Not to take anything away from the Redskins, but here is what it was like: It was as if somebody had breezed into the Los Angeles Rams' locker room on Sunday, before their wild-card playoff game in Washington, and said, "Just lose, baby." End of speech.
Four fumbles, two interceptions, a 254-second instant replay and 78 yards in penalties later, the Rams had done just that, the margin of the Skins' 19-7 victory coming off the foot of an ex-loan officer trainee who only three weeks earlier had been processing mortgage applications.
"The Rams did help us some," admitted Redskins middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz, who led a defense that gave up a shocking 198 yards rushing, "and we appreciate it. But they say it's the good teams that get lucky."
The Skins were both good and lucky on Sunday—good enough to capitalize on the Rams' self-destructive tendencies, and lucky that on a day when their longest gain from scrimmage was a piddling 15 yards, they always seemed to be getting the ball near midfield because the Rams were playing Santa with it. "We beat ourselves," said the Rams' Eric Dickerson, who ran for 158 yards on 26 carries but fumbled three times. "We could have won this game, but we turned the ball over. I turned the ball over."
It was a matchup between two teams entering the playoffs on the skids. The Skins had dropped two of their last three games and needed 21 fourth-quarter points in the season finale to squeak past Philadelphia. Jay Schroeder, their young, strong-armed quarterback, who this year became the first Redskin ever to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season, suddenly appeared to be mistake-prone. After throwing just 11 interceptions in his first 13 games, Schroeder added 11 more in those final three contests. And the Redskins' place-kicking game was a shambles. Mark Moseley and then Max Zendejas had put the suspense back into the extra point, combining to miss seven on the year, which forced Washington to bring in Jess Atkinson for the regular season's final game. The 25-year-old Atkinson did have eight games of NFL experience with the Giants and Cardinals in 1985, but in a year and a half he had been cut by four different teams, including the Redskins, who had last looked at him in training camp. When the Skins called him back, Atkinson was earning $1,500 a month from the Shawmut Mortgage Corporation of Annapolis and kicking twice a week on the University of Maryland campus with his girlfriend, Jamie Henry, holding for him. "She's quite a holder and knows more about kicking than just about any coach I've ever met," Atkinson said after his four-for-four field goal effort Sunday. "I was just mushing along from day to day, praying I'd get another chance."
The Rams had been doing a little mushing of their own. After seeming to have locked up the Western Division title, they had lost four of their last seven games, including the last two, to finish half a game behind the 49ers.
"Too finesseful," is how Dickerson described the Rams' style of play in the last half of the season.
"We've got to go back to basics," said coach John Robinson. "The key thing tomorrow is to stay within the script."
Everyone knew what that meant. "Everything we heard coming out of Los Angeles all week was run, run, run," said Olkewicz. "We thought they were going to come out running it down our throats."
Which is exactly what the Rams did all day—Dickerson left, Dickerson right, Barry Redden up the middle. And they stuck with the script, even when they fell behind early.
But those who live by the run, die by the fumble. In the opening series the Rams were marching smartly downfield when Dickerson collided with one of his linemen and coughed up the ball on the Washington 35; it was picked up and returned 21 yards by rookie safety Alvin Walton. The Redskins then produced their longest gain of the day on their first play from scrimmage, a workmanlike 15-yard ramble off left tackle by George Rogers. He finished the day with 115 yards on 29 carries and—the key stat—no fumbles.
When the drive stalled at the eight-yard line, Atkinson booted a 25-yarder, his first field goal since Oct. 20, 1985. But the Rams were just getting into the spirit of giving. On the Skins' next possession the Rams' LeRoy Irvin was called for pass interference, an infraction he disputed so vehemently that a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty was tacked on, moving the ball to the Rams' 28. Five plays later Schroeder completed his longest pass of the day for Washington's only touchdown, a 14-yarder to Kelvin Bryant. As it turned out, that gave the Skins more than enough points to win.
Washington came into the game determined to be patient against the Rams' zone defense, to avoid interceptions and to hit their wide receivers, Art Monk and Gary Clark, underneath. But the way the Rams were turning over the ball, the Redskins—who generated only 228 yards in total offense—didn't have to move the ball very far downfield to get within Atkinson's range. The first two times the Rams got the ball in the second quarter they were stopped by fumbles—the second of which, by tight end David Hill on the Redskins' 26-yard line, was ruled a turnover only after the replay official had mulled it over for more than four minutes. Not exactly what you'd call "indisputable" evidence.
But to give the Redskins their due, they took advantage of the break, putting together their last decent drive of the day behind the running of Rogers, marching 53 yards in 14 plays to set up Atkinson's second field goal, a 20-yard chip shot. In the third quarter he added a 38-yarder to put the Redskins on top 16-0.
It was a curiously upbeat Rams locker room after the defeat. Dickerson was already talking about next year, when quarterback Jim Everett will have had an entire training camp to mesh with the offense. This is a team that feels on the rise.
As for the Redskins, they have the Bears to look forward to this week at Soldier Field. If they can again force six more turnovers than they allow, hold the Bears to fewer than 200 yards rushing and muster, say, one play over 15 yards, they should stand half a chance. Not to take anything away from them.