When the USFL folded in 1986, a lot of the league's quarterbacks were picked up. The New Orleans Saints won a bidding war for Bobby Hebert. Jim Kelly went to Buffalo. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got Steve Young. None of those guys had ever played in the NFL.
Even Chuck Fusina, my former backup at Tampa Bay, was picked up by the Green Bay Packers. Twenty-eight NFL teams went to training camp in 1986. Not one offered to give me a tryout, much less a contract.
I'm sure some of them would say they had reasons. But I was a healthy 31-year-old quarterback with plenty of good years ahead of me. There was no logical reason to leave me alone. I had proven myself in the NFL, and I belonged back in the league.
On Aug. 12, I finally got the call to come back to the NFL. Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs called me at home in Zachary, La. Like always, he was very businesslike and got right to the point.
"Douglas," he said. "We would like to have you with the Redskins. I don't know about the money. I'm sure you can work that out with our general manager, Bobby Beathard. All I need to know is can you play backup quarterback? We've already committed to Jay Schroeder as our starter. So would you be interested in being our backup quarterback?"
Of course, was my answer.
When I reported to camp, the Redskins had Jay Schroeder, Mark Rypien and Babe Laufenberg as their quarterbacks. The competition wasn't anything I couldn't handle, but the Redskins' system wasn't the easiest in the world. It was almost like starting over again as a professional. They had a completely different terminology and a highly complex offensive scheme. Coach Gibbs spends a lot of hours at that blackboard, so there's a great deal for the quarterbacks to learn. He prepares his team as well as anybody in football.
It was so refreshing to join the Washington Redskins. It was like night and day compared to what I had been used to. The Redskins are a classy organization. Going to that team after what I had been a part of in Tampa was an amazing experience.
The Redskins are owned by Jack Kent Cooke, and his son John handles the day-to-day operations. Jack is very arrogant, aggressive, authoritative and just a great businessman. Jack wants it his way, and he usually gets it. He's the E.F. Hutton type of guy: When he speaks, he wants you to listen.
Jack tries hard to make sure the people working for him are happy. I think he does a good job of that. The Redskins pay the players who produce for them.
I think John is dictated to by his father. John tries hard to run the business like he thinks it should be run and like he thinks his father wants it run. He's got a lot of his dad's traits. Both of the Cookes are fair men. They're good people to be associated with. Schroeder Was Uneasy
When I first saw Jay Schroeder, I was shocked to see how big he was. I had never seen him before, and let me tell you, Jay is a big man. He's about 6 feet 5, 210 pounds and has a strong arm. At that point, I could understand why Coach Gibbs wanted him to be his starting quarterback. I totally accepted my role as his backup.
Jay and I didn't ever get very close, so I didn't know that much about him. But I could sense right from the beginning that he felt threatened by me. I was somebody who had been successful in the league and could do some things pretty well. You could see Jay was a little unnerved by my presence. But he played fairly well in 1986. He led us to the playoffs and made the Pro Bowl. Of course, he was surrounded by tremendous talent. People like Art Monk, Gary Clark and the Hogs made Jay Schroeder look good.
In some ways, it was difficult being a backup, especially since I had never been in that position as a pro. Naturally, I wanted to play. What made it difficult to accept was the fact I knew I could do as well or better than Schroeder. It was somewhat easier because I had been told from the start that I would be the backup. That was my position. That was where they wanted me to play, and it was up to me to make the most of it. My final passing stats for the season: 0 for 1.
I thought I would spend 1987 watching from the sidelines again. Schroeder seemed to be more jittery about his position, though. He seemed to be looking over his shoulder. He realized that I had learned the system and was playing well. But he also knew he had the security of Joe Gibbs. Coach Gibbs does not pull his quarterbacks. He believes in playing one quarterback unless its absolutely clear he can't do the job.
The worst thing that ever happened to Jay Schroeder was being picked for the Pro Bowl and getting a big contract. The Redskins gave him $900,000 a year. After that, his attitude went out the window. After he played in the Pro Bowl, his ego ballooned, and it was already big to begin with. I don't think there was a hat in America that could have fit his head.
