After waiting almost seven seasons to even contemplate the move, Joe Gibbs waited slightly more than 20 minutes to make it. Quickly, quicker than anybody had reason to suspect, Gibbs switched quarterbacks, liberating the Washington Redskins receivers from the inaccuracies of Jay Schroeder. The results make it foolish to criticize the act or the timing. Doug Williams performed heroically. Within seven minutes he'd thrown two touchdown passes to rescue the game.
But everything we know about Gibbs and the cautiousness that characterizes his coaching style -- indeed, everything Gibbs had carefully said last week about Schroeder being his quarterback -- led all of us, Williams included, to believe a change was the last thing on Gibbs' mind. Yet the speed with which Gibbs made it indicated otherwise. Although he talked of a voice that whispers in your ear and says, "Hey Joe, now's the time to make the move," Gibbs didn't want anyone to think it was impetuous: "I based it on everything I saw in Jay this whole year, in games and in practices, and everything I knew about him," Gibbs said, his research implying longstanding concern.
Apparently in 20 minutes, having overthrown Gary Clark and Clint Didier, Schroeder had given irrefutable proof that he was no longer equal to the job his coach steadfastly maintained was his. A day later one looks back to a 3-3 game against a weak team and wonders why Schroeder didn't get a full half? Wasn't Detroit precisely the kind of team a struggling Schroeder might have suddenly righted himself against? If there's anything we know about Schroeder, it's that he can score in a heartbeat. Maybe that's partially why Mark May said of the change, "I was flabbergasted."
Don't kid yourself, the switch is a Big Deal. In its wake, a 32-year-old who was on the scrap pile 15 months ago became the starter on what could be a Super Bowl team, and a 26-year-old celebrated as a wunderkind and just one season removed from the Pro Bowl, suffered the shift in fortune with the frosty chill of a sudden November snowfall. The party line says it doesn't matter who the quarterback is: They're both great, blah, blah, blah. But it does matter. Players and coaches aren't different from fans; they have their favorites, too. A full-blown quarterback controversy can be terribly divisive. Cowboys players choosing sides between Danny White and Gary Hogeboom contributed to the Dallas Paralysis. Gibbs no doubt shudders at such a prospect. Reluctant to change in the first place, the conservative Gibbs is unlikely to be comfortable making a week-to-week call at quarterback.
So Schroeder is out, exiled to a practice field, Gibbs said, "to throw and throw and throw." To work out whatever problems exist, whether injury-related or otherwise. Schroeder is the future. But the future isn't now. Williams is in, starting the next game, and probably each game after that unless he plays himself out of the job.
Searching back, Gibbs said he hadn't had the urge to do something like this since "maybe my first year." Gibbs pondered whether to lift Joe Theismann for Tom Flick. "I held on for a long time," he recalled. "Eventually I didn't make it." Gibbs looked around the empty locker room wearily and said, "I've been more the one to stay longer and be more cautious."
Making a quarterback switch shows you're not stuck in cement. The tricky thing is dealing with any shift in the pecking order. Gibbs said he felt the team was "in a lull," and went to Williams to "give us a lift." Williams was immediately electrifying, and judging from Clark's pirouetting touchdown catch, the spirit was contagious. But the Redskins' second-half offense was moribund. Using a baseball analogy, Gibbs could have praised Williams for a relief job well done, told people, "That's exactly why we got him," and handed the ball back to Schroeder, which is what Williams himself expected. Instead, he optioned Schroeder to Rochester to get some work with an encouraging but vague timetable for the future.
According to Bobby Beathard, "Jay knew going into the week that he had to come through." He didn't. He was quickly booed, and the majority of fans were delighted to see Williams in the game. However low Schroeder's confidence was before the game, it soon reached ebb tide. He stood stiffly on the sideline, helmet and jacket on, straining to become invisible. "He had great success instantaneously," Beathard said, referring to Schroeder's spectacular debut in relief of Theismann two seasons ago. "From then on he could do no wrong. Now things have gone badly for him." Beathard shrugged. "This is new to us, too."
All eyes are fixed on Schroeder in his adversity, watching to see how the embarrassment of being benched will affect him. "That's why you're slow to do it," Gibbs said thoughtfully. "It can hurt the player. It can hurt your relationship with the player." Gibbs wonders about the long-range implications. "How Jay handles it will determine his future."
Williams handled it with style and class above and beyond the call of duty, taking care to publicly laud Schroeder for having "more left in him than I ever had . . . he's the foundation. The future is in his hands."
Schroeder, on the other hand, was petulant on Sunday immediately after the game. Dressing hurriedly without ever looking up, he told a crowd of reporters waiting at his locker they "might as well forget" talking to him, as a Redskins staffer stood guard in front like a toy soldier. Later, after leaving to dry his hair, he sent the soldier to retrieve his bag, and exited without comment, not only stiffing the press, but the radio station he'd contracted to perform for.
Yesterday, however, Schroeder pulled his head from the sand and talked amiably with reporters. Sitting up straight and occassionally smiling, he faced the reality of the benching and promised to work as hard as he could to bounce back.
What happens now is about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and starting over again, about learning lessons from failure, about having grace under pressure. It's about cliches that became cliches because they're rooted in real life.
It's about growing up.
That was the first step.