When the Washington Redskins opened the current National Football League season by tying the lowly Dallas Cowboys, 35-35, it seemed about as much success as they would achieve all year. The next week, to the amazement of almost everybody, particularly Paul Brown, they managed an enormous upset by beating the Cleveland Browns, 17-16. At the time, Cleveland was considered the favorite for the Eastern Conference championship. However, the Browns had come off a tough victory over the Giants the week before, and most people, including a few of the Redskins, considered Washington's victory a fluke.
The flirtation with glory was supposed to end the following week when the Redskins played the St. Louis Cardinals, equipped with John David Crow, a sort of combination Jim Brown and Paul Hornung, and a very stout defense. After all, the year before the same Redskin team with the same quarterback had won only one game. No matter what happened against the Cardinals, the season was already a success. But even the doubting Redskins were beginning to believe that they were members of what in fact was a very good team. They proceeded to document their belief by thumping the Cardinals, 24-14, holding Crow to his skimpiest running yardage of the year.
As they prepared for the Los Angeles Rams last week, the Redskins found themselves favored for the first time in several years. To be sure, the margin was only by four points over a team that had yet to win a game. But the Redskins accepted the small compliment with gratitude and a private belief that the odds makers had created a big overlay for Washington bettors.
As it turned out, the odds makers were nearly right; the Redskins won 20 to 14. The win, however, was impressive, and it confirmed the fact that this Redskin team is a first-rate ball club, which very likely will not fade away and die. Already, it has won more games than the 1960 and 1961 teams did combined.
Sunday's victory, like the other two and the tie, was engineered and operated by Norman Snead, Washington's 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound second-year quarterback. He picked apart the Ram defenses with precocious skill. He ran the Redskins with the aplomb and the assurance of a Norman Van Brocklin or a Bobby Layne, and he completed 15 of 22 passes for 205 yards, including two touchdowns. In previous games he had depended on the ebullient Bobby Mitchell as his principal target; the Ram defenses were designed to shut off this route, so Snead calmly looked for the weakness created when the Rams covered Mitchell with two men. It turned out that they had assigned only a second-year halfback to stay with the experienced end, Fred Dugan. Snead saved Dugan for the key third down and long yardage plays, then completed passes to him to keep drives going. Once, on the Ram two-yard line, with the bulky Ram defense packed tight in front of him, Snead stepped back and flipped a quick crisp pass to Dugan in the end zone for a touchdown. Another time, under awesome pressure from the big Ram ends, he flipped a 25-yard pass as he was falling which Dugan caught across the goal for another touchdown.
Snead's passing, of course, probably was the most vital element in the Washington victory, which now leaves the Redskins comfortably in first place in the Eastern Conference. But his play selection was intelligent, too. Once, as a Washington drive appeared to have petered out on the Ram 20, Snead brought his team out of the huddle into a spread formation in a situation that seemed to dictate a pass. As the Ram defenders scattered to try to pick up receivers, Snead handed the ball to Don Bosseler, the Redskin fullback, and Bosseler gained 11 yards to the Ram nine before the Los Angeles defenders could regroup forces and stop him. Snead's first touchdown pass to Dugan followed.
There were, naturally, other heroes on the Redskin team in this and the previous games. The Washington offensive line, which last year often appeared to be of the consistency of cotton candy, almost always was successful in holding the Rams off Snead so that he had time to throw. The defense, a sometime thing a year ago, was intelligent, quick and lusty. The linebackers, buoyed up and informed by the presence of veteran Bob Pellegrini (acquired from the Eagles), acquitted themselves very well.
These miracles have been wrought only recently; it was during the exhibition season that George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Redskins, was convalescing from an operation and obtained permission to watch a Redskin game from his hospital bed. His team was playing the Eagles and the Philadelphia team was chewing up the Washington defense dreadfully. Marshall, who was not supposed to get excited, slammed his fist on his bedside table and howled until his nurse came running.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked anxiously.
"No," said Marshall, "unless you can back a line."
He can watch with equanimity now and the reason is Snead, his tall, rangy, beetle-browed and remarkably unscarred quarterback. While chronologically this is only his second year at his job, Snead has had the equivalent of at least three years' experience, all crammed into one horrendous season.
Not only Snead but other rookies aged quickly last season and Bill McPeak, the soft-spoken, personable young head coach of the Redskins, has mixed in a judicious selection of experienced pros obtained in trades. Significantly, most of the oldtimers come from teams that have had a habit of winning. Most spectacular of these is Mitchell, who arrived from the Cleveland Browns in exchange for the draft rights to Ernie Davis.
"They taught us something we needed," Snead said the other day in the Redskin dressing room before going out to practice. "They are used to winning. I mean guys like Pellegrini and Billy Barnes we got from the Eagles. They talk about it all the time, about how little difference there is between a winning effort and a losing one. I mean in this league it takes maybe just a little bit more to win. This year, we've had the little bit more and last year we didn't."
Snead is a graduate of Wake Forest with a degree in physical education. Surprisingly, he has always wanted to play for the Redskins, principally because they used to train on the Wake Forest campus, and he became acquainted with the team early in his college career. He was a first-draft choice. Owner Marshall preferred Fran Tarkenton, who went to the Minnesota Vikings. Not McPeak.
Grade A players
"Tarkenton may be better in his first year," McPeak said then. "Snead will be better over the long pull."
"The original squad I took over two years ago had only 15 or 16 topflight players," McPeak said the other day. "The club had to be rebuilt with grade A football players, and we started doing that with the 1960 draft."
