Shades of His Former Self: Huff, in more lucid times
Shades of His Former Self: Huff, in more lucid times Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

There are probably only six games left in the Redskins’ 2007 season. That means there are probably only six games before a beloved burgundy-and-gold legend leaves the scene for good. This Hall of Famer has spent most Sunday afternoons this fall appearing befuddled by the simplest on-field action. It’s impossible to ignore all the accusations that the game he once mastered has passed him by, and even diehard Skins fans have stopped defending his flawed performances. Many hope he goes away before he puts a permanent hurt on his local legacy.

And, no, we’re not talking about Joe Gibbs here.

“What happens if the Redskins keep the ball for 13 minutes?” former Skins linebacker and longtime color commentator Sam Huff asked over the Redskins radio network’s airwaves during overtime against the New York Jets last month.

After a pause to figure out what the hell he was talking about, Huff’s broadcast partners, Sonny Jurgensen and Larry Michael, explained that if the Skins somehow ran out the last 13 minutes without scoring, the game would end in a tie.

“Well, let’s hope for that!” Huff bellowed with gusto.

During his own playing career, Huff, 73, only played in one overtime game: the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. Huff’s Giants lost that one. So perhaps he’s never gotten over that loss. And a tie would indeed be better than his personal fifth-quarter experience, which he’s reminded of whenever the Greatest Game Ever Played comes up.

After all, Huff’s references have long fallen deep into the last century. By way of pointing out that the Skins defense against the Jets was underwhelming, he said Gregg Williams’ crew was making QB Kellen Clemens, a first-time starter, “look like Joe Namath.” For years, he’s been dropping a Jim Brown reference or five into the broadcasts.

And, there are occasions when Huff’s old-school knowledge is quite charming. When former Skins QB Billy Kilmer dropped by the radio booth before the Cowboys game, for example, they reminisced about a brawl Huff started with a late hit on Kilmer when he was a quarterback with the New Orleans Saints. That was, undeniably, great radio.

But this season, such vintage charm has been buried under an avalanche of those what-the-hell-is-he-talking-about? moments. To radio listeners, it often sounds like Huff is watching a different game than the one they’re listening to.

During the Green Bay Packers game, for example, Huff decided Clinton Portis was having a great day, and he wanted everybody to know about it.

“He’s averaging six or seven yards a carry!” Huff shouted.

“Clinton has five carries for 13 yards,” Michael said seconds later.

In the pre-game monologue before the Arizona Cardinals contest, Michael was going over the importance of winning the sixth game of the season. “3-3 is not the way you want to end up today!” Michael said.

Huff wanted in on that riff: “4-3! You want 4-3!” he blurted.

“4-2, actually,” Michael said. “You want 4-2.”

By the second half of the Cardinals game, even Jurgensen, a fellow Hall of Famer and Huff’s running partner for several decades, had tired of the oddball commentary.

“Watch the game! Quit drifting off!” he said as Huff asked, if Skins linebacker London Fletcher had made a tackle, long after London Fletcher had made a tackle.

And late in the loss to Philly last week, Huff was yelling that Jason Campbell had scrambled for a big first down even after the refs had taken a measurement, determined Campbell was nowhere close, and had re-spotted the ball and called fourth down.

Huff has amassed an incredible amount of goodwill in his decades as a Washingtonian.

Before the 1964 season, the Giants traded him to the Redskins. In New York, Huff had been a perennial Pro Bowl linebacker on a team that always contended for championships. Here, he was the defensive leader on a team that had no defense. The Redskins were awful during Huff’s five seasons in a Skins uniform, fielding a winning team just once, in 1969, his last year as a player.

Yet the popularity Huff earned on the field skyrocketed when he joined the team’s radio broadcast team in the 1980s. For nearly a quarter-century of fall Sundays, Redskins fans muted their TVs and listened to Huff and Jurgensen and former play-by-play man Frank Herzog. “Sonny, Sam, and Frank,” as the radio team was known, became royalty around here.

Their chemistry was fabulous, and their enthusiasm for the team and for each other was so obvious it made up for whatever down-and-distance shortcomings could be found in their broadcasts.

Herzog’s signature TD call—“Touchdown, Washington Redskins!”—usually came with Sam screaming “Yes!” or the like and guffawing in the background.

By now, however, the fans’ romance with simulcasting Redskins games is dead.

Technical and regulatory realities have helped kill off the radio/TV tradition. Last season, Skins fans in many areas, including downtown D.C., had trouble getting a signal from any of the three stations in Snyder’s fledgling and thus-far-disastrous Red Zebra radio network.

This year, Snyder solved the weak-signal problems by buying time on game days on WBIG-FM, which has more virile radio waves. But because of the state of digital radio technology and the fear of FCC penalties should curse words get on the air, the Skins radio broadcast is no longer in sync with the network television broadcast. Thanks to the digital delay and the drop button, fans with rabbit ears on their TV get a picture of a play about nine seconds before said play is called on radio.

But personnel matters have really killed off the broadcasts’ former allure. Herzog was booted out of the Redskins booth in 2004 and replaced by Larry Michael for reasons that were never made clear to the audience. (One possible clue: Shortly after Herzog got whacked to make room for him, Michael was also named “executive producer of media” for the Redskins, and in that job has produced wacko videos for the team’s Web site to attack even mildly negative Washington Post stories.)

Herzog now does fill-in work as a reader at all-news WTOP, and he was working on that job this weekend. So while the Redskins pregame broadcast was being broadcast from Dallas, Herzog was telling listeners about the Queen of England’s 60th wedding anniversary and doing traffic and weather on the “8”s.

Huff’s decline has been as painful for fans as was Herzog’s dismissal, only more drawn out. Michael, who uses a hack Radio Guy Voice in calling games, hasn’t come close to re-creating the chemistry Herzog had with Huff. Michael is very good, however, at injecting sponsored comments into his play-by-play. For listeners, that means the team’s catchphrase has gone from “Touchdown, Washington Redskins!” to “Love That Chicken from Popeye’s!” And the linebacker can no longer be heard screaming and guffawing in the background.