The coach shut off his projector, packed up his notes, got up from his chair and announced, "The Raiders will beat the Redskins in the Super Bowl. They'll beat them because Washington caves in in the fourth quarter. They slow to a walk. If L.A. can stay close for three quarters, if Jim Plunkett has a reasonably good day, they'll beat them."
He'd been watching films of the Redskins' 24-21 playoff victory over San Francisco, in which the 49ers came storming back with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He thinks the Redskins have trouble going the distance. And who is this coach?
"Sorry," he said. "Can't use my name. I have to play them next year. But I'll say this. When a team puts a lot of people away early, it gets out of the habit of hanging in tough in the fourth quarter. Not the offense. Washington's offense has been productive all the way through. I'm talking about the defense. They've run out of steam in the fourth quarter all season long. The Raiders are very well aware of that. They looked at the same films I did."
"I don't think it's a conditioning problem," Washington free safety Mark Murphy says. "We're in very good shape. I know we've been outscored in the fourth quarter, but a lot of the time we had big leads going in, and teams picked up free stuff. Why don't you check it out?"
We did. The opposition outscored the Skins 152-142 in the fourth quarter this season, counting the playoffs. In eight games the issue wasn't decided until late, and the Redskins were outscored in the final period of those 89-81. Their fourth quarter won-lost record for those games was 3-4-1, with one of the wins coming against the Raiders in October.
Washington didn't have any problems in three of the eight—two against the Eagles and one against the Giants. The Redskins' defense shut down those clubs in the fourth quarter. And we're not counting their big late-season win over the Cowboys—they led 21-10 going into the fourth quarter in that one. But look what happened in the other close games. They had a 23-17 lead against Dallas in the Monday-night opener going into the fourth quarter. The Cowboys put together one long drive (80 yards) and one tiny one (four yards) and beat them 31-30. Washington might have put the game away, but Mark Moseley missed a 31-yard field goal.
The Raider game in the season's fifth week was a wild affair, with L.A. holding a 21-20 lead after three periods. That was the game in which the Raiders scored 28 unanswered points to go up 35-20 with 7:31 left, and then the Skins put up 17 of their own to win it 37-35. Fourth-quarter points: 17-14 Skins.
Washington's 48-47 loss to the Packers two weeks later on Monday night was another shootout. The fourth quarter showed 31 points scored, total, 17 of them by Green Bay. The Redskins couldn't stop them, but they couldn't be stopped, either. Green Bay ran up 170 yards in that final period, but the Skins would have won if Moseley hadn't missed a 39-yarder at the gun.
Two weeks after that the Skins went out to San Diego, and the same thing happened, only this time Washington won 27-24. The Chargers were docile all night, but then in the fourth quarter they erupted for 17 points and 193 yards, including a 99-yard drive, and this wasn't with Dan Fouts running the Air Coryell show, either. Ed Luther was the quarterback. But Joe Theismann ("Give me 50 seconds and two time-outs, and I'll put points on the board") was equally brilliant, and he moved the Skins downfield for the winning field goal at the end. This time Moseley didn't miss.
And, finally, the San Francisco game. It was 21-0 after three periods, then Washington's defense collapsed. The 49ers scored the first three times they had the ball in the fourth quarter, and might have scored again at the end if they had had 30 seconds more. They gained 169 of their 425 yards in the last period, but the Redskins' offense, aided by two questionable penalties, came through at the end, with Moseley kicking the 25-yard gamer.
So what's with the Skins' defense? Do they get wobble-legged after three periods? Are they too heavy, or what? Their offensive line, the Hogs, is massive, but how about their defensive front four? Well, it averages 269 pounds, one of the bigger units in the NFL, and is led by two man-sized tackles, 295-pound Dave Butz and 275-pound Darryl Grant, backed up by 270-pound Perry Brooks, who they say is playing above his program weight.
Does their pass rush poop out? It's hard to say. Forty-niner coach Bill Walsh says, "The key to NFL football is a pass rush late in the game." Maybe Washington's lack of late pressure has been allowing the opposition all those fourth-quarter yards. Dexter Manley, Washington's defensive right end and pass-rush specialist, has had an off year. Against the 49ers his totals showed no tackles, no assists. He has been on the verge of being replaced by rookie Charles Mann, except that Joe Gibbs, like most coaches, is leery about making changes during a successful season.
