Christian A. Jurgensen III, 40, of Mt. Vernon, Va., thanks you for your patience and understanding. He would like to have been with you sooner, but it took a while to scrape off the rust from a carcass that, in its day, has had legs, shoulders, ribs, elbows, ankles and knees—to say nothing of pride—bent in all kinds of ways. But in this pro football season, the year of the Quarterback Shuffle, it was appropriate that Sonny Jurgensen, a creaking relic and a virtuoso who goes back so far in the sport you sometimes wonder whether he came before plastic helmets and low-quarter shoes, should return to the Washington Redskins' backfield and the headlines. And because he has, because of what he has been up to these past few Sundays, nostalgia has a chance to overthrow madness in the league standings.
Last Sunday in the chill of his home stadium, before a loving crowd of 53,879, Jurgensen faced one of the more serious challenges of a bumpy career that has now spanned 18 seasons. He had to prove that the miracle he had worked the week before in strapping a last-gasp, theatrical 20-17 defeat on the Miami Dolphins was not a pure accident. What the ageless maestro did against the New York Giants was throw 17 completions in 30 attempts—he had about five others dropped—for 174 yards and the 249th, the 250th and the 251st touchdown passes of his professional lifetime. The Redskins breezed to a 24-3 victory and, as usual, Sonny did it all sorts of ways. Handing off with aplomb. Beating the clock. Peering through the hands and arms of defenders bearing down on him, which is all that a quarterback usually sees, and finding the open man. Sometimes not finding him and jogging for safety—you can hardly call what Sonny does running. He pitched one touchdown to Roy Jefferson, a wide receiver, another to Larry Brown, a halfback, and another to Moses Denson, a fullback, and became a spectator in the fourth quarter after the game became a laugher.
There was a time when a good many people argued that Jurgensen was the best passer in the game. When he was fit, they said, without bandages on his ribs or knees, no quarterback could approach him in throwing long, throwing short, throwing quick, dissecting defenses, arousing his team, working the clock. The only thing was, everybody said, Sonny was unlucky. He got hurt a lot, and he had to play for bad teams, first at Philadelphia, then at Washington. And he had to play for such leaders of the coaching community as Hugh Devore, Buck Shaw, Nick Skorich, Bill McPeak, Otto Graham and Bill Austin. He would also have played for Joe Kuharich, except Kuharich traded him from Philadelphia to Washington for Norm Snead, which turned out to be a strategic maneuver ranking up there with Napoleon's invasion of Tolstoy.
"I'm a good trivia question," Sonny said a couple of nights before he beat the Giants. "Name all my coaches."
Some people forget Vince Lombardi, but no one has trouble naming George Allen. It is no secret that Allen would be more comfortable with Jurgensen's good friend and on-the-road roommate, Bill Kilmer, operating at quarterback. Allen likes to win games 13-6, with the defense dominating. Sonny likes to win them 41-40, throwing 50 passes. Last Sunday each man had it his own way. Allen's defense made the big plays—a blocked punt and two interceptions—that gave Sonny the opportunity to win the game in the air.
What had brought Sonny back to the center of attention was the Cincinnati game two Sundays earlier. The Bengals were stopping the Redskins cold, and Allen decided to change quarterbacks the way most of the other NFL coaches have this year. Pastorini for Dickey at Houston, Sullivan for Lee for Sullivan at Atlanta, Harris for Hadl at Los Angeles, Del Gaizo for Snead for Del Gaizo at whatever town the Giants are in these days, Scott for Manning at New Orleans, Owen for Morrison for Reed at San Francisco, Livingston for Dawson at Kansas City, Poverty for Money on Wall Street.
Anyhow, Jurgensen entered the Bengal game in the fourth quarter, threw 20 passes, completed 12 for 104 yards and two touchdowns, which made the final score 28-17. The following Sunday, Allen started him against Miami, and in the last few minutes Jurgensen hit six of seven passes, the final one for a touchdown, and Miami was stunned 20-17. The admiring Kilmer said, "He's the master." It was such a glorious performance that on Wednesday, three days later, Allen went so far as to tell Jurgensen he did a good job. And the quarterback spot belonged to him once again.
"I'm still rusty," Jurgensen said after the Miami game. "I can't throw as far as I used to, and I can't move and throw on the run like I used to, and I probably don't have as much sting on the ball. I didn't even know whether I could make the team this year, but I thought I'd give it a try because I don't feel old."
Against Miami, rusty was the right word for Jurgensen. In the first half, before he got properly warmed up, he threw three interceptions. Still, the crowd stayed with him.
"They knew the defenders were the only guys I could find open," he kidded. "Fans do a lot for a quarterback. I have confidence I can still throw pretty good, and every year you get better at looking at the other team's window dressing."