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Redskins' glory days show what coach, QB can do when in sync

I grew up not far from Dan Snyder, the Washington Redskins' owner. My brother even went to the same school as Snyder -- Woodward High in Rockville, Maryland -- although Dan was younger and he didn't know him. But the point is, my brother, myself and a lot of our friends do know what Snyder saw as a kid. And we understand why he just can't let go of Robert Griffin III.

You've got to know D.C., the D.C. that Dan and I grew up in. It wasn't like it is now, jaded and sarcastic toward its football team. In 1971, the Redskins hired George Allen and went to the playoffs for the first time since 1945. There were 10-minute standing ovations during pregame introductions, and the quarterbacks were to die for. You had Sonny Jurgensen, who by then was older and injury-prone. You had Billy Kilmer, the only player on the team who could out-drink Sonny. From '71 to '74, there was a quarterback carousel between the two of them. George Allen preferred Billy, but the town preferred Sonny, including an elementary school kid named Daniel Snyder and his father. In those days, the most powerful people in Washington were the president and the Redskins quarterback -- not necessarily in that order. Snyder was raised on that; we all were.

When Kilmer, 'ol Furnace Face, ran out of gas in the late '70s, the Redskins inserted Joe Theismann -- a quarterback who could run! We had spent years watching Jurgensen's and Kilmer's bellies grow, but now we had one of those scramblers. We had our own version of Fran Tarkenton, and the fan base was so enamored of Theismann, we put up with his diarrhea of the mouth. Lord, he could talk. In some ways, he was RGIII before RGIII -- big name out of college, big ego, big hair, big enough arm. Snyder loved him as a kid. That's why Joe's second home is still Redskin Park; it's why he still announces their preseason games on TV. You don't think Snyder thinks of Joe when he looks at RGIII? I promise he does.

In 1981, when Snyder was at Woodward High School, the Redskins hired Joe Gibbs. Gibbs was considered the preeminent offensive mind in the business, having drawn up the San Diego Chargers' offense for Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow. He brought his playbook to D.C. and handed it over to Theismann. The plan was to replicate the Chargers' offense and throw the ball all over the place. But it didn't fit. Theismann threw better on the move -- he was the anti-Fouts -- and the Redskins had nothing like a Winslow on their roster. Their tight ends were Donnie Warren and Rich "Doc'' Walker. They could catch the ball fine, but they were blockers. They were "Hogs,'' more than they were like Winslow.

The team started out 0-5. There was talk inside the front office of trading Theismann, just like they're talking now about trading RGIII. But Gibbs wasn't like Jay Gruden. He wasn't going to take his talented, verbose starting quarterback and slam him into an offense that didn't suit him. Joe Gibbs looked at his quarterback, looked at his big lumbering running back John Riggins and tossed his Chargers offense into the trash bin. In Week 6, in Chicago, he switched to a one-back offense, fed Riggins the ball, rolled Theismann out on "dash'' plays. And he won a Super Bowl 15 months later.

Dan Snyder cheered his lungs out when Theismann and Riggins led them to that Super Bowl XVII win in L.A. We all did. We all saw what a coach and a quarterback can do when they're in sync, when they're together, when they adapt. Theismann wasn't the most revered player in the locker room; they considered him a diva, on his own island. Sound familiar? But he was D.C.'s diva, and the team was back in the Super Bowl the next season.

Then they were back winning the Super Bowl again in 1987 with Doug Williams and then in 1991 with Mark Rypien. Gibbs had nearly traded Williams before the '87 season -- the same way they're thinking of trading RGIII now -- but he thought better of it. Remember, the best trades are sometimes the ones you don't make. Gibbs simply tweaked his offense every year to be in concert with the skills of his quarterback. With Williams and Rypien, they could run the Chargers' offense again. They had Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark, the posse. Snyder drank all of this in, and when he had the opportunity to buy the Redskins in 1999, he wanted to bring the '70s and '80s back. He wanted his childhood back. He wanted to be back at Woodward High School, with a quarterback to die for.

That was his mission, to find another Sonny, Billy, Joe, Doug, Ryp. He tried his best but made poor choices. He forced Jeff George on Norv Turner when he should've stuck with Brad Johnson. Marty Schottenheimer ran off Jeff George ... for Tony Banks. Steve Spurrier brought in every former Gator he could find -- Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews, to name two -- and whiffed on them. They drafted Patrick Ramsay in the first round, and he proceeded to get pummeled. They gave Tim Hasselback a cup of coffee.

