Considering what he hadn't done in 12 seasons, what Jeff Rutledge did Sunday against Detroit is virtually a football miracle. In three seasons of his career, Rutledge didn't throw a single pass. In 1982 and 1985, he didn't take a single snap. One year he threw one pass. Another year three. In each season save three, Rutledge threw fewer passes than he did in 34 minutes Sunday in The Comeback.
In 12 years he has started nine games. The Los Angeles Rams didn't think enough of him to give him the starting job; neither did the New York Giants unless somebody got hurt. "I went years up there without hardly doing anything," he said. Jeff Rutledge has been Mr. Clipboard. Run the scout team in practice, help the No. 1 guy if he needs it, chart the plays on Sunday. Jeff Rutledge has been an afterthought his entire NFL life.
Until Sunday afternoon.
Sunday, for 34 minutes, Rutledge was Joe Montana. He threw 42 passes and every one that could be completed, he threw perfectly. Joe Gibbs, after looking at the game film, said there was only one pass of the 42 he would consider "forced" into coverage. "Every ball he threw was on the money," Gibbs said, incredulous after seeing it again. "It's a great story, one of the great stories in sports, like Doug Williams when he was here. Who would give Jeff Rutledge a chance to start for the Washington Redskins? What are the odds? Not very good."
For today, there is no quarterback controversy in Washington. Jeff Rutledge is the quarterback. And that may be the best news the Redskins have had in a while.
What team in the history of pro football ever has traveled with more quarterbacks than the Washington Redskins? During one sideline conference in the Silverdome Sunday, Gibbs was surrounded by Rutledge, Stan Humphries, Mark Rypien, Cary Conklin (injured reserve) and Gary Hogeboom. Add Sonny up in the booth, and you've got six.
The right one will be starting Monday night against the Eagles, though. Yes, it took something radical -- one of the two greatest comebacks in club history -- to get Rutledge into the starting lineup, but it's not a radical concept to have him there.
He deserves to be the No. 1 as much as Rypien or Humphries, neither of whom really ran with the torch. Rutledge isn't going to turn into a great quarterback every week after 12 years. He's not the quarterback of the future. But if he can hit Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark in the chest as he did on Sunday, then he deserves to play.
Gibbs himself says the team "jumps" when Rutledge is in there. Well, it's time to jump because the Eagles are a game behind the Redskins and look rejuvenated.
There is a sense here that what the Redskins need is not a quarterback-in-training. Instead they need somebody with some cool and some moxie. Looking good isn't a requirement. Throwing the ball through a wall isn't either. Even Gibbs said, "Jeff doesn't look real good doing some things."
Rutledge doesn't have to be great for this offense to be explosive. He doesn't have to carry this team; he only has to be efficient enough, and it will carry him. He doesn't want to be a star, he knows that passed him by a long time ago. Hit the Posse between the numbers, no matter how wobbly the pass, and let them run. He can't run as well as Humphries, he hasn't got Rypien's cannon, but they don't have his know-how.
Gibbs said Rutledge threw the corner routes and the pumps up the middle -- two difficult patterns -- very well. Not because his arm is especially strong, but because he's done it a million times in practice, imitating Dan Marino and John Elway, Jim McMahon and Joe Theismann, Montana and Jim Everett as a scout team quarterback year after year.
"I think what Jeff Rutledge has is great timing," Gibbs said, ticking off his new starter's top attributes. "Tremendous timing, he makes great decisions and he has great football awareness. He's extremely mentally tough."
Those are things Rypien and/or Humphries must acquire. Rutledge has them now. To last 12 years in the NFL you have to have something, even to qualify for clipboard duty.
Gibbs saw Rutledge in college when he was running Bear Bryant's wishbone at Alabama. Rutledge was slow, real slow. "I looked to pitch out," he said. "Most teams' game plans were to get me to run the ball."
Gibbs was impressed that Rutledge survived, "the pressure of having to win a national championship running an offense he wasn't exactly suited for . . . There are just things in his background."
Not enough things to get him drafted higher than the ninth round, but enough to allow him to survive 12 years, when the frustration of sitting, or rusting, that long would have driven most men to another career years earlier. You'd think Rutledge would have atrophied by now.
Rutledge allowed himself to think seriously about being the starter once upon a time. It was 1984 or 1985, he recalls, and the Giants said the job was up for grabs between him and Phil Simms. Rutledge thought he won the job, but Bill Parcells thought otherwise.
Shortly thereafter, Simms led the Giants to the Super Bowl. Rutledge asked to be traded, but wasn't. He never made trouble. He got his thrills from practice. "I'm not the complaining type," he said. "It's not that I was taking it lightly. Complaining, that's just not me."
So, here's Rutledge, closing in on 34, getting a starting nod without anybody being hurt. For the first time in his long, undistinguished career, it's his job to lose.