Rutledge's Philadelphia story horrendous flop


November 14, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Jeff Rutledge didn't know what happened to his thumb, only that it was blood red and distended and three times the size it used to be. He didn't know if he had smashed it against a lineman's helmet or had it crushed into the artificial turf like an old cigarette butt. He didn't even know whether the thumb was sprained or broken.

All he knew was that, although it hurt like hell and it stuck out like, well, a sore thumb, the pain in his hand was not the worst of it.

What really hurt was that the heart-warming story was over. His heart-warming story. It was the familiar tale of the overlooked stand-in who gets his chance and saves the show. If only someone had run the credits then. Instead, there was another show, and Rutledge, the sequel, was a flop. He didn't save the day. He couldn't even save himself.

We will keep two memories of Rutledge, who, in two weeks, has had the fastest 12-year career in NFL history.

The first memory, the one after which his wife wisely advised him to retire, was of all those marvelous spirals flying goalward, all those Redskins receivers running under them, all those touchdowns, all that glory. He came off the bench 10 days ago in the second half against Detroit to lead one of the great comebacks of the modern era.

He didn't retire. Rutledge believed the day was not a fluke. He didn't understand that he survived all these years as a backup quarterback precisely because no one needed him to play.

And so, on Monday night, as a national audience looked on, we get our final memory: Rutledge, his body in a heap, looking backward as the ball he fumbled was being carried into the end zone. That's the play on which his thumb was trampled, but Rutledge never felt it.

There was, of course, much pain to go around. The Eagles crushed the Redskins, knocking out a pair of quarterbacks, a pair of punt returners and anyone else who got in their way. It was a game no one except injury-claims lawyers could have enjoyed. It was a game Rutledge wishes he could have back.

"Am I disappointed?" he said, repeating the question while wondering how anyone could ask it. "I'm big-time disappointed. To play as long as I have, then to get an opportunity like this. . ."

His voice trailed. Disappointed? He was crushed -- one thumb bloodied, the other hand looking as if it had been through a meat pulverizer, even blood on his jaw. He was the one they talk about when they say you should have seen the other guy.

"This is a major disappointment," Rutledge went on to say. "But I'm by no means throwing in the towel. Hopefully, my thumb is OK. I hope to be back in there next week and lead this team to the playoffs. Of course, that's the coach's decision."

If the coach can make a decision, if Mark Rypien is ready to play, Joe Gibbs will decide against Rutledge. That's obvious. Gibbs now changes quarterbacks about as often as a certain president changes his mind on taxes. Getting back to Rypien, who seemed to be in trouble before he was injured five weeks ago, would now seem like a great step toward stability, and maybe the playoffs.

Rutledge was a gamble that paid for one half and part of an overtime in Michigan. He had replaced Stan Humphries, who had replaced Rypien. Humphries, who relieved Rutledge Monday, had to be carried off the field, and he left town sporting crutches.

When Humphries went down, Rutledge tried to re-enter the game, but his thumb wouldn't allow him to grip the football. And after a night when he completed only six of 19 passes for 62 yards, he obviously needed all his resources, including every digit on his throwing hand.

"I wasn't nervous," Rutledge said of his night's work. "We had our chances. We just didn't get it done. I didn't have a great day passing. I know that."

The Eagles came after Rutledge, fully aware that he had 12 years of inexperience. They brought everyone they could on every play they dared. Quarterbacks don't always mind the blitz, especially quarterbacks who have quality receivers, as the Redskins surely do. But when his receivers came open, Rutledge couldn't get them the ball. He threw one horrible pass that was intercepted and run in for a touchdown, setting set the tone for the game.

What could anyone have expected? That was his 10th start lifetime, and he's now 2-7-1. Over one six-year period, Rutledge threw eight passes. This is a guy who had to shower with Rustoleum. He was on the team because coaches liked him, and he knew all the plays and, if called on, he could tell a center from a guard. And, as if a reward for hanging around all these years, he got one special game. The Redskins pushed their luck, and his, in hoping for another.

"I had a great week [after the Detroit game]," Rutledge said. "It was a wonderful opportunity. But you're only as good as your last game."

Which is the worst thing anyone could have ever said about him.


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