McPeak, who played pro football for the Pittsburgh Steelers, came to that draft meeting well equipped. He had been a talent scout and assistant coach for the Steelers, and he knew the available crop of college seniors very well. His first choice, of course, was Snead, but he also obtained Center Fred Hageman, Defensive Tackle Joe Rutgens, Fullback Jim Cunningham, Defensive Halfback Jim Kerr and Offensive Tackle Riley Mattson in the same draft. Nearly all of them are regulars on the Redskin team this season.
Familiar with the weaknesses of the team after a full year as head coach and possessed of valuable draft choices as trade bait, McPeak was ready to go out and get the exceptional players in 1961 who could make his team go. Mitchell, his real catch, gives Snead a deep target that he never had before; Pellegrini has lent experience and muscle to the defense from his middle linebacker position and Bobby Freeman, another ex-Eagle, has stabilized the deep defense. Chunky Billy Barnes adds punch to what—with Bosseler hurt—was a nonexistent running attack last year. And, as Snead pointed out, all were winners.
"I learned a lot last year," Snead said ruefully in the dressing room. "I learned it so that I remember it, too. It was not like watching a game movie and having the coach say, 'See, he called the wrong pass-blocking pattern then and the linebacker came in and hit him.' When I called the wrong pass-blocking pattern, it was me the linebacker came in and hit. I made a mistake. I got hit in the head. You learn pretty quick that way."
"He took some beatings," McPeak says. "It doesn't make much difference who the body would have been in his position; if it survived, it had to be good. Norm survived and he did it without buckling, mentally or physically. That's why he is a fine quarterback now."
Snead is not taking a beating this season. The rookies on the Redskin offensive line have learned to pick up red-dogging linebackers better, for one thing. The improved Redskin running attack and the ever-present threat of the pass to Bobby Mitchell on Washington's offensive flank has multiplied the problem of opposing defenses, and has made it more difficult for them to commit linebackers to harrying Snead. Now the linebackers must attend to other duties besides trying to decapitate the Redskin quarterback.
Mitchell was a running halfback for Cleveland. Paul Brown, enamored of the big-back backfield as operated by Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung of the Packers, used Mitchell to obtain another big back to go with Jim Brown—the unfortunate Ernie Davis. Despite the fact that Mitchell is very likely the most elusive broken-field runner in football, Brown felt that he was prone to fumble any time he hit inside tackle (SI, Sept. 10).
McPeak was well aware of all this when he obtained Mitchell, but he did not waste any time trying to teach M itch-ell to hold onto the ball piling into the line; he placed him out wide as a flanker back, away from the traffic in the middle of the line.
"I was very happy to be traded to the Redskins," Mitchell says now. "That Mr. Brown is a nice man in many ways, but he is very difficult to get along with when he is coaching. I am glad I played the tight back for four years, because the experience was very good for me and I learned some moves that are very useful to me now. But I have had the four years there and now I am happier out on the flank. I use the things I learned as a tight back all the time."
On the flank Mitchell gives the Redskins a deep threat on every pass play. He has good hands and does not often fumble catches. The defenses nearly all put two men on Mitchell, creating a weakness elsewhere that Snead, with more tools and with experience, exploits very well.
Dugan, who joined the Redskins in 1961, said during practice as the Redskins prepared for the Rams: "No one would have bet a nickel to a hundred bucks we would be leading the Eastern Conference after three games. I guess we surprised everyone in the league, including me. And we're getting better. Last week, against the Cardinals, Norm called a perfect game. I don't think he made a single mistake. We're going to be tough."
In order to take some of the pressure off Mitchell and to force the defenses out of their double coverage on him, McPeak has installed some plays sending a halfback or fullback in motion opposite to the side where Mitchell is flanked. If the defense rotates away from Mitchell toward the halfback or fullback, it can assign only one man to cover him, a fact that the extremely quick Snead picks up immediately and exploits—for touchdowns as often as not. Snead is a very good scrambler, too; he is particularly adept at salvaging a broken-pass pattern—which is the ultimate test of a real pro quarterback.
"Against Cleveland, on the long run Bobby made for the touchdown that beat them, Norm hit him on a broken pattern," McPeak said. "Bobby was supposed to go fairly deep over the middle, but the linebacker knocked him to the outside off stride so that he couldn't run his original pattern. Norm was under pressure, but he found Bobby and hit him just over the middle. It was a good move and the play went 50 yards for the touchdown."
Hard exhibition season
The Redskins began slowly this year. In their first exhibition game they were almost demolished by the Rams, 37-7. "It wasn't until the last two games of the exhibition season that we began to get confidence," Snead said, dressing for the last practice before last week's game. "We beat the Bears 29-28 and then we played the Packers and lost a close game that we should have won. Then Pellegrini and Barnes and the other guys who should know began saying we were as good as any club in the league and we got to believing it. Now everyone on the club believes it."
At practice, Snead went through the arsenal of plays set up for the Ram defense quietly and competently and with immense assurance. In that first exhibition game against the Rams, Snead had taken his accustomed physical beating from a big, agile Ram line. He lost a total of 93 yards attempting to pass, often being tackled almost before he could turn and look for his receiver. As he prepared for them again, however, he showed no concern.
"We're still learning and making mistakes," he said. "We didn't make any last week, against the Cardinals. I don't think we will this week either."
After the brief practice the Redskins sang and shouted happily as they dressed. In McPeak's small office just off the dressing room, a Washington sports reporter who has covered the Redskins for 15 years shook his head.
"That's the first time I ever heard a Redskin team sing in the dressing room," he said. "Sounds nice."
It did Sunday night, too.