Now in his sixth decade with the team as either a player or announcer, it seems strange to remember that Sonny Jurgensen, the quintessential Redskin, spent what by NFL standards would have been a fairly lengthy career in a different uniform.
To hear new Eagles Coach Joe Kuharich tell it in 1964, in fact, his quarterback was starting to decline at at 29. Thus Jurgensen was shipped to the Redskins in a deal for 24-year-old Norm Snead after seven turbulent years in Philadelphia.
Legend has it Philly bartenders donned black armbands the day Sonny was traded, but Eagle fans were far from crushed. Having watched the uber-intense Norm Van Brocklin lead the team to an NFL title in 1960, the transition to Jurgensen’s freewheeling style both on and off the field was difficult for many to stomach, even though he was setting team passing records that still stand.
From the start, however, Redskin fans loved his flamboyant ways and Sonny quickly became the face of the franchise for the next decade. It didn’t hurt that future Hall of Fame wide receiver Bobby Mitchell was already in Washington at that point, and fellow Hall of Famer Charley Taylor arrived the same year. A year later tight end Jerry Smith joined the fold and, in 1967, with Jurgensen throwing the ball, Taylor, Smith and Mitchell finished No. 1, 2 and 4, respectively, in receptions — one of the more impressive statistical accomplishments in league history.
Unfortunately, Jurgensen’s gaudy numbers didn’t translate into success in the won-loss column, as his supporting casts were even worse than those with the Eagles. In his first four seasons in Washington, the best the team could manage was a 7-7 record in 1966 under thoroughly overmatched head coach Otto Graham.
The Redskins’ fortunes would change in 1969, with the arrival in Washington of coaching legend Vince Lombardi, who Sonny would always regard as his most influential mentor, even though they were together for only one season and he was already 34 years old by then. A 7-5-2 season seemed to portend great things to come but, after a lackluster 1970 season under Bill Austin, the Redskins hired George Allen — who was far less enamored of Sonny’s game than Lombardi.
Every Redskin fan of a certain age remembers the quarterback controversy that ensued between Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer. Boiled down to its essence, Kilmer supporters — Allen included — argued the team was built to win with solid defense and conservative, mistake-free offense. And given how much more successful Allen’s Redskins were than at any point in the preceding 25 years, that was a hard argument to refute. But those of us in Sonny’s camp countered that Kilmer never won a Super Bowl and, if the Redskins were that good with Kilmer, imagine how much better they’d have been with an actual passing game.
Sonny finally tired of fighting with Allen and ended his 10-year Redskin playing career following the 1974 season, but not before one last defining moment on Oct. 2, when the 40-year-old replaced an injured Kilmer in the starting lineup against the two-time Super Bowl champion Dolphins and completed 26 of 39 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns — including the game-winner to Jerry Smith with 16 seconds remaining. The performance will forever leave diehard Redskin fans wondering what the outcome of the Redskin-Dophin Super Bowl would have been if Sonny had been in the starting lineup instead of nursing a torn Achilles tendon.
Quite simply, Sonny Jurgensen was the finest passer I’ve ever seen in 50 years of watching the game. Other quarterbacks had stronger arms, but none was as accurate from short or long range. No quarterback ever anticipated his receiver’s route as well, and none threw a more catchable ball. He’ll never get the credit he deserves because, unlike less-gifted contemporaries like Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas, Jurgensen never won an NFL title. And as the years go by, the number of us who remember him in his prime continues to dwindle.
But he was special. And for 10 mostly unforgettable years, he was all ours.