There's a wonderfully patronizing word used in sports to describe some paragon who speaks loudly and at such length that no matter how he mangles reason or disfigures the language, he is said to be "articulate." (In much the same sense, Regis Philbin or Charo are considered "articulate.") But Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins was a refreshing exception. Never merely articulate, Theismann, who may be the best quarterback in the game, always had something to say. Theismann loved to talk, the world loved to listen and it looked as if this happy state of affairs would go on forever.
Last season Theismann was voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player, and he led the Redskins to their second consecutive Super Bowl. But he suddenly seemed to lose his golden touch. His troubles had already begun by the Super Bowl—he completed fewer than half his passes in the Los Angeles Raiders' 38-9 romp—and continued into the off-season. Besieged by reports of marital problems, Theismann was also rumored to be dating a Hollywood television personality, unhappy about his Redskin contract and, for all anybody knows, plagued by waxy yellow buildup on his kitchen floor.
In May, Theismann announced he was no longer talking to the press. Theis-mumm, he would be. The result is that the face that launched a thousand lips is now as the sound of one hand clapping. Which is to say, as he prepares to open the regular season this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, Theismann has put a sock in it.
To appreciate the full impact of his decision, it's important to understand that what Theismann could do transcended merely talking. He spoke in quotations that leaped from his mouth full blown, complete with commas, periods and quotation marks. He was the prince of prolixity, and the press adored him. "I used to call him King Quote," says Gary Pomerantz of
The Washington Post
. "He was always good for paragraphs four through seven of my story. When I talked to Theismann, I had to be sure to bring along the 90-minute tapes. He did the rest."
George Solomon, the Post's sports editor, worries that Theismann will be leaving reporters with more tape gaps than Rose Mary Woods ever dreamed of. "It's stunning," says Solomon, who now refers to Theismann in the past tense, as if he were dead. "He was one of the most quotable athletes we've ever had in Washington—and win or lose he was always there to talk to you. He would give the AMs (papers with a morning circulation) one story and the PMs another. He was the epitome of the media superstar—always there when you needed him."
Until Super Bowl XVIII, Theismann had always been there when the Redskins needed him, too. He completed 60.1% of his passes and led the defending Super Bowl champions to a 14-2 record in '83. But against the fierce pass rush applied by the Raiders, Theismann completed only 16 of 35 passes, was sacked six times and intercepted twice. "That was probably one of Joe's worst games," says wide receiver Charlie Brown. "I thought there were times when I was open and didn't get the ball, or when I was open on third down and the ball was thrown low. I'm not blaming anybody. But all you have to do is look at the films of that game to see what happened. The eye in the sky does not lie."
Theismann seems to believe that the reason he didn't play well can be traced directly to his mouth. Typically, the only explanation Theismann has made of his silence came in May, when he talked to a reporter from the Post. "It was kind of funny that when Joe decided he wasn't going to talk to the press anymore," says free safety Mark Murphy, "the way he announced it was by telling The Washington Post." Theismann was actually on the phone with George Michael, a Washington sportscaster, when he was overheard by Neil H. (Holdthepresses!) Greenberger, a Post stringer. Greenberger heard Theismann trying to explain why he no longer wanted to do
Joe Theismann's Redskins Report, the popular weekly TV show he and Michael had co-hosted last season on WRC. After the conversation, Greenberger got Theismann's permission to print some of what had been said on the phone.
When Theismann's statement appeared in the Post the next day under a headline rich with implication—THEISMANN WON'T TALK, TALKS OF WHY HE WON'T—it was studied as carefully by Washingtonians as the seating arrangement at one of Pamela Harriman's dinner parties. The message raised dozens of questions crypticwise, provoked a spate of theories punditwise, roused the rabble gossipwise and caused cynicism otherwise. So was it wise?
Theismann seemed to think so. "This year all I want to do is play football," he said. "I don't want to talk about it. In the past all I have done is talk, and I'm going to try it this way now because of one football game—the Super Bowl.
"There were two Super Bowls for me last year—the one I tried to talk my way through and the one I played. All I do is get myself in trouble with my big mouth, and now I think I have to do it this way. Whether it will work for me or not, I don't know, but I have to try it because I just want to play football."