The Redskins' back seven is competent but not gifted with blazing speed, except for cornerback Darrell Green, the fastest defensive back in pro football. During the playoffs he has performed at All-Pro caliber. He lines up on the left side, but in the Super Bowl he might cover Cliff Branch, the Raiders' most dangerous wideout, no matter where Branch goes. The Skins did just that—gave Green a particular man to cover—against San Diego and Philly this season.
At the right corner Washington has problems. The regular, Vernon Dean, isn't starting because of an injured neck, and the guy in his place, Anthony Washington, a Steeler reserve who came to the Redskins in a preseason trade for a draft choice, has had a rough two games in the playoffs. The Rams' Preston Dennard beat him for a 32-yard touchdown when Washington fell for a pump fake, and the 49ers beat him for two short TDs to Mike Wilson. The thing Washington has going for him is that the book on Plunkett says he favors his right side; he doesn't like throwing the out pass to his left. Oh, he'll do it, just to let people know he's not afraid to—when the Steelers' Mel Blount gave him a big cushion on that side he worked him over with passes to Branch—but Plunkett's not comfortable throwing in that direction.
His most productive passes to his star running back, Marcus Allen, an excellent receiver, have also been on the right side, but Green is a tough little force man, whereas Washington on the other side is only so-so. Look for the Raiders to put two wide receivers left, to get Green out of the picture and then come back to Allen on the swing pass to the right—or simply put Branch left if Green covers him all over the field. In any case, it's a dilemma for the Skins.
Everyone points to the fact that the Redskins are last in the NFL in pass defense. That's a misleading statistic, though, because it's based on total yards and a lot of those yards were fourth-quarter gimmes in the games Washington had locked up. A more meaningful statistic is one that evaluates a team's defense in terms of opponents' combined quarterback ratings against it, adding sack yards to the ratings formula. In that category the Redskins are 11th in the NFL, not bad considering that everyone throws on them because their run defense is No. 1 in the league. The 49ers, for instance, called 29 pass plays and only two runs against them in the second half. The Raiders will probably do the reverse, throw early to tire out the pass rushers and then come back with the run, unless of course they're in a catch-up situation. They only ran for 105 yards against the Skins in October, but Allen was out with a bruised hip. They should do better this time.
The key to the Raiders' offense is Plunkett, who has run a herky-jerk operation this year. The Raiders have turned the ball over 53 times, counting the playoffs. Plunkett has been dismal on occasion, and at times effective—a mirror of his career. His teammates are divided on him. They know he can go scatter-armed if there's too much pressure, but he can also get hot.
Marc Wilson was Al Davis' choice at quarterback, and a lot of players agreed with Davis when the switch was made to Wilson before the Raiders' midseason game against Dallas. Coach Tom Flores is in Plunkett's corner. "He's had adversity, and he's always come back from it, and that's the kind of guy you want in a big game," Flores says. The issue was decided for the regular season on Nov. 6 when Wilson broke his left shoulder against the Chiefs. Wilson is ready to play again but doesn't figure to be a factor against the Redskins unless Plunkett gets hurt or plays miserably.
The Raider defense is a finely tuned unit. The last piece fell into place when L.A. got All-Pro Mike Haynes from New England to man the right cornerback position. He's a blanket on that side and a better force man than Ted Watts, who was the starter when the Raiders lost to Washington in October. The Skins hurt the Raiders in that game by lining up both tight ends on one side and the wide receivers on the other and then running to the wide receivers' side against the cornerbacks—Lester Hayes, Watts and then Irvin Phillips when Watts got hurt.
"You know who I really like in that Washington offense?" says Matt Millen, who calls the Raiders' defensive signals from his inside linebacker spot. "Joe Gibbs. I get a real kick out of watching his offense, as long as I don't have to play against it. I saw the Super Bowl with my wife last year, and I kept yelling, 'Look what he's doing now!' Against the 49ers he tried all those gimmicks—the lateral off the punt, the reverse on the kickoff, the run from punt formation. He coached a brilliant game against us in October. He got exactly the force he wanted—a cornerback force against John Riggins. And I know he's going to have all sorts of special things cooked up for this game. But don't forget we had guys hurt in that last game, too. Marcus Allen was out, our secondary got all banged up, Lyle Alzado had a bad knee. It'll be different this time. Lyle's going to give their big left tackle, Joe Jacoby, all that he can handle.
"The Skins like to throw to their wideouts early in the game, to loosen things up so they can come back and pound you with Riggins. Well, they'd better be careful going against Lester and Mike. I'll tell you one thing the Redskins do that bothered me in that first game. They'll shift a guy, then motion someone out before the first guy's really set. It's borderline illegal—that first guy has to be set for a moment before anyone else can move—but they get away with it. It messes you up. There's an in-between area in there."
