Now, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted? Right, right, we were enjoying football as played by the most famous sandwich-board carriers in the universe, the NFL regulars. Accept no substitutes, especially ones like former Washington Scabskin defensive back Charles Jackson, who put on his new uniform one day and announced, "We are the official Washington Redskins. We represent the entire state of Washington."
Now Jackson just represents the entire state of confusion. But who cares for spares now that the legits are back in the pits? The pro is back in pro football! Let's watch how the Redskins do it, for example. Let's watch wide receiver Art Monk drop three passes in a row. Let's watch quarterback Jay Schroeder incomplete 61% of his passes. Let's watch fans make a sign that reads: SCABS MAKE TOUGHER SKINS.
The real New York Jets are back, too, and they look real flummoxed. In a 17-16 loss to Washington on Sunday—a loss that both teams richly deserved—the Jets line gave up seven sacks, which added up to more yards backward (46) than New York's starting running backs got going forward (45). The Jets also twice failed to score a touchdown after moving inside the Redskin five-yard line, and they barely got 200 yards in total offense. Can the replacements for the replacements be replaced?
O.K., O.K., a little Rust-Oleum and everything will be better, but can you blame D.C. fans for not throwing a ticker-tape parade for their returning soldiers? After all, the Scabskins not only went 3-0 during the strike but also beat the detested Cowboys in Dallas. It was Washington's first win there since 1984. "They were the toast of the town," says Skins guard R.C. Thielemann. "Sort of the Rockys of the league. Anytime you beat Dallas, it's a big win around here. I don't care if it's a peewee league."
November 2, 1987
Still, Sunday was tie-a-yellow-ribbon day at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. The hot-dog vendors returned to their stands, their sympathy walkout over. Most all the seats (there were 2,173 no-shows) were actually warmed by fannies, the longest string of sellouts—159—in NFL history having ended when nearly 10,000 fans turned in their tickets for the Oct. 4 strike game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Even the Democrats came back to owner Jack Kent Cooke's luxury box.
So, to welcome the union boys back to work, the 53,497 fans at RFK booed enthusiastically and often. They booed Monk's three straight flubs, which were part of a remarkable string of four consecutive drops by the Skins, which, in turn, were part of eight drops by Washington for the afternoon. They booed Schroeder, who overthrew three outrageously open Smurfs. They even booed the Gibber himself—Redskins coach Joe Gibbs—who ran starting halfback Keith (brother of Archie) Griffin to the exhaustion of their patience. In short, RFK reeked with boos—until, of course, the Skins won the game.
When Ali Haji-Sheikh kicked a simple 28-yard field goal with 54 seconds remaining in the game to give Washington a sneaky, come-from-nine-back victory, the formerly bitter customers, the fans who had brought a sign that read: BOY, ARE WE GLAD YOU'RE BACK!? roared with delight. Breaking up is hard to do. Haji-Sheikh was unwooed. "We didn't have to do much to capture the fans back," he said.
Ah, well, Skins loyalists never were any good at holding grudges. And who could be so petty now that Washington has a 5-1 record and a two-game lead in the NFC East? Not one Redskin regular crossed the line, so there are no scars to heal as there are on some other teams (page 86). Only one replacement player, tight end Craig McEwen, made the varsity, and he was banished to third string. Further, the four weeks off gave some Washington regulars a chance to heal. In fact, 10 first-stringers, including Schroeder (shoulder) and standout defensive end Dexter Manley (knee), were damaged goods the day the strike was called. All but two of them, running backs Kelvin Bryant (hamstring) and George Rogers (sprained shoulder and big toe), were close to 100% by Sunday. Perhaps Cooke ought to take union boss Gene Upshaw someplace nice for dinner. Maybe he could buy him a tie while he's at it.
"The replacement team put us in a position to go as far as we like," said Gibbs before the game with the Jets. "That's what I like. Now it's up to our guys to either get the job done or not."
Compare this with the situation confronting the poor Jets, who were 2-0 before the strike and then watched oafs in their uniforms lose two of three games in disunion ball. Ten Jets crossed the line, including their spat-upon defensive end, Mark Gastineau; their captain, Joe Fields; and their guru, Marty Lyons. The Jets had enough ill will left over from the strike to fill Rockefeller Center. "Things will never be the same," said New York wideout Al Toon before the game. "Everything has changed. People are in a different frame of mind. You can't forget what's happened."
One thing you can forget, however, is the notion that team solidarity during the strike will count for anything on the field. Here was Washington, Team Together, playing the Jets, Team Inner Strife, and they were nearly equal. Both were atrocious for the first three quarters. Rust never sleeps. How atrocious? Witness the moments just after the second-half curtain went up:
•Washington was assessed two penalties in its first five plays and then punted 20 yards.
•Given gorgeous field position, New York proceeded to go directly backward—from the Skins' 43 to the Jets' own 43. Punt.
