Remembering the late Norm Snead's days in Washington

The popular figure sadly passed away recently.

Norm Snead
Norm Snead / Nate Fine/GettyImages

Remembering former Washington quarterback Norm Snead's time with the franchise after the popular gunslinger sadly passed away on Sunday.

If you think Sam Howell had it rough in 2023, let me tell you about Norm Snead.

Snead, who passed away last Sunday, was Washington’s starting quarterback the year I was born. The Commanders of 2023, as bad as they were, didn't have anything on this team.

The quarterback was selected in the first round of the 1961 draft by coach Bill McPeak and immediately handed the reins of a team coming off the worst season in its 29-year history. That 1960 squad had gone 1-9-2, with its only win coming against the expansion Dallas Cowboys.

McPeak saw a savior in the 6-foot-4 kid from Wake Forest, with a huge arm and unflappable demeanor. He dealt long-time starter Eddie LeBaron - who informed the team he was going to retire - to Dallas and threw the rookie into the fire.

His first game was a disaster.

Norm Snead overcame significant adversity in Washington

Playing against the San Francisco 49ers in Kezar Stadium, the rookie completed just eight of 34 passes for 140 passing yards and no touchdowns. He threw three interceptions and was sacked four times. Washington lost 35-3.

It didn’t get much better from that point. Washington lost its first nine games before managing a couple of ties and a season-ending win against Dallas which prevented a winless campaign. The offense failed to score more than a touchdown in eight of the 14 contests.

Snead hung in there, and he did show signs of improvement. By today’s pass-happy standards, his career stats are dreadful, especially if you just pull out his first three seasons in Washington. Team owner George Preston Marshall was still one year away from integrating the roster. The results were obvious.

During his three years in Washington, Snead was sacked on almost 10 percent of his attempted passes. His number over those three seasons is almost identical to Howell’s sack rate in 2023. For three straight years. The only starting signal-caller with more than 250 pass attempts and a higher sack rate in team history was Dwayne Haskins - a fraction of a percentage ahead of Snead.

Norm Snead's relationship with Bobby Mitchell was special

Norm Snead
Bobby Mitchell / Nate Fine/GettyImages

Something began to change in Snead’s second season. That something was named Bobby Mitchell.

When Marshall was finally forced to integrate, Mitchell arrived from the Cleveland Browns and overnight revived a moribund offense. Washington was still years away from fielding a competitive team, but there were signs of life. The second-year quarterback looked a lot better now that he had an actual weapon to throw to.

By the time I became aware of Snead, he was long gone from Washington. He was a veteran with the New York Giants. There was nothing particularly special about him. A few years past 30, he was slowing down, though he did have one of his best seasons in 1972.

He’d kick around as a backup for a few more years before retiring after the 1976 season. The truth is, as a young Washington fan during the 1970s, I didn’t think about Snead very much.

As I’ve studied the team’s history over the years, I came to realize that Snead deserves credit for three fairly significant things during his brief time in Washington. The first is that he chose to come in the first place.

Marshall had been looking for a quarterback to replace the legendary Sammy Baugh ever since he retired in 1952. Snead was the sixth quarterback he had drafted in the first round since his retirement. The two who preceded Snead - Don Allard in 1959 and Richie Lucas in 1960 - refused to sign with Marshall.

Allard went to Canada, and Lucas to the upstart AFL. Snead could have followed them. The Buffalo Bills selected him in the fifth round of the AFL draft in 1961. But he came to Washington, which helped break a bad cycle.

When here - though his overall numbers were nothing special - there is one important thing that he did. He pushed the ball downfield. Snead had a big arm and he wasn’t afraid to use it. That resulted in a lot of interceptions and a lot of sacks, but it also pumped some desperately needed life into a stagnant offense.

Of all the Washington quarterbacks with more than 250 pass attempts, only Kirk Cousins has a higher yards-per-attempt number. Not Sonny or Sammy. Not Joey T or Mark Rypien. Snead’s 7.6 number is a hair behind Cousins and a hair ahead of Robert Griffin III. When you consider how much less efficient NFL passing games were in the 1960s, that number is even more impressive.

Snead’s yards-per numbers were indeed aided greatly by the presence of Mitchell. He was the type of player who could turn a five-yard screen into a 75-yard touchdown in a blink. That brings us to the third thing Snead deserves credit for.

Norm Snead paved the way for Sonny Jurgensen

Mitchell made it clear over the years that when he first came to Washington, he was not exactly welcomed with open arms. Some of his teammates were outright racists. Others resented the attention his presence brought. The dynamic playmaker even speculated that some players did not like the heightened expectations placed on them now that they were acquiring some real talent.

However, Mitchell went out of his way to praise several of his teammates. Veterans Dickie James and Vince Promuto were two. His second-year quarterback was another. Snead, who grew up on the Virginia/North Carolina border and who played college ball at Wake Forrest, targeted the wideout as often as he could. He didn’t care about skin color. He cared about production on the field.

When Snead was traded after the 1963 season, Mitchell admitted that he hated to see him go. That speaks volumes.

I suppose there’s a fourth thing Washington fans should credit Snead with. Despite playing for such bad teams, the young quarterback showed enough promise to tempt the Philadelphia Eagles into swapping quarterbacks before the 1964 season. That’s how Sonny Jurgensen came to Washington.

Soon, Charley Taylor and Jerry Smith would join him. Along with Mitchell, they formed one of the decade’s most explosive offenses. The long-awaited rebuild was well underway.

Snead wouldn’t be around to be a part of it. But if you look, you can find a few of his fingerprints on the foundation.