O.K., now let's get to the real issue. It's something you're going to be reading about all week, the trigger word, the House Special for Super Bowl XVIII. Intimidation. There, we said it. Dim the lights. Bring out the whips and chains and leather. Now playing on 42nd Street, Intimidation, starring Matt Millen, Lyle Alzado and Howie Long. Adults only.
What does it mean, really? The real nose-breakers of the past, Dan Birdwell, Ben Davidson, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum, are gone. Raider games this year weren't marked by a steady parade to the ambulances. What you got was a lot of yelling and pushing and shoving, and a few punches. Alzado, reputedly the key intimidator, isn't a dirty player. He doesn't go for knees; he doesn't unload on a guy when his back's turned. Oh sure, when someone does it to him, as the Jets' Chris Ward did in the playoffs last year, he'll retaliate. He even threw a helmet at Ward, which led to a league rule against equipment throwing. The Raiders are big on retaliation. When the Bills' Eugene Marve jumped offside and leveled Plunkett this season, Raider guard Mickey Marvin was on him like a tiger, and both were thrown out. But what would you prefer, really, if you were coaching a team, the Biblical approach—an eye for an eye—or the way the Bengals stood around like statues when Pittsburgh's Keith Gary tried to twist Kenny Anderson's head off?
How effective is all this intimidation stuff? "Against some teams, zero," Alzado says. "Against some others, more than you'd think. I mean a team like the Steelers isn't going to be intimidated. You're not going to intimidate Webbie [center Mike Webster] or [tackle] Larry Brown or guys like that. But I think Seattle got caught up in it a little."
O.K., what is it? What do you do, exactly, that's so terrible?
"I curse at them," Alzado says.
Yeah, right. What else?
"I even spit sometimes."
There's a lot of spit out there. Next case.
"Pushing, shoving, throwing a punch or two—you know how it goes."
"Sometimes we get caught up in that stuff too much," Millen says. "It hurt us against the Jets last year. You get so interested in starting a fight you forget about the game. In the Jets game I got so involved in pushing and punching the guard that, like an idiot, I forgot about Freeman McNeil. Sometimes, though, teams act like they expect you to do it, so they give you that extra respect. They get a little tentative.
"I hope we don't get into it with the Skins, though. Last time there was a bunch of it at first, and it was a little distracting. Howie Long and Mark May got into it pretty good. But as the game wore on there was less and less of it."
The Skins certainly won't be intimidated. I mean how is anyone going to intimidate Riggins, who gets hit by three or four people every time he carries the ball, who has now gone for 100 yards or more in six straight postseason games?
"It's been a long season," Riggins says. "There were times I didn't think I'd make it. I went into the regular season with a three-inch collar around my neck; the Bills' Sherm White caught me with a clothesline shot in our last exhibition game. I felt like Frankenstein. My neck survived, but then my back went out against the Packers, and I went into traction for three days.
"I was a big ship that was floundering. I'd had my hull pierced. They were sealing off the compartments. I'd lost a few sailors. I said to myself, 'Ohhh, the big guy ain't gonna make it to the end of the tunnel.' Now I can see the light."
Theismann certainly isn't going to be intimidated. He was a familiar figure on the 49ers' locker room wall two weeks ago. They'd pulled out one of his ads from Joe Theismann's Redskin Report (that's right, he owns the paper) and tacked it up. It was for a limited edition of a solid brass engraving of "Super Joe," yours for only $125, plus tax, insurance and postage. He was a cover boy for Gentlemen's Quarterly. He owns restaurants, has a TV show, does commercials. When he was in New York last week to pick up the Pro Football Writers MVP award, he even did a spot plug for the Daily News's Millionaire Lucky Bucks giveaway contest ("Holy Super Bowl! There he was..."). But, hey, the guy backs it all up.
If there is one Redskin who might be intimidated—not by the Raiders but by his own failings—it's Moseley. He missed four field goals against the 49ers. Then he made the 25-yarder, and players like Murphy were saying, "Every time Mark's had to make a kick to win it, he has."
"How about against the Cowboys and Packers this year?" he was asked.
"Don't remind me," Murphy said.
If it comes down to a kicking contest, I'll take the Raiders' Chris Bahr, who has been one of their unsung heroes this season. And when it comes to a final score, I'll pick the Raiders. Call it 27-24.