It is wrong-headed to blame Joe Theismann for the Redskins' troubles.
Red Blaik, once the Army football coach, contended the Cadets could have done better against Michigan had his center given the ball a quarter turn before the snap. The sportswriter Stanley Woodward harrumphed in print, "That's like blaming the Johnstown Flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pa."
What follows is a harrumph in defense of Jawin' Joe. Theismann, it says here, is being mistreated by the Redskins and misjudged by a lot of folks, including the new television fellow who is Channel 7's answer to rasslin' on Channel 4, the station that has made mindless sports news all the rage.
It was Gerry Strine, the sports-betting columnist, who called Theismann "Jawin' Joe" in derision of the quarterback's orations for the TV cameras and notebooks. Strine saw all style in Theismann and no substance. In Theismann's habitual mea culpas after defeats, we see traces of a self-serving glibness that doesn't sit well. Even this harrumpher, who counts Theismann in the first 15 at his job, believes the quarterback lacks the magic under pressure that lifts good players to greatness and produces victory when defeat is probable.
So Theismann isn't Unitas. He isn't Starr or Stabler. Who is? To say mindlessly, as Channel 7's Mo Siegel did last week, that the Redskins are thinking of replacing Theismann with a rookie is to blame him for the 0-3 flood.
That is ridiculous. Theismann is playing well. His statistics are his best ever. Were the other Redskins playing at Theismann's level of competence, they would be 3-0 in the sunshine instead of drowning in deep water.
Let's deal with two things today: (1) the Redskins' mistreatment of Theismann in contract negotiations, and (2) Theismann's performance this season.
As the Redskins cried disloyalty when John Riggins jumped ship last year, now it is Theismann's turn to scream. What he wants, in the last year of his contract, is a new deal. After one talk with Theismann's agent, the Redskins said forget it, they weren't going to negotiate during the season.
Clearly, the Redskins' strategy is cold-blooded. They will keep Theismann on edge, hoping to goad him into good work to earn a nice contract next spring. The Redskins also broke off the negotiations, it seems clear, with the idea that if Theismann has a bad season, they can sign him up cheap.
Loyalty, as Riggins said, is a one-way street in the NFL. You owe your body to the company store and don't ever forget it. That's why Riggins walked. The Redskins had principle on their side that time, because Riggins demanded the rewriting of a contract to guarantee money not guaranteed in his original agreement. Riggins owed the Redskins something, and he didn't deliver.
It is different with Theismann. After this season, he has fulfilled his contractual obligations. Not once has he demanded renegotiation. It is customary around the NFL to write a new contract for a player in the last year of his old deal. The idea is to show the player you want him and that you care about him.
The Redskins, by ignoring Theismann's legitimate request to talk about a new contract, are telling the quarterback they just aren't sure he is worth talking to.
Meanwhile, Siegel reported the Redskins are bad-mouthing Theismann in private, saying he is deficient as a leader. Also, the front office brags on the rookie quarterback, Tom Flick, a fourth-round draft choice. Siegel took these pieces of propaganda and, insulting us as George Michael does with his Channel 4 rasslin', worked Flick into the starting lineup should the Redskins lose at Philadelphia this Sunday.
Why, pray tell, would Redskins' management knock Joe Theismann?
Maybe Bobby Beathard, the general manager in his fourth season, wants a scapegoat in case the Redskins' decline continues. And maybe Jack Kent Cooke, the owner who has allowed Beathard to remake this team from coach on down, believes Beathard on this one, too.
The Redskins owe Theismann better than that.
They owe him thanks, for one thing, because he is playing well when other guys are botching up the little stuff. Completing 55.6 percent of his passes, Theismann leads the NFL in yardage (987, with Dan Fouts at 930) and is 10th in the most important statistic, percentage of attempts for touchdowns (4.5).
The little stuff beats the Redskins. Their offense leads the National conference in yardage, and their defense ranks third. (The NFL's other two winless teams, Kansas City and the Jets, are hopeless statistically, ranking sixth and 12th in AFC offense, 10th and 14th in defense.)
But the Redskins lead the 28-team league in fumbles; are second in penalty yards; are better than only three teams in coverage of kickoffs; are allowing touchdown passes at a higher percentage of completions than anyone but porous Baltimore; are 22nd in sacks, and, with one, are 27th in interceptions.
As for takeaways, which are a barometer of a team's ability and alertness, the Redskins are a minus nine. That means they have given the ball away on fumbles and interceptions nine more times than they have taken it from their three opponents.
Only New England, at minus 11, is worse than Washington. New England also is 0-3.
When you put all these failings together, they add up to one of three things. Maybe the coaching is mediocre. Maybe the players are mediocre. Or maybe it is both. The ultimate blame, if this goes on, or the ultimate credit, if the Redskins come alive as this harrumpher still thinks they will, belongs not to Joe Theismann, whose only job is to throw passes.
Blame and credit go to Beathard and Cooke.