You have to play awfully bad as a starter for Coach Gibbs to pull you out of the lineup. But Schroeder hurt his shoulder and had to come out. I came off the bench in the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles and led us to a 34-24 victory. I think Coach Gibbs realized then that he had a capable backup who was ready to take over at any time.
But Schroeder came back for the next game and was the starter again. I had to come off the bench a few games later, and after the players' strike, when we played Detroit. This time, Schroeder didn't have an injury. He just wasn't playing well and had to be taken out. I had another good game, and we won again.
Time for a Change
In the last game of the regular season, we were playing at Minnesota. It was the day after Christmas, and we had already clinched the NFC East championship. But we fell behind early, and Schroeder was having another bad game. Even though the game didn't mean anything as far as the playoffs, it's important that you play well down the stretch to keep your momentum going. So they put me into the game, and I played well again. I came in and hit Ricky Sanders down the middle for a TD pass. Later I hit him crossing over the middle, and he ran it in for a TD. We ended up beating the Vikings in overtime.
Now Coach Gibbs finally decided he had to make a quarterback change. Everyone could see Schroeder wasn't playing to the level that we needed to make a run at the Super Bowl. So Coach Gibbs named me the starter for the playoffs.
Coach Gibbs bent over backwards for Jay Schroeder. What made it bad was the players knew it. During the season, a lot of players came to me and said they couldn't understand why I wasn't the starter. It began after the Detroit game. An awful lot of players came to me. They were upset. They thought it was a black thing.
I just told them, "I'm not worried about it, don't let it bother you. If that's what Coach Gibbs wants to do, that's what we'll do. It's fine with me."
I didn't want to get caught up in a racial issue again. I didn't want to get wrapped up in it, because I had been in it enough. I had been fighting being a black quarterback all my life, and to make this a black issue would have been detrimental to the team. I think it could have split the team, so I didn't want to think that way.
After I became the starter, Jay Schroeder wouldn't talk to me. He couldn't deal with my taking his position. When I had been the backup, I went about my business and tried to do whatever I could for the team. Sure, I wanted to play, but I accepted my role and tried to make the most of it. As soon as they benched him, Schroeder started acting like a spoiled little kid. Saved by Green
We couldn't have had a tougher way to open the playoffs. Even though we won our division, we had to go on the road and play at Chicago.
On the day before we played the Bears, we got a boost with the Minnesota Vikings beating San Francisco. The Vikings were the wild card team so that meant if we could beat the Bears, the championship game would be in Washington.
It didn't start well for us at all. We got down, 14-0, in the first quarter, but it didn't bother us to fall behind, and we didn't let the weather become a factor. We just stuck with our game plan and tied the game by halftime.
Nobody did that much offensively in the second half. Both defenses were playing well. I did hit a couple passes to keep a drive alive, but it finally stalled. But Darrell Green later made a fantastic run on a punt return for a TD, and that won the game for us, 21-17.
Being in a championship game again was a great thrill for me. But being in a championship game at home was even more important. I felt RFK Stadium was going to give us the edge we needed to get to the Super Bowl.
The Vikings were a heck of a team at that point. They had killed the New Orleans Saints in the wild-card game, and then they beat up on the 49ers in San Francisco. And the 49ers had the best record in football.
I think I completed something like eight of 24 passes against the Vikings.
I threw one TD to Kelvin Bryant and another to Gary Clark. We led all the way, but the Vikings stayed close and had a chance to tie us late in the game and force overtime. We were leading, 17-10, and they drove to our 5-yard line. On fourth and goal, Wade Wilson threw a pass to Darrin Nelson in the end zone, but Darrell Green broke it up to save the game.
After three tries, I had finally won a championship game and was going to the Super Bowl.
Next: Super Sunday.
Excerpted with permission from "Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth" by Doug Williams with Bruce Hunter, Bonus Books, Chicago.