by Ian Cummings
Kirk Cousins has emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the league in recent years. He’s widely regarded as a top ten quarterback in the modern era. But thirty years ago, he may have not fared so well.
In a game that’s ever changing, and constantly evolving, it’s hard to pay respects to the way football used to be played. The physicality of the past generation paved the foundation of the game today. But the game hasn’t stayed the same by any means.
Quarterbacks didn’t have as much time to throw back then. The receivers weren’t favored by the rules like they are today. In those times, defenders could get away with harder, more devastating hits. The game has since seen a massive shift. The stat sheets keep getting bigger and bigger. The players do, too.
Kirk Cousins is a good quarterback. And he’s certainly lit up the stat sheets in his two years starting with the burgundy and gold. But where does he stand among the other Redskin quarterbacks that have passed through Ashburn throughout the years?
In the next few slides, we’ll take a trip down memory lane, and we’ll look at the top ten greatest quarterbacks ever to suit up for the Washington Redskins. Keep in mind that these rankings are of quarterbacks and their accomplishments as Redskins. Players like Rich Gannon, who played one year with the Redskins and later won the MVP Award with another team, won’t be ranked.
Without further ado, let’s get started. Who are the top ten greatest quarterbacks ever to suit up for the Washington Redskins?
No. 6 – Kirk Cousins
Those of you who’ve followed my content for some time know that I’m a big proponent of Kirk Cousins. But better judgement forced me to keep him at No. 6 for now. The young quarterback has a good chance to vault up this list if he continues to play at the level he he’s been performing. However, a new contract will be needed for that to happen. The Redskins would be wise to lock down their franchise quarterback. It’s another thing that’s eluded them for decades besides a Super Bowl.
For most of the twenty-first century, Washington’s quarterback position has been a revolving door. Since 2000, sixteen quarterbacks have started at least a game for the Redskins. Cleveland is well-known as quarterback limbo in the NFL, but the Redskins haven’t been very far off from that title.
Kirk Cousins changed that. Although you wouldn’t have expected it on day three of the NFL Draft back in 2012. When Cousins was selected, the reporters expressed confusion, and little else. The Redskins had already selected franchise quarterback-to-be Robert Griffin III. There was no need to draft Cousins. But they did it anyway. Just as an insurance policy.
The insurance policy paid off. When Griffin’s play hit a steep downward spiral in 2013 and 2014, the Redskins’ foundation once again took a hit. For a while, they stayed loyal to Griffin. Then when he failed to improve and injuries hit, they took some chances, testing out Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins. Both showed sparks. Neither consistently delivered for their team.
The phrase ‘complete shock’ wouldn’t do justice the feeling that was felt among Redskins’ fans when Jay Gruden utters the words “it’s Kirk’s team” in August of 2015. There was nothing but trepidation for the impending season. Another 4-12 record seemed more than likely.
It didn’t start pretty. Cousins looked to be just another guy in his first six games, throwing for six touchdowns and eight interceptions. But then, lightning struck in week seven. A code red game against the Buccaneers. That didn’t start pretty either. The Redskins quickly went down 24-0 in embarrassing fashion. Cousins looked flustered. Gruden looked to be on the way out.
Cousins changed that, too. From that fateful point on, Kirk Cousins would be one of the best in the league. He caught fire, engineering the greatest Redskins comeback of all time, vaulting the Redskins past the Buccaneers by a score of 31-30, and effectively turning the tide of a season that seemed to be doomed. Because that’s what great quarterbacks do. They do great things.
It hasn’t all been great. Fans in favor of dumping the signal caller will point to Cousins’ interception against the Giants, the play that ended the Redskins’ playoff chances in 2017. But despite this lone dark moment, the stats speak for themselves. Cousins has been a top ten quarterback since his legendary comeback against Tampa Bay. He’s made the team better around him, and his arm talent, fundamentals, and leadership contribute to the team’s newfound success. He’s quite the insurance policy. And although his premium has gone up recently, the Redskins can afford it. They can’t afford to start over.
If everything goes right, Cousins should move up this list. He’s an electric quarterback, and he’s only 28 years old. There’s plenty of good football left to play, and if the Redskins keep improving, we could someday talk about Cousins as one of the greatest. He’s already a great quarterback. He just has to do more great things.
No. 5 – Doug Williams
Some fans would probably have Doug Williams even higher on this list. The quarterback was popular even before he led the 1987 Redskins on a miraculous run to the Super Bowl. After his MVP performance, his reputation with the team only skyrocketed. Although that Super Bowl run was only a bright blip on an otherwise uneventful career, Williams still has quite a legacy.
