The line from Joe Theismann’s last season as the Washington Redskins’ quarterback to John Beck’s first start in that role on Sunday is looping and squiggly, a toddler’s scribble on the paper placemat in a diner. It connects Super Bowl winners (Doug Williams, Mark Rypien) to past-their-prime stars (Mark Brunell, Donovan McNabb) to Pro Bowlers (Rypien, Jay Schroeder, Gus Frerotte, Brad Johnson) to first-round picks (Heath Shuler, Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell) to vagabond veterans (Rex Grossman, Tony Banks) to geez-do-you-remember-him characters (Rob Johnson, John Friesz, so many others). Every single classification of quarterback is represented, except one: the franchise guy.
The result of that connect-the-dots history is an inherent instability for what was once one of the NFL’s most stable franchises. Viewed that way, Beck’s appearance Sunday at Carolina — where he will replace the turnover-prone Grossman for the 3-2 Redskins — is much more than his opportunity to establish himself as a legitimate starter at age 30. It is the latest chapter in Washington’s search for that one player who can, almost by himself, provide stability for the entire roster.
“I think everybody’s looking for stability at that position — everybody,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Friday. “You’re hoping that whoever it may be stays here for a long length of time.”
Shanahan — who won two Super Bowls with John Elway in his first four seasons with Denver and spent his remaining nine years there trying to find a worthy replacement — took a shot last year by trading for McNabb, a six-time Pro Bowler in Philadelphia. When that failed, and failed miserably, he turned to Grossman, who won three of his first five games this season, but committed a league-high 11 turnovers in the process.
Next man up: Beck. Career starts: four. Career touchdown passes: one. Career interceptions: three. Career wins: zero. Fit into Washington’s pantheon of quarterbacks: nearly perfect.
“Things change in a blink of an eye,” Beck said. “You’ve always got to be ready.”
Theismann started his first game in 1976 and was the Redskins’ unquestioned starter from 1978 to ’85, when he made the last of his 167 appearances, more than any quarterback in franchise history. The turnover in the 25 years since has been epic. Since 1986, 33 quarterbacks have thrown passes for the Redskins, a total exceeded only by Chicago and Atlanta (with 34 apiece). Twenty-one of those players have made more than a cameo, throwing more than 100 passes. Only Detroit, with 24, has more quarterbacks with 100 attempts over that span.
What makes Beck think he can stop that turnstile at his sport’s most important position? “I don’t ever want to try to convince somebody from a microphone,” Beck said this week, standing in front of the spot reserved for the Redskins’ quarterback at midweek, from which he addresses the media.
But who knows who might be in front of that microphone next? When upheaval is the norm, there is a trickle-down effect throughout the entire organization.
“This really has become a quarterback’s league,” said Carolina Coach Ron Rivera, whose team selected Jimmy Clausen in the second round of last year’s draft, then made Cam Newton the top overall pick this year. With Newton off to an encouraging start, Carolina can apply its roster-building efforts elsewhere.
“He’ll be a stabilizing force for us at that position for years to come, hopefully,” Rivera said. “We can focus and concentrate on other things, like finding and keeping playmakers to be around him, building our lines, building the offensive and defensive sides of the ball without constantly having to worry and focus on the quarterback position.”
That has been the standard in Washington: worry and focus on the quarterback position. That, coaches and executives say, has a direct impact on results.
“I think it becomes a limiting factor on how far you can go in your season,” said Charley Casserly, who served as the Redskins’ general manager from 1989 to ’99 and later ran the Houston Texans. “If you’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got a chance to win every game.”
If you don’t, you could lose any game — including one to the 1-5 Panthers. Beck takes over as the starter because Grossman threw four interceptions last week in a loss to Philadelphia. He’s not the only quarterback, though, to throw four interceptions in a game this season. New England’s Tom Brady did so in a loss to Buffalo in September. Not a soul, however, called for his benching. Brady returned to the field the following week for the 147th start of his career, and the Patriots haven’t lost since.
