The Washington Redskins have that Super Bowl look.
Yeah, we know—it's early for that kind of talk. We're not even out of November, and they still have to face the Giants, and a few crucial injuries can make the whole equation go kaboom. But every now and then a team seems to find itself, and it takes on a certain aura, and you say, "That's it, that one's going all the way." It's got that look.
Sunday, Nov. 23, RFK Stadium—Washington 41, Dallas 14, O.K., Dallas gets whipped; that's not big news anymore. But this was the backs-to-the-wall game for the Cowboys, the one that could really get them back in the playoff picture. And Washington was coming off a grueling Monday-nighter against the 49ers, three hours and 48 minutes of pressure for a 14-6 win. The Skins were banged up. Their best defensive back, Darrell Green, had a bad shoulder and would see only sporadic action. Their quarterback, Jay Schroeder, came out of the 49er game with a sore back, and no one knew how he would hold up. Their best offensive lineman, Russ Grimm, and their premier wideout, Gary Clark, were also iffy.
The Cowboys were never in the game. They fumbled the opening kickoff, and the Redskins banged it in for a touchdown in three plays. And got another one several minutes later in the period. And scored on four straight possessions in quarter No. 2. And held Dallas to 43 yards for the half. Seven Cowboy possessions, seven punts, no third-down conversions. Halftime score: 34-0. In the press box people were scrambling for their record books. When was the last time Dallas was beaten so badly in a half? Answer: never. The game was over.
December 1, 1986
Washington had played the perfect game, or as close to it as we've seen this season. Two days before the game. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs tried to put his club into perspective:
"You know, we're not the team we were two years ago. We pounded people in those days. We were precise. We were great from in front, but when we got behind we got frightened. Our personality has changed. We're not that kind of team anymore. Maybe it's because we have 14 new players on the squad, but we're the kind of team that's going to get behind, we're going to be in hot water. We're not going to win by a big margin. It'll be pressure packed, fighting. Since Jay came in at quarterback [in the 11th game last year] we've won six games where we were behind in the last quarter."
Schroeder is only the fourth Redskin quarterback in 23 seasons. The three who preceded him—Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer and Joe Theismann—each made the Pro Bowl, and each had a kind of jaunty swagger that stamped his personality on a town that lists its two leading citizens as the President of the United States and the quarterback of the Redskins, and not always in that order. Schroeder is different.
At the end of last season he took the offensive line out to dinner. This year, on the Thursday night after the 49er victory, he expanded the outing to include the whole team—plus wives and girlfriends. "When Joe would take us out it was a happening," Grimm said. "You knew it was his show. This one was real quiet, but it had to run into big bucks for Jay."
Schroeder played high school ball in Southern California and college ball at UCLA, and with his lean 6'4", 214-pound frame and blond hair, the only thing missing is a surfboard. Except that he is originally from Wisconsin, and he doesn't surf, and the world of hype leaves him cold. His style is low-key Midwest.
The Redskins drafted him in the third round in 1984, the year of the nonquarterback. He had started one game for the Bruins—the 1980 Mirage Bowl in Japan against Oregon State—and then had packed it in to play baseball, his first love. He spent three years as a farmhand for the Toronto Blue Jays but never as a pitcher. He wanted to be a catcher like his idol, Johnny Bench.
"I didn't make it in baseball because I tried to pull the sliders, it's that simple," he said.
"They played me in the outfield, then they decided to make a third baseman out of me, even though I didn't have a third baseman's quick hands. In July of my third year I simply felt that I'd had it, and I walked away from it. I went back to my parents' house in Southern California for a week and just did nothing. It was the worst period in my life. I guess you could say I was going through a deep depression. I was angry that I couldn't perform in what I liked to do best."
Eventually he decided to give football another shot, and he went back to UCLA and began working out. When he clocked a 4.65 40, he became a definite prospect.
The Redskins are 14-3 in Schroeder's 17 games as a starter, 15-3 if you count his dramatic debut last year, when Theismann broke his leg against the Giants and Schroeder came in and pulled the game out. He's not a high-percentage passer; he likes yardage in big chunks. He's a flamethrower, and he has a lot of passes dropped. Against the Cowboys on Sunday he made three plays that pretty well express his philosophy.
The Cowboys, desperate to help a pass rush that was getting nothing from the front four, threw three serious blitzes at Schroeder. Disdaining the conventional blitz control passes—the short stuff to a "hot receiver" or the safety valves to a back—Schroeder went deep on his first pass and got a 71-yard TD to tight end Clint Didier. He treated the second blitz to an 11-yard TD to Gary Clark, and the third time the Cowboys tried it, early in the third quarter, Schroeder went up on top again, 35 yards to Clark.
Clark, a dazzling little wideout from Jacksonville of the USFL, is a rare and sure-handed combination of deep threat and possession receiver. He's having a Pro Bowl season. The flanker, Art Monk, has been there the last two seasons. Didier is the NFL's leading long-ball tight end, with a 20.2 average. Four of the Hogs up front have been to the Pro Bowl, along with the tailback, George Rogers. No team has as much offense.
Against the Cowboys the defense was just as impressive. Dexter Manley is also having an All-Pro year. Right now he's one of the top three defensive ends in the NFL, along with Howie Long and Rulon Jones. This will not sit well with Manley haters who shrink from his boastful, flamboyant style.
The Cowboys started off by keeping Herschel Walker in to cut-block Manley, neatly removing Herschel from the offense. In Dallas's 30-6 win over Washington in October, Walker gained 200 yards rushing and pass receiving. On Sunday he got 18. Maybe it was because Walker came into the Washington game with a sore knee and ankle, and since he wasn't going to be very productive anyway, the Cowboys felt they might as well use him against Manley. Or maybe it was just because Herschel was a good cut-blocker. Whatever the reason, the scheme died after Manley got the first of his two sacks. Fullback Timmy Newsome took over as the extra blocker on Manley, then the tight end helped out, then the guard. At times they tripled him. Finally the Skins showed what they could do if they really tried, when they sent right linebacker Rich Milot blitzing clean through the gap.
"We had a whole package of blitzes and stuff to use today," free safety Curtis Jordan said, "but we didn't need to. We could afford to play 'em straight up, that's how good the rush was from our front four. Dexter's been playing out of his mind this year."
"I spent practically a whole career being immature, not taking care of myself on or off the field," Manley says. "That's ended now."
Charles Mann on the other side, unknown and underrated, is having almost as good a year as Manley. Massive Dave Butz has four sacks in two weeks. The play of the line is setting the tone for the entire Washington defense.
Three NFC teams are at 10-2: the Redskins, Giants and Bears. New York and Chicago are overbalanced on defense right now, though. They're winning ugly; they're not on firm footing. But Washington is coming off the 1986 season's premier game. If this is the Redskins' true level, then the rest of the league is in trouble. Call it that Super Bowl look.