Drafted in the first round of the 1978 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams quickly got used to the playoff scene. In five years with the Buccaneers, Williams led the Buccaneers to the playoffs three times. He put up respectable numbers in that time, but due to contentious negotiations over his subpar salary, he left in 1983, residing in the USFL for two years before returning to the NFL and signing with the Redskins as a backup.
Williams’ return to the NFL reunited him with former Buccaneers offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs, who was now the head coach of the Redskins. Despite his draft position and career numbers, Williams rarely saw the field in his first season with the Redskins, stuck behind Jay Schroeder on the depth chart. However, he got his chance the next season, playing admirably in relief of the injured Jay Schroeder.
The two jockeyed back and forth for the starting position, and when the Redskins ultimately made the playoffs at 11-4 (one game was canceled due to a temporary players’ strike), the team went with Doug Williams as the starter for the postseason.
Williams didn’t disappoint. He went 3-0 in the playoffs that year, leading the Redskins to the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos. In that legendary matchup, he had one of the best Super Bowl performances ever by a quarterback, going 18 for 29 as he mustered 340 yards and four touchdowns. In contrast, Hall of Famer John Elwaythrew one touchdown and three interceptions. The final score was 42-10. Doug Williams was recognized as the game’s MVP.
Most dynasties have consistency at quarterback. The Redskins of the 1980s were the lone exception. In that time, three Redskins’ quarterbacks won Super Bowls within a span of nine years. Doug Williams was one of them. He will forever be entrenched in Redskins’ lore because of his success, and with good reason. His story is an exciting one. He won the Redskins’ most lopsided Super Bowl victory, and solidified his status as a Redskins’ legend. But he was ultimately succeeded by the next player on the list.
No. 4 – Mark Rypien
Of all the quarterbacks on this list, Mark Rypien holds the best playoff winning percentage, boasting a 5-2 playoff record, including a Super Bowl victory. He also sat on the sidelines for a second Super Bowl win early in his career.
Rypien began his career with the Redskins, being selected in the sixth round of the 1986 NFL Draft. You could say his career ended with the Redskins as well. After he left the team, he never found another foothold. He never had any more success. His streak of stardom was rather brief, relative to the average shelf life of a quarterback, but for a time, he was a legend in Redskins park.
Rypien’s first two seasons were stricken with injuries, and he saw the medical staff more often than the field. After Jay Schroeder was traded in 1987, Rypien moved up the depth chart. And when Doug Williams succumbed to old age shortly after, Rypien had been groomed to start.
He was quick out of the gates when replacing Williams in the 1988, throwing for 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in nine games. He played well enough to earn the Redskins’ trust for the upcoming season, and so he took the starting reigns in 1989, with Williams as his mentor.
The move paid off. Rypien topped his previous numbers, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He led the team to a 10-6 record, narrowly missing the playoffs. However, Rypien played well enough to earn a slot as a Pro Bowl alternate. He could be patient when playing with greats like Art Monk and Joe Jacoby, His playoff success would come soon.
Two years later, to be exact. In 1991, Rypien enjoyed his best season, logging 3,564 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, culminating in a 14-2 record for the Redskins. The team’s domination continued in the playoffs, and they capped it off with a 37-24 discarding of the woe-begotten Bills of the 90s. Rypien earned Super Bowl MVP honors. He’d officially reached stardom. And at 29 years old, he still had plenty of good football in him.
Or so they thought. Rypien followed up his best season with his worst. And he topped that one with even worse. Two years, 17 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions later, he was off the team and job hunting for a backup role. Rypien’s fall from the football pantheon was swift, and his career as a starter was relatively short. But one would be wise to remember this: He was great once.
No. 3 – Joe Theismann
Joe Theismann has one thing no one else on this list has: An MVP award. He got the award in 1983, throwing for 3,714 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. While the rest of his career isn’t as spectacular, the lifelong Redskin deserves a high spot on this list, and he gets it, coming in at No. 3.
Theismann succeeded Billy Kilmer at the Redskins starting quarterback position, but his first look was as a punt returner for the Redskins. It took some tim for him to settle at the quarterback position, and when he did, he didn’t do much at first.
The Notre Dame product was another late bloomer. He didn’t even start a playoff game until 1982. He started three that year, in fact. One of them was the Super Bowl. The Redskins got their revenge that year, beating the Miami Dolphins in a rematch of the 1972 Super Bowl.
Theismann would lead the Redskins back to the Super Bowl the following year, garnering MVP honors all the while. He broke multiple Redskins’ records in his time with the team, and he remains the only quarterback ever to win the MVP Award with the team.
His promising career was cut short in 1985, when NFL legend Lawrence Taylor came up from behind and landed awkwardly on Theismann’s leg, resulting in a compound fracture. Everyone knew his career was over after that hit. At 36 years old, he was in the latter stages of his tenure. But he was also in his prime.
