Aug 19, 2008, 9:00 AM EDT
The Washington Redskins with a sixth-round quarterback with a cool-sounding name fighting for a roster spot and creating a stir by leading the Skins to dramatic wins in the preseason?
Been there, done that. The Cult of Colt was preceded by Save the Babe.
Twenty five years ago Babe Laufenberg played the role of underdog fan favorite, fighting against the odds for a roster spot.
It may be a stretch to call Laufenberg a DC legend, but he is probably the most famous Redskin never to play a down in an NFL game in a Washington uniform. The quarterback thrilled big crowds in sweltering weather during the preseason, but he never got the chance to show the RFK faithful what he could do when the games counted.
Laufenberg’s prospects for ever being heard of at all looked slim when the Redskins drafted him in the sixth round of the 1983 draft. Ahead of the Indiana Hoosier on the depth chart was Joe Theismann, who had just quarterbacked the Redskins to a win in Super Bowl XVII. Bob Holly was the backup, but that job saw as little action as the Maytag repairman. Theismann prided himself in being durable and he rarely left a game.
Still, Laufenberg managed to draw a regular paycheck in 1983, landing on injured reserve with a mysterious ailment. The next draft, the Redskins showed how impressed they were with Laufenberg’s potential when they took a quarterback in the third round. Jay Schroeder was a UCLA product who hadn’t played football in two years, having played minor-league baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays organization. In addition, Washington signed an experienced veteran, former Cardinal Jim Hart, as its second-team signal caller.
The battle for third string behind Theismann and Hart was joined in the third preseason game when the New England Patriots paid an August visit to RFK. Theismann played in the first half and turned a 17-10 lead over to Schroeder. The rookie’s first pass attempt was tipped and intercepted deep in Redskin territory, leading to a Patriot TD. In four series, Schroeder had nearly as many of his passes caught by Pats (2) as by Skins (3).
In came Laufenberg with the Redskins trailing 31-17. He led a drive to a field goal and then passed Washington into New England territory again. A 36-yard TD pass to Steve Stapler got the Redskins within striking distance. Even though a last-gasp drive to the Patriot 30 ended with Laufenberg throwing an interception the gusty performance made the underdog QB a fan favorite.
It didn’t quite make him enough of a favorite of the organization to win him a roster spot, but his peculiar arm ailment returned and he again got a spot on injured reserve. Laufenberg would get one more chance in 1985.
He gave it his all in training camp. “I’ve got a world of respect for Babe,” said Joe Gibbs. “No one we have has worked harder or had a better attitude. He deserved this opportunity.”
The Patriots again visited RFK in August and Laufenberg knew he would have, as he put it, his “one big chance” to unseat Schroeder for the last QB roster spot in the second half. He made the most of it, although there were some shaky moments.
He was 12 of 21 passing and the home team had trouble moving the ball for much of the half. Midway through the fourth quarter, Laufenberg found his stride, scrambling and launching a 75-yard TD bomb to rookie wide receiver Gary Clark, giving the Redskins a 30-26 lead.
The Patriots responded with a touchdown and a field goal to take a six-point lead. Laufenberg’s fumble had set up the field goal. When the Redskins got the ball back at their own 26 with 1:04 left, one big chance for Laufenberg had come down to one last chance.
He made the most of it. Going four for five for 59 yards on the drive, Laufenberg earned a loud roar from the crowd when he threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Clint Didier with four seconds left to give the Redskins the win.
His status as a cult favorite was sealed. Around town many men ceased shaving, growing “Save the Babe” whiskers to show their support for the bearded Laufenberg.
As cut down day approached, Laufenberg made his case. “They (Redskins) can do what they want now,” he said. “I felt that if I got a chance, I’d produce. I realize that this might help me with another team if I don’t fit into the plan here, but I’ll say right now that here is where I want to play.”
“I’ve got some very tough decisions to make,” Gibbs said, “including the one at quarterback. I’ll probably just wind up going with my heart.”
Gibbs’ heart told him to cut Laufenberg and stick with Schroeder. The Babe was brought back after Theismann suffered a career-ending broken leg in November of that year, but Schroeder played well taking over for Theismann and Laufenberg saw no action. The next year the Redskins decided to go with a more experienced player as their backup quarterback, a USFL refugee named Doug Williams.
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