“When you have that guy, you don’t worry as much about how the team is going to play on a week-to-week basis,” said former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who reached an NFC title game without a franchise quarterback in Tampa Bay but won the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. “If you don’t have that guy, you are searching every week to make sure everything else is perfect. You can’t really overcome injuries. You can win without one. It can happen in that one magical year. But you can’t consistently do that year in and year out.”
On Nov. 18, 1985, Theismann famously and gruesomely broke his leg when he was tackled by Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. At 36, his career was over, and the franchise began the search for a replacement. In some ways, even in the best of times, it has never stopped.
Theismann’s replacement in 1985 was Schroeder, a 24-year-old second-year player who had, to that point, eight pass attempts in his career. But after he threw for 4,109 yards and led the Redskins to a 12-4 record in 1986, he made the Pro Bowl.
Yet the Redskins’ churn at the position was only beginning. In 1987, Schroeder started 10 regular season games before he was replaced by Williams for the finale. Coach Joe Gibbs went with Williams — a refugee from the defunct USFL — for the playoffs and he delivered a Super Bowl title. Before the 1988 season, the Redskins traded Schroeder to the Los Angeles Raiders. Williams, though, never appeared in another playoff game.
There have been times when the Redskins seemed as if they had their man. In 1994, they took Shuler with the third pick in the draft, but he battled injuries and won only four games in three years before he was dumped. In 1998, they got a promising season from 28-year-oldTrent Green and wanted to sign him to a long-term deal the following summer, Casserly said, but the team was being sold to Daniel Snyder, and negotiations with Green bogged down. Instead, they traded for Brad Johnson, who quarterbacked them to their last NFC East championship, in 1999, a year in which he made the Pro Bowl. Snyder fired Casserly. A year later, Johnson signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay.
“For whatever reason, they got rid of him,” Casserly said. “He goes to Tampa and he wins the Super Bowl. Maybe if he stayed in Washington, you’re not having the discussion you’re having right now.”
The discussion, right now, is about Shanahan’s decision to enter this season with Grossman and Beck as his only options. When Shanahan arrived after the 2009 season, Campbell — a first-round pick in 2005, the starter since midway through 2006 — was the incumbent. Shanahan had to evaluate the situation.
“Jason Campbell fits some systems and not others,” said Casserly, who serves as an NFL analyst for CBS Sports. “But Jason is kind of a middle-of-the-road quarterback at best.”
So on Easter Sunday 2010, Shanahan and Bruce Allen, the team’s general manager, sent two draft picks to Philadelphia for McNabb. The move failed — Shanahan was never happy with McNabb’s work habits, and he replaced him with Grossman for the final three games of 2010 — and it left the franchise in the same position it’s been in for 25 years: searching.
“I went with Donovan,” Shanahan said. “Took a shot. There wasn’t a whole lot out there at that time, not a lot of decisions to be made. Obviously, that didn’t work out, but I wasn’t going to keep him here for three or four years. You make a decision if he’s a guy of your future, and he wasn’t, so we went with Rex.”
Now, he is going with Beck, in whom he has emphatically and repeatedly expressed his belief. Beck’s only other starts came during his rookie year of 2007 with a dreadful Miami team that went 1-15. But in discussing his own team’s situation at quarterback, as well as the fickle nature of finding a franchise player, Shanahan said, “Take a look at a guy like Drew Brees,” who was cast aside by San Diego only to become a star and Super Bowl champion in New Orleans.
“Nobody knew he was a difference-maker,” Shanahan said.
His point: Beck may be one, too. And if he’s not, maybe the next guy will be. Or the next one. Or the guy after that.
“We’re going to try a lot of guys and give them chances,” Shanahan said. “But for them to be here long-term, and be the guy, they’re going to have to prove to us that they’re going to . . . prepare the right way, they’re going to work the right way, and they’re going to do the best thing possible for us to win.”
Thursday afternoon, when the rest of the Redskins had finished practice in preparation for the Panthers, Beck remained on the field, working alone with one assistant coach on his footwork. He is the latest in the long, meandering line of Redskins quarterbacks. Whether that line stops with him, nobody yet knows.
Not fine company: Since 1986 (post-Joe Theismann), only one team has had more QBs attempt 100 passes than the Redskins.