•The Redskins were called for a penalty on the punt return. Then Monk dropped his first pass of the day. Griffin ran for 13 yards. Monk dropped another pass. Monk dropped another pass. Deciding to give Monk's hands a breather, Schroeder threw a third-down pass to Bryant—in a moment we'll explain how he and his hamstring got involved in this mess—who, naturally, dropped it. Punt.
Games like this make Washingtonians go home and flip on the Mondale Campaign highlights film. "Everybody wasn't on the same page today," said Schroeder afterward. No, everybody wasn't even in the same bookstore.
The Redskins had taken a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter on a 20-yard Schroeder-to-Gary Clark touchdown pass, but they had done next to nothing since. In fact, until Washington's final two drives, Schroeder had completed only 9 of 28 passes for 164 yards with one interception. He had at least three chances to throw surefire TD passes and overthrew all of them. But, then, he underthrew quite a few others, too. "I figured the fans were going to boo before I got on the field," said Schroeder afterward. "But at least they waited until I had thrown my first incomplete pass."
If Schroeder's worthy counterpart, Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien, had been given even a moment to find an open receiver, New York would have gotten its first win ever over the Redskins in four tries. Three of the four times the Jets moved inside the Washington 20, their instruments failed, and they had to settle for field goals. Two Pat Leahy three-pointers and one O'Brien blitz-read TD pass to tight end Mickey Shuler gave the Jets a 13-7 lead. On the kickoff after Leahy's second field goal, Griffin, who earlier had fumbled from scrimmage, dropped the ball. It bounced back into his hands, but Griffin only reached the Washington 10. After three Schroeder incompletions, the Skins had to punt from their end zone. The Jets promptly drove to the Washington four, where Leahy booted a 21-yard field goal to put them ahead 16-7.
Twice during all this, Gibbs had asked Bryant if his "twitching hamstring" felt good enough for him to go in. Twice Bryant, who had been in for just a few plays, had said, "No, coach, it's still a little tight." But now, with 7:54 left, Gibbs wasn't an inquiring mind. He sent Bryant in to replace Griffin—this time to stay. All Bryant did was wreck the Jets.
The biggest play came when Schroeder dumped a pass over the middle to Bryant, who on one hamstring goes approximately as fast as a BMW and might inspire loathing if you could get him on two. He bolted 39 yards to the New York seven. Three plays later the Kelvinator did a simple down-and-out on Jets linebacker Bob Crable in the end zone. Schroeder's two-yard pass was on the money, and the Skins were within two, 16-14. "I was surprised he put me in," said Bryant, "but I guess I did a pretty good job." Well, only if you consider 17 yards running, 67 catching and a touchdown in one eighth of a game a pretty good job.
Now was when the Jets had to come through. Now was when they didn't. In fact, they did worse. Not only did they not score, but they also held on to the ball for only 2 minutes and 10 seconds and wasted a timeout to boot. O'Brien got sacked on second down, this time by Dave Butz. Butz had spent the night before in the hospital with the flu.
So Schroeder and his Skins set up at their own 21, which was 79 yards from fan redemption. A bomb to the nearly unused wide receiver, Ricky Sanders, picked up 39 yards. That left Washington at the New York 29. Just before the two-minute warning, Bryant put a sciatica-inducing move on two Jet linebackers for 14 more yards.
On came Haji-Sheikh, who had been walking around for four weeks with the memory of a kicking disaster in Atlanta that had cost his team a win in the last non-Scabskins game. Was he nervous? "Nah, I had the easy part," said Haji-Sheikh. "Those guys worked so hard to get close, it seemed like it'd be a shame to miss it." So, what the heck, he made it. Welcome home, Skins. We hardly knew ya.
"So much has happened," said Gibbs. "It seems the season is 16 weeks old, and we've only played six games." Seems true. Can we not even be at the halfway point yet? Is Bo Jackson All-Hobby yet? And does it not seem a lock that Washington will be in the NFC championship game? The Skins' defense is strong—it never let the Jets move more than 50 yards on a drive—Schroeder will surely be his usual sharp self again soon, and the next time Monk drops three straight passes, Pat Schroeder will be president. Too, the Redskins seem to be a group that can focus on one goal. Remember the '82 strike? Remember who won the Super Bowl? Only in D.C. do politics and odd-shaped leather balls go well together. "As hard as we fought for the union, that's how hard we're going to fight for the Super Bowl," says player rep and linebacker Neal Olkewicz.
As for the Jets, they're 3-3 and need to find: 1) an offensive line, 2) the group of terrorists that kidnapped the real Gastineau, and 3) some peace in the locker room. "They say teams that are healthy at the end of the year win," New York defensive end Barry Bennett told Newsday. "But I think it will be the teams that are mentally healthy that are winning this year." You know you're deep into the '80s when mental health takes a seat in an NFL locker room.
Yet, despite the defeat, O'Brien was satisfied. "It's still good to be back out where we belong, out playing football," he said. So that's what that was.