Theismann spent the entirety of his twelve year career in Washington, logging 25,206 yards, 160 touchdowns, and 138 interceptions. His stats don’t do justice the level of play and commitment he provided the Redskins. He was a true signal caller, a true leader in his day. And he’s very deserving of the No. 3 spot. The next player on the list, however, did everything just a little bit better, in a time when it was much harder.
No. 2 – Sonny Jurgensen
“I like Sonny.”
Did you know Sonny Jurgensen’s real name is Christian? While the nickname “Sonny” is nice, neither name is accurate for Jurgensen’s time in Washington; the quarterback had already turned 30 when he first joined up with the burgundy and gold. Maybe ‘Sonny’ isn’t as accurate as “Pops”.
Nevertheless, the name stuck. And it’s now synonymous with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Sonny Jurgensen was one of the greats, and he falls in at No. 2 on our list. His exploits in the “dead ball era”, when defense ruled the league, would be hard to replicate today.
Jurgensen entered the league as a fourth round pick to the Eagles, and spent his first four seasons predominantly on the bench. When Norm Van Brocklin retired in 1961, Jurgensen took over as starter, and effectively took over the league, throwing for a then-record 3,723 yards and 32 touchdowns in his first year as starter. Imagine Kirk Cousins throwing for 5,300 yards in 2015, and that’s what you had with Jurgensen.
Luckily, Jurgensen saved his best for the Redskins, leaving behind those pesky Eagles in 1964. He came in as as starter immediately, and proceeded to continue his record-breaking streak, throwing for 22,585 yards, 179 touchdowns, and 116 interceptions over a span of eleven years. He broke his previous passing yardage record in 1967, as well as logging a career high 87.3 passer rating.
Think about it. Jurgensen lit up the scoreboards in the era of defense. The time when the Doomsday Dallas Cowboys and the Purple People Eaters ravaged opposing offenses into submission. Jurgensen never submitted anything but more yards and more touchdowns. He was a gunslinger before gunslingers even existed.
Jurgensen got a good seven full years in as the starter for Washington, but in 1971, his future was cast under shadow by the coinciding arrival of a nagging injury bout and another quarterback named Billy Kilmer. The two would battle for the starting spot for four years before Jorgensen retired at the age of 40, getting one last good season in before the legend was gone from the field for good.
His only opportunity to win a Super Bowl came from the benches as he watched Billy Kilmer squander against the undefeated Dolphins in 1972. But make no mistake. Jurgensen’s lack of championships is not attributed to his own inadequacy. Jurgensen was one of the best. But for all his talent, he’s not the No. 1 Redskin quarterback to ever grace the field.
No. 1 – Sammy Baugh
Not many Redskins fans will be able to remember Sammy Baugh and what he did. Time can be ruthless to the reputation of once-great players. But Sammy Baugh has withstood the test of time. The Hall of Famer continues to garner recognition as the greatest Redskins quarterback ever to play the game.
Baugh was drafted sixth overall in the 1937 NFL Draft. Yes, they had the NFL Draft, even back then. However, it garnered far less attention than it does today. Baugh himself said that “I didn’t know what [the Redskins] were talking about, because quite frankly, I’d never heard of either the draft or the Washington Redskins.”
The Washington Redskins, however, had obviously heard of Baugh. Baugh wasn’t your average Biff Loman. He played college ball at TCU, where he threw 40 touchdowns in three years, then a very impressive feat. His success only continued at the professional level. He not only learned about the Redskins, but he also made them much more well-known in the world of sports.
Baugh spent the entirety of his sixteen-year career with the Washington Redskins, amassing 21,886 passing yards, 187 touchdowns, and 203 interceptions. He earned Pro Bowl recognition six times, and eclipsed 20 touchdowns on three occasions, no easy task in the old era of football. His revolutionary play helped vault the burgundy and gold (it was more like red and leather back then) to five NFL Championship games; they were crowned champions in two of those games.
And how’s this for a cherry on top? Baugh wasn’t just a quarterback. He led the league with 11 interceptions caught as a defensive back in 1943, and he also led the league in yards per punt four times. Baugh wasn’t just one of the greatest quarterbacks. He was one of the greatest players.
The quarterbacks of today have prettier stats. Baugh’s career quarterback rating was 72.2. Kirk Cousins would be out the door if he had four games in a row with that rating. But in Baugh’s day, that meant something. The league was tougher and more brutal. It was harder to find individual success. Thus, it speaks volumes to see what Baugh was able to accomplish back then.
It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway. Sammy Baugh is the greatest Redskins quarterback of all time. While that can change, and some hope it will change, the Redskins will always have a rich history at the quarterback position. They’ve seen plenty of greatness throughout the years. And hopefully, as the seasons come and go, they’ll see more and more.