Snyder was so desperate for the quarterbacking of the '80s, he convinced Gibbs to come out of retirement and coach. Under Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell and Todd Collins, Gibbs twice took the Redskins to the playoffs. But then the coach retired, leaving Snyder rudderless. He still hadn't found his Sonny or a Joe, and he kept scouring the earth for one. He forced Donovan McNabb on Mike Shanahan, which was a bust. He sat there and let Shanahan try to win with Rex Grossman and John Beck. He stewed over that. Snyder so badly wanted a return to the Geroge Allen glory years, he hired Allen's son, Bruce, to be team president.

Then along came the 2012 draft and Robert Griffin III. This was a glamour, celebrity quarterback -- everything he'd witnessed and cheered for growing up. Depending on who you believe, he was the one who forced Shanahan to trade two No. 1s and swap a third No. 1 to move up and draft him. RGIII was Snyder's baby. Finally, the wait was over. Who cared that Shanahan's convenient little knife in Snyder's back was drafting Kirk Cousins in the same draft? At the time, pundits ridiculed the Cousins pick, saying it was unnecessary to have Griffin looking over his shoulder at a backup, that the team would've been better served selecting a lineman instead. All of it was true. But as far as Snyder was concerned, it didn't matter. This was RGIII's team and city. The kid singlehandedly demolished Dallas on Thanksgiving that year. Snyder took him to dinner. Griffin had the hottest selling jersey in the NFL. He was making the man money and winning, too. He was rookie of the year over Andrew Luck and Russell Willson. He gave Snyder his first division title since his first year as owner, 1999. He was up 14-0 on Seattle in the first quarter of a playoff game ... until Shanahan started this whole mess.

The coach inexplicably left Griffin in the Seattle game after RGIII tweaked his injured knee on a touchdown drive. Shanahan should have had the good sense to take him out at halftime. Everyone in D.C. knew it. Instead, we had to watch a scene I still wince at -- RGIII ripping up his ACL late in the game chasing a bad snap. It has been downhill ever since, and there's no real reason to recount every gory detail. The point is, once Shanahan was out, Snyder had to go out and hire someone who could bring out the best in RGIII, the same way Gibbs figured out how to bring out the best in Theismann.

His and Bruce Allen's choice was Jay Gruden, who promptly gave up on Griffin after only a few games last year. Before Griffin dislocated his ankle in Week 2, the kid looked electric again. He threw a perfect bomb that DeSean Jackson dropped and then got injured on a rollout pass a foot from the sideline that couldn't have been thrown more perfectly. When he rushed back to play -- which he didn't have to do -- he wasn't himself. He needed an offseason to heal, which he did. Gruden named him starting quarterback in February. Maybe it was all a facade, to appease the owner, but if Gruden meant it, he would've tailored his offense to RGIII, instead of saying: We're running the Cincinnati offense or else.

Behind the scenes, Kirk Cousins did the smart thing; he went to work out this offseason with Jay's brother, Jon. As soon as you saw that, you knew what was going to happen. So now RGIII is benched and supposedly done in Washington. If Pierre Garcon doesn't drop a sure touchdown in preseason game No. 1 against Cleveland, maybe the narrative is different. If Gruden calls a few more rollouts or bootlegs for Griffin in the concussion game against Detroit -- like he did for Cousins and Colt McCoy -- maybe the narrative is different. If Cousins doesn't complete a lucky ricochet TD pass in Baltimore, maybe the narrative is different. If Gruden could think outside the box like Gibbs, maybe the narrative is different. Either way, the coach has gotten his way.

But I know what Dan Snyder and I saw in the '70s and '80s, and I'm guessing the owner feels the same way my brother and I feel, the same way many of my D.C. friends feel: Don't let go of Griffin. Not yet. Don't let him hightail it to that spread offense in Philly and return to light up FedEx Field. That would be an injustice.

My hunch is that the owner couldn't ever stomach that. My hunch is that while Snyder is telling Gruden he's OK with Cousins being his quarterback this year, he's still not sold. All this really means is that Gruden is on the clock. If the season goes South, it's on Gruden. If the season goes North, it's on RGIII.

That's why Snyder needs to hold on five more months to see if he has his quarterback to die for. Because he's already waited 25 years.

Tom Friend, senior writer at ESPN.com, is a Washington native who covered the Redskins for the Washington Post from 1987 to 1989.