Photo Credit: USA Today

By Zane Miller

After being drafted with the 99th overall pick of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins, quarterback Joe Theismann never played a snap with the Dolphins. Instead, he bolted to the Canadian Football League to play for the Toronto Argonauts, finding early success as he led the Argonauts to a Grey Cup appearance in his rookie campaign.

Although the team came up short against the Calgary Stampeders 14-11, Theismann continued to put up solid numbers at the CFL level for the next two seasons. Even though his 40 combined touchdown passes and 6,093 passing yards over three seasons weren’t groundbreaking, they proved to be impressive enough for him to officially join the NFL ranks. For the 1974 season, Theismann signed on with the Washington Redskins (now Washington Commanders) as the third-string backup (and, oddly enough, primary punt returner). After seeing little QB action in his first two seasons in the nation’s capital, Theismann got his first chance to start in 1976 after an injury to regular signal caller Billy Kilmer. Theismann had mixed results in his first handful of starts, as he threw for two touchdowns and 270 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs, but this stretch also included an ugly showing against the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals where he passed for just 50 yards and was sacked seven times. However, Theismann bounced back in a big way against the San Francisco 49ers, getting three touchdown passes for 302 yards.

As Kilmer continued to battle injuries in 1977, Theismann got even more playing time, to similarly lukewarm results. However, with Kilmer clearly in the twilight of his career at this point, Theismann was named the starter for 1978. Theismann and company started off the season red hot, going undefeated in the first six games before a five-game losing streak to end the season pushed them out of the playoffs. This devastating collapse would cast a dark shadow over the first half of Theismann’s reign, as the Redskins missed the playoffs in each of the next three seasons. For the 1982 campaign, though, that would be a different story.

Although a player strike canceled almost half of the regular season games, Washington would make the best of the unusual circumstances, tying for the best record in the league at 8-1. Naturally, Theismann had a significant part in the successful season, passing for 13 touchdowns and 2,033 yards to put himself inside the top-10 in the league in both categories. Theismann, combined with the efforts of a number-one ranked defense, led the Redskins past the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys on the path to Super Bowl XVII, which they won over the Miami Dolphins 27-17 to avenge their loss in the Super Bowl to the same team 10 years earlier. With a championship now under his belt, Theismann looked to give Washington back-to-back championships for the first time in franchise history, while improving his regular season stats in the process. He would get off to a great start.

On opening day of the 1983 season on September 5th against the Cowboys, Theismann threw for an impressive 325 yards and two touchdowns, although the Redskins would be handed one of their two losses on the year as Dallas won 31-30. After three mostly mediocre starts, all of which nonetheless ended in wins, Theismann had his best game of the regular season on October 2nd against the Los Angeles (now Las Vegas) Raiders as he scored three passing touchdowns for a career-high 417 yards in the team’s 37-35 comeback win.

In another shootout on October 17th, Theismann battled the Green Bay Packers in a 48-47 nail-biting loss, as he threw for 398 yards and a pair of touchdowns. After that week seven game, however, the Redskins went undefeated the rest of the way, including a scary good 324-yard passing performance against the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers on Halloween night, which they won 27-24. Though he wouldn’t crack the 300-yard mark again the rest of the regular season, Theismann did add a three-touchdown performance against the Atlanta Falcons on December 4th, winning 37-21 while getting 221 yards through the air in the process.

Theismann capped off his dominant 14-win performance on December 17th against the New York Giants, as Washington claimed both the NFC East title and #1 seed in the playoffs. Theismann was declared the MVP and first-team All-Pro on the strength of a career-high in both passing touchdowns with 29 and passing yards at 3,714, finishing second and fifth in the league respectively. Packers quarterback Lynn Dickey actually led the league in both passing touchdowns and passing yards, but his MVP candidacy was, perhaps unfairly, derailed by Green Bay’s abysmal defense which was the primary cause of the Pack finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs.

Speaking of the playoffs, Theismann and company’s first opponent would be the Los Angeles Rams, who were promptly dismantled 51-7 on New Year’s Day. The Redskins led 38-7 at halftime as running back John Riggins had already scored three touchdowns. Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo struggled with three interceptions along with just one touchdown and 175 yards through the air, while Theismann again eclipsed the 300-yard mark with 302 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns before being rested for the next round.

The Redskins remained at home to take on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game on January 8th, where both defenses came to play as Washington only held a 7-0 lead at halftime. The second half would be a different story, however, as Theismann led the Redskins to a 24-21 win with a last-minute field goal after squandering a 21-0 advantage going into the fourth quarter. San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana was the clear winner in the battle of the Joes, getting three touchdowns and 347 passing yards versus one touchdown and 229 yards for Theismann. However, where the 49ers fell behind was with their lackluster ground game, as starting running back Wendell Tyler was held to a measly 44 yards while Riggins came through with 123 yards and two touchdowns. With that, Theismann now had the opportunity to become the third different quarterback to win back-to-back Super Bowls. Unfortunately for him, this would not go according to plan.

After the Redskins made their way to Tampa Stadium for Super Bowl XVIII on January 22nd, 1984, it was clear from the get-go that their opponent in the Raiders would not be participating in their back-to-back title story, going up 21-3 at halftime. The rest of the game would not go much better for Washington as they were held to a single-digit point total for the first time since 1981, as Los Angeles stomped them 38-9 on the way to their third (and most recent) title in franchise history. Neither quarterback played particularly well, as Theismann passed for no touchdowns and 243 yards while throwing two interceptions, while Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett had one passing touchdown for 172 yards. However, in a flip-flop from the game against the 49ers, Riggins struggled on the ground with only one touchdown and 64 yards, while Raiders running back Marcus Allen had a spectacular performance with 191 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Theismann played for Washington for the remainder of his career, including a 1984 season which saw him lead the team to the NFC East title for a third straight season. Sadly, Theismann would not get to retire on his own terms. Nearing the end of the 1985 season, he suffered one of the most infamous career-ending injuries in NFL history, breaking his tibia and fibula in a game against the Giants. Theismann finished with 77 career victories to go along with the Super Bowl XVII title.

Like many former quarterbacks before him, Theismann soon took on the broadcasting ranks, beginning as a color commentator with NFL on CBS for the 1986 and 1987 seasons. In 1988, however, he would have his most prominent broadcasting role as a color commentator for Sunday Night Football on the newly-formed ESPN channel. He became a mainstay for the network, holding the position until ESPN’s SNF rights expired after the 2005 season. Theismann initially remained with ESPN for their shift to Monday Night Football, but stepped away from full-time broadcasting after the 2006 season. Leaving no day of the week unturned, Theismann came back as a color commentator for Thursday Night Football games on the NFL Network in 2010, before becoming the current color commentator for Washington Commanders preseason games beginning in 2011.

Although Theismann’s #7 jersey has not yet been officially retired by the Commanders, it was not issued by the team again until quarterback Dwayne Haskins wore the number in 2019 with Theismann’s permission. Theismann was also included as a member of the inaugural class of the team’s Ring of Fame in 2002.