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It Didn't Have to Be This Way

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Tom compares the current Redskins mess to the 1987 quarterback controversy, and explains why things are much, much worse today.

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How's your week going?

Safe to say you've fared better than the Washington Redskins?

As I often do when things go south for the present-day ‘Skins (spoiler: ALWAYS), I retreat to the comfortable and familiar environs of a more pleasant, bygone era.

As the horribly-handled quarterback saga involving erstwhile savior Robert Griffin III unfolded, what struck me was not only the customary ham-handedness of the organization, but also how disproportionate the hysteria seemed to be.

Yes, the Redskins look incompetent.  Again.  And their PR skills are nonexistent.  The shift from "Griffin is the starter" to "Griffin is hurt" to "Griffin is fine" to "No, wait, Griffin is hurt" followed quickly by "This is Kirk's team" is inexcusable, and the explanations unconvincing.

Let's also remember that all of that came about four months after the team picked up RG3's option year.  Four months!  With no regular-season games played!

Yet, minus some of the dysfunction, there was a substantially similar situation a generation ago that somehow didn't become a face-palm-inducing debacle.

Let's rewind three decades and imagine the following fact pattern playing out in today's world . . .

Jay Schroeder had been thrust into the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback role after Joe Theismann's gruesome leg injury against the Giants on Monday Night Football in 1985.  A rookie out of UCLA, Schroeder went 4-1 as a starter, rallying Washington to a 10-6 finish.  The next year, Schroeder made the Pro Bowl after throwing for over 4,000 yards and leading the Redskins to a 12-4 record followed by two playoff victories.

Meanwhile, Doug Williams had been picked up by Washington in '86 after the USFL folded.  The connection was that Joe Gibbs had been the offensive coordinator in Tampa when Williams played for the Bucs.  Gibbs, in fact, was instrumental in the Buccaneers' drafting of Williams.  Now years later, Gibbs asked Williams if he would be the Redskins' back-up.  This sounded like a terrific idea to a guy who was effectively unemployed at the time.

Williams barely played in 1986, actually throwing only one pass all season.  The most memorable moment he had that year was being dismissed like a small child by Schroeder during the NFC Championship game against the Giants.  As Joe Gibbs told Williams to get in the game when Schroeder briefly appeared to be injured, an angry Schroeder "shooed" the veteran back to the sidelines.

Schroeder's gesture stuck in Williams' craw, creating tension between the two of them that would last into the next year.

However, there was no question at the beginning of 1987 that the 26-year-old Schroeder was going to be the Redskins' quarterback for the present and foreseeable future.

In fact, the starting job was so cemented that Williams asked to sit out the Redskins' August 29, 1987 preseason game in Tampa.  He didn't like the way that he'd been treated by Buccaneers fans upon his return the year before.  Joe Gibbs obliged.  Williams said then that he felt that he had nothing to prove and didn't need to play that day.

Just before the regular season began, Gibbs called Williams into his office one morning and informed "Douglas" that he had been traded to the Raiders.  Williams was ecstatic, because he knew that a switch to LA meant a legitimate opportunity to start.  In Washington, Williams appeared destined to languish behind Schroeder for the final few years of his career.  After informing Williams of the trade, Gibbs told him to return to his office at noon to get the specifics of the deal.

When Williams walked through the door a few hours later, Gibbs told him that he had changed his mind.

Williams was livid.

Gibbs told Williams he just "had a feeling" about him helping Washington to a championship.  When an incredulous Williams objected to the reversal, Gibbs replied that he didn't coach the Raiders.  He coached the Redskins.  He was doing what he thought was best for the only team he coached.

The quarterback situation unexpectedly became more complicated when Schroeder suffered a shoulder injury in the early stages of the season opener against the Eagles.  Williams came off the bench to throw for 272 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Redskins prevailed 27-17.

With Schroeder nursing his shoulder, Williams started the next week against the Falcons.  The Redskins lost 21-20 as Williams threw for three scores and two picks.

Then, the 1987 players' strike happened.  For you youngsters, the NFL's solution to this problem was to cancel a week of games, then start playing games with replacement players while the "real" ones were on strike.

This was not a popular plan.

After Gibbs masterfully guided the Redskins to a 3-0 record in the replacement games, the regulars returned.  A healthy Schroeder had his starting job again, and led Washington to wins over the Jets and Bills.  However, he played poorly against the Eagles on November 8, completing just 16 of 46 passes as the Redskins dropped a 31-27 decision and fell to 6-2.

To make matters worse, Assistant GM and Redskins legend Bobby Mitchell gave a television interview in which he claimed that several players favored Williams over Schroeder.  Specifically, Mitchell said that he heard several players clamoring for Williams to be inserted into the game so that the Redskins would have a "chance to win" during the late stages of the loss to the Eagles.

This time, it was Gibbs' turn to be livid.

Mitchell later softened his previous comments.

Nonetheless, when Schroeder struggled early against the Lions the following week, Gibbs pulled him.  This was the first time in Gibbs' head-coaching career that he had benched a healthy quarterback during a game.  Williams came on and threw for a pair of touchdowns before halftime, helping to set up a 20-17 Redskins victory.

Williams had the starting job.  For a week, anyway.  He played the whole game against the Rams, throwing for 308 yards and two TDs, but Los Angeles prevailed 30-26.

More importantly, Williams came away from the Rams game with a sore back, an injury suffered as Williams was hit at the goal line on a two-yard touchdown run.  He watched in street clothes as Jay Schroeder rallied the Redskins from a 16-0 deficit to a 23-19 win over the defending world-champion Giants on the strength of a 331-yard, three-touchdown showing.

That performance by Schroeder raised another round of obvious questions about who would start the next game, against the Cardinals in Week 13.  Williams openly quoted Joe Gibbs' rule that a starter couldn't lose his job due to injury.  Gibbs was more non-committal.

As it turned out, Williams got benched and Schroeder had his job back when the Redskins arrived in St. Louis.  That move upset Williams, who felt he had been misled by Gibbs.  Schroeder played well, throwing for two scores and running another one in to propel Washington to a 34-17 victory, with the Skins scoring the final 24 points of the contest.

Schroeder again played the entire game the following week, this time in a 24-20 home win over the Cowboys that knocked Dallas out of any possible playoff contention.  Schroeder was just average, but the Redskins won to improve to 10-3, so his job looked safe.  Schroeder played decently, if unspectacularly against the Dolphins a few days later, but Washington fell 23-21.

In the season finale against Minnesota, Schroeder again failed to get the offense moving in the first half.  He was just 9-for-17 for 85 yards and two interceptions before he was benched—again—in favor of Williams, who promptly led a successful comeback effort over the final two quarters.

The Redskins won 27-24 in overtime, wrapping up an 11-4 season.  Washington suffered its four losses by a combined total of 11 points.  It was apparent that the Redskins had the potential to contend for a championship.

But who would be the quarterback?

Even after a season's worth of games, there wasn't much clarity until Joe Gibbs announced, definitively, that Doug Williams would be the Redskins' quarterback in the playoffs.

I'll pause here to recap: Over the course of four months, the Redskins changed starting quarterbacks five times in twelve (non-strike) games.  That instability followed a preseason in which Doug Williams was told he was traded—until Gibbs abruptly canceled the deal.  In the midst of 1987, the Assistant GM publicly stated on a television show that the locker room preferred Williams to then-starter Schroeder.  Both quarterbacks wound up disgruntled with the situation at several points during the year, and both also dealt with minor injuries that complicated things even further.  Finally, despite coming off of a Pro Bowl season in which he led the Redskins to the NFC title game, and despite posting an 8-2 record as a starter in ‘87, Schroeder was benched just prior to the playoffs.

Can you imagine how that situation would be covered and discussed today?

The rest, of course, is history: Williams played well in an upset victory at Chicago and played well enough in a 17-10 home win over the Vikings in the NFC Championship game.  He then put on one of the greatest performances in Super Bowl history, throwing for four touchdowns and earning MVP honors as the Redskins crushed the Broncos 42-10.

Schroeder, who was called Washington's "once and future quarterback" by Al Michaels during the Super Bowl XXII broadcast, wound up getting traded . . . to the Raiders.  Williams eventually resumed his back-up role as Mark Rypien (who had been on IR in '87) gradually came into his own.  Unlike Williams and Schroeder, there was no animosity between Williams and Rypien, who were openly supportive of each other.

While the quarterback controversy of 1987 was certainly a topic of conversation 28 years ago, we didn't see anything remotely like the rapid-fire, almost-hourly crises that make being a Redskins fan an exhausting endeavor in 2015.

Why?  Five easy reasons.

1. The coach: In just his seventh season, Joe Gibbs was already a two-time NFL Coach of the Year.  His teams had been to the NFC title game three of the previous five years.  He also had a Super Bowl ring, which is an effective heat shield against a lot of second-guessing.  He was a model of steady, expert leadership, and, as it turned out, one of the greatest coaches in league history.

2. The owner: Jack Kent Cooke was the opposite of Dan Snyder in many ways.  Cooke had a big personality and a terrific eye for leadership.  He was a (usually) delightful eccentric who was willing to do whatever it took to win.  In the pre-salary-cap days, that meant, for example, paying Doug Williams more than a typical back-up would make, reflecting Williams' status and the importance that Gibbs assigned to him.

3. The organization itself: Despite all of the juicy details above, and notwithstanding Mitchell's less-than-ideal choice of words, the Redskins of that era were a model organization with exceptional competence.  General Manager Bobby Beathard, working with Gibbs, was a master of sniffing out talent that had been overlooked by other teams.  As a bonus, his wife also never accused reporters of providing sexual favors to get scoops from the Redskins' front office—meaning her husband.  Back then, there was a general belief and trust that things would work out.  Today, nothing would surprise fans and writers at this point—an RG3 trade before the season, his reinstatement as the starter, or anything in-between.  Everything is on the board with the current leadership.  And, no matter what happens, we also know the PR elements will be bungled.

4. The media landscape: We just completed a news cycle that featured several prominent stories discussing whether RG3 "liked" the "wrong" Instagram picture, or whether one of (one of!) his social-media interns(!!!) did.  Read that sentence again.  The simple fact is that anything Griffin—or any high-profile athlete—does will be scrutinized and discussed beyond any rationality.  Social media is relentless and often dumb.  Online outlets generally have a tone that is iconoclastic and angry, if not downright cruel.  Even traditional outlets that existed in 1987 (ESPN or the Washington Post, for example) have shifted into a more controversy- or gossip-driven business model that has no shortage of snark.  A story that's a "4" has to be presented as if it were a "10" or a "0."  Otherwise, you would've never heard of Skip Bayless.

5. WINNING!: This is the big one. The current Griffin / Cousins / McCoy quarterback situation would be a hot topic even if the Redskins were 11-5 last year, but the discussion would be devoid of much of the hyperbole and panic.  Winning is the salve that can soothe nearly any football ill.

Unfortunately for fans, the Redskins of 2015 are troubled in each of those five areas.  There isn't much they can do about #2, there's still less they can do about #4, and, over the last 48 hours, even the little strides they appeared to make in area #3 seem to have been overshadowed by unseemly tweets and a possible attempted cover-up.

That leaves coaching and winning.

If the latter does not miraculously materialize, the former will certainly change.

And quickly.