11th hour With 10 starts in 12 years, Rutledge knows Redskins' shot is one to savor


HERNDON, Va. -- It is a young tradition of Brooks, 11; Christen, 9, and Meg, 7, that Monday is Dad's Night Out, so the Rutledges were on line at McDonald's.

"A guy in the next line was reading a sports page," Jeff Rutledge said. "He looked at the picture, then at me, then at the picture.

"Finally he said: 'Are you him?' "

The picture was of "him" being hugged and pummeled by Washington Redskins teammates after scoring the touchdown in Detroit that redeemed them from a day of humiliation and a season of mediocrity.

Jeffrey Ronald Rutledge, 33, isn't supposed to score touchdowns. He isn't even supposed to play. He doesn't even look like a quarterback, which has always been part of his problem.

But the last name reverberating around Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia as the Redskins are introduced tonight will be "him." It will be Rutledge's 11th start in his 12th NFL season.

And he will know, as he confronts the terrors, actual and oral, the Eagles' defense regularly visits upon its foes, that the coyotes are never far from the campfire. If the guy in line at McDonald's read the same sports page three days later he found this "analysis":

"Let's wait and see against a real defense."

Rutledge, who has been waiting and seeing in the NFL since the Carter Administration, knows there are similar murmurs around his own campfire.

"You'd think," said one of the old-boy sages at the Redskins' training camp last summer, "that in all those years he'd have won a job. Don't you get the idea there's something wrong?"

Some of the things wrong, alphabetically, were Scott Brunner and Vince Ferragamo and Pat Haden and Phil Simms. And in Rutledge's memory file he would put New York Giants coach Bill Parcells before Simms.

"Phil is a great quarterback," Rutledge said. "But I believed I beat him out in '84. I still do. We divided the time equally in the preseason and they charted every pass and I think I did better.

"Bill spoke to the two of us and said: 'I've made my decision: Phil is going to be the starter.' "

Rutledge, the mild-mannered quarterback from Alabama, stepped out of his phone booth momentarily, as he had done once to differ with Bear Bryant's wisdom, and asked Parcells: "On what do you base your decision?"

"He said Phil had a little better vision [of the unfolding defense]," Jeff recalled. "And a stronger arm."

Jeff Rutledge is a man of stern Christian patience, but after five years in the league that appraisal was getting old. "I told him most people in the league had a stronger arm than I did," Rutledge said. And he added that Parcells "might as well" trade him.

Presumably Parcells observed the field of vision that found Art Monk open on the sideline in Detroit last week, and the 45-yard strike that got the football to him.

"There's not many guys who could throw that," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said of the play that won the game and saved his season. "You don't do all the things he has done unless you have a lot to you."

Especially if there's not a lot to you physically. It would not have occurred to the man in McDonald's that he was standing next to an athlete. Rutledge is at most 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, barely quarterback dimensions in the NFL.

Jeff could recall only one play remotely like the 12-yard draw hran to tie the score in the last seconds in Detroit, and that one was a crude ruse.

The Giants trailed Denver, 10-9, early in the second half of the 1987 Super Bowl, and their drive was stalled at midfield, fourth-and-one. When Parcells sent in his punting team he was smuggling in Rutledge (whom he had refused to trade) as the "up" back. Only the Broncos, perhaps, and only in a Super Bowl, could find Rutledge believable as a blocking back. They still say they perceived the trick and were hustling their normal defense in as Rutledge called a shift and moved under the center. In any case he sneaked for 2 yards and the Giants went on to win, 39-20.

Of course it was Phil Simms, 6-3 and 215, Simms with the broashoulders, who walked off to Disneyland at the end. There was a pang of deja vu last July when Rutledge arrived in the Redskins' Carlisle camp and encountered Cary Conklin: almost as blond and a little bigger in all the dimensions than Simms. Conklin, 11 years younger than Rutledge.

"I thought you weren't going to draft a quarterback," Rutledgsaid on the phone to Gibbs in April. The Redskins hadn't specifically advertised for an experienced (over-age) quarterback, but Gibbs likes to have such a security blanket around, so Rutledge signed up in March. They drafted Conklin in April.

Well, they weren't planning to, Gibbs said. But when a moose oa kid with hands the size of Rickey Henderson's mitt and a bazooka arm lasts into the fourth round . . . well, you know how it is.

Rutledge knew how it was, and for the first time he wondered whether he wanted any more of it. After seven years of waiting and seeing Parcells' meat-and-potatoes offense, the Gibbs system (130 formations?) loomed as dismaying as Einstein's continuum.

"All those people shifting and running around," he still marvels, "and you've got to call all that."

But, bolstered by encouragement from his friend, Bill Parcells, Rutledge sent himself to school again. And he found a buddy to study with. On the sidelines, in the Redskins' Dickinson College dorm, in the dining hall, they hung out together, the elder and the rookie, and talked.

"About everything," Cary Conklin said. "Somehow, when you first meet him, you know Jeff is a special kind of person. We became good friends."

"Yeah, I tried to help the young guy," Rutledge said. "We were helping each other, really, crying on each other's shoulder, trying to learn that system. We were buddies."

"We discussed all the possibilities," Conklin said. "Injured reserve and all that."

"Yes, we talked football," Rutledge said. "I knew they were going to keep him, one way or the other. I didn't know about me."

With their strong religious faith in common, Gibbs finds "rare" qualities in Rutledge as a person and "the No. 1 quality" in a quarterback. "I don't think you'll intimidate him," Gibbs declared.

The Bear didn't. Not totally, though Jeff was forewarned by his big brother, Gary, a good enough quarterback at Alabama to keep Richard Todd on the bench.

Jeff and Laura determined to marry in his junior year, the week after the Sugar Bowl game against Ohio State. But that required Coach Bryant's sanction, Jeff knew, and the Sugar Bowl was for all the marbles: the national championship.

The Bear couldn't imagine a greater distraction, but Rutledge assured him he could keep his mind on football. The coach relented and Alabama won, 35-7, with Jeff as MVP.

Brother Gary had received the Bear's blessing for his marriage but, he had warned Jeff, "He said 'no' to a couple of guys."

What if the Bear had denied him, Rutledge was asked. "I don't know," Jeff said. "I'm glad I didn't have to find out."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad