Fifty years ago, the Redskins opened their season with a quarterback far less experienced than Rex Grossman, who’s scheduled to make his 35th career start Sunday against the Giants. The rookie, Norm Snead, would play three seasons in Washington before concluding a 16-year NFL career with the Eagles, Giants, Vikings, and 49ers.
Battered, Bruised, and Only One Win
It’s not often when a player can suit up for the NFL team that he followed as a kid, but Norm Snead had just that opportunity after Washington made him its first-round draft choice in 1961. And having been raised in Newport News, Virginia, the quarterback was well aware of what he was getting into. Specifically, that the Redskins had had only three winning seasons over the previous 15 years, most recently in 1955 when they were 8-4 under head coach Joe Kuharich.
When Snead reported to the team, he found a new home, D.C. Stadium; a new coach, Bill McPeak; and a vacant locker which had been used by the prior season by then-starting quarterback, Ralph Guglielmi, who had moved on to the St. Louis Cardinals. However, not having a veteran sounding board didn’t concern Snead or disrupt his confidence.
“I knew I could be an NFL quarterback when I first went to training camp,” said Snead. “The circumstance of Bill McPeak and [team owner] George Preston Marshall deciding to go with a rookie [as the starting quarterback], I had no control over that. They made the decision based on what they saw.
“I was glad to play. It would have been better if I had a veteran [to show me the ropes], yes, but if it had been a veteran like a young [Dan] Marino or a young anybody, I would have never played. [I would have been his backup.] So I’m glad it turned out that way.”
That may have been true, but the season opener on September 17 in San Francisco did not turn out as he would have hoped. The 49ers topped Washington, 35-3. What does Snead remember about his debut?
“That I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he laughed. “It just looked like a Chinese fire drill out there. I was excited, I was inexperienced. I was all of those things, and it just looked like mass confusion when you looked at the defense.”
The confusion did not really clear up. The Redskins fell short on the scoreboard the next eight games en route to a 1–12–1 record, their second consecutive one-win campaign. “We were a team that basically was building and we just did what we had to do,” Snead said. “We would like to have been just like any team. At that time, Green Bay had a great running game and a great passing game, and that’s what everybody strives for. We just didn’t have that. We started seven rookies. You’re not going to win a lot in the NFL starting seven rookies.
“Losing is not fun. We had a bunch of veterans that had to put up with a lot of rookies, and I felt sorry for them. We sort of let them down. But it was a mixed bag of emotions. You had to prove yourself, first of all, to your peers, the people you’re playing with. And that was the hardest part. We were competitive in most of the games, but a lot of them we were just very, very poor in. But my biggest concern was my teammates. I didn’t want to let them down.”
One thing that could be said of Snead’s rookie season was that he kept getting back up. Sacks were not a well-kept statistic at that time; however, he experienced quite a few of them.
“I didn’t run for my life because I couldn’t run. I just got the hell beat out of me,” joked Snead, who completed 172 of 375 passes for 2,337 yards with 11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions during that first year. “That’s the fault of me as well as the offensive line. That’s inexperience; knowing when to get rid of the ball, give yourself some outlets in the rotation of priority receivers, and so forth. You had to know where to go to if one or two or three are covered. And I wasn’t very good at that in that first year.”
And while beating Dallas at home, 34-24, in the finale on December 17 behind running back Dick James’ four touchdowns was one of the few highlights Snead enjoyed that season, another one occurred earlier in the year when he met Redskins’ legendary quarterback Sammy Baugh.
“That was an exciting day for me,” Snead recalled. “He came to one of our practices, and after practice, he put his arm around me and somebody snapped a picture. I have that picture to this day. The things he told me stuck with me my entire career. He said, ‘Forget what people say. You do what you do and let everything take care of itself.’”
Excerpt from “Then Gibbs Said to Riggins…”