophy we have now, but with the people. We haven't had backs like this in a decade. We had Larry Brown, a great Washington Redskin back. But you've never had halfbacks like Joe Washington and Terry Metcalf. John Riggins in a great fullback. And I consider Clarence Harmon an all-pro back."
Q. Because you didn't throw long last year, for a lot of reason, really, the word got around that you couldn't throw deep. This offense demands that. Can you do it?
"I heard the other day that one of the coaches last year said they felt I couldn't throw deep, that's the reason it wasn't in the offense. That's the biggest cop-out I've ever heard in my life.It wasn't Joe Walton (the offensive coordinator) who said it, because Joe and I are close and he knows. The fact is, they never asked me to throw deep. They didn't want to because it was a don't-risk offense, and so they figured the best way to bury it was to say I couldn't."
Q. With Walton's offense, you seemed mechanical. Take your seven steps back and throw to a man cutting a 11 yards downfield. Gibbs' offense is much more free-from. How will that effect you?
"This offense asks more of me. This is an offense where my abilities are challenged. Last year, everything was predetermined for me. It was a question of how good a robot I could be. This year is a big examination for me. What have I learned in eight years against Dallas and Philadelphia and St. Louis? I want to take those years and fit that experience into Joe's systme and learn it well enough to make the right decisions.
"Incidentally, in defense of Joe Walton, I have to say he put in a system to take care of me. We were hurt up front in the offensive line. So we worked out a passing plan. Remember, too, we lost John Riggins and that was a lot of our offense.
"That was one of our biggest prolems last year. Everybody said, 'John will be back, John will be back.' They didn't want to acdept that he was gone for good. They didn't say, 'Well, we don't have a 230-pound fullback now, but we've go Clarence Harmon, let's put him out in pass patterns'. They wouldn't do that."
Q. Walton's offense was so structured you pretty well knew where the open receivers would be. Gibbs' offense demands that you look at four or five guys every time. After bring a "robot," will you now have a problem finding the open man in an offense designed with all those options?
"There are similarities. We're not going from black to white, from day to night on this thing. You throw in-balls, you throw out-balls. Now we just throw them a little further up the field. More than three yards. More than 10 yards. We put the ball out."
Q. So it ought to be more fun this season?
"This offensi is a challenge to me personally and also to our offensive line, our wide receivers and our running backs. Every man is going to have a opportunity to shine. You're going to see very noticeable things. You're going to see great blocks by guards, great catches by wide receivers, great runs and catches by the backs. Hopefully, you'll see a lot of touchdown passes from me."