Forget those verbal tiffs involving Bush-Dukakis and Bentsen-Quayle. Among citizens of our nation's capital, the great debate of '88 is only now heating up. Who should quarterback the beloved Redskins? Veteran Doug Williams, who merely was MVP of the Super Bowl and had the Skins off to a 2-1 start before he underwent an emergency appendectomy on Sept. 21? Or the engaging upstart Mark Rypien, a 6'4", 234-pound second-year man out of Washington State who had never taken a snap in an NFL regular-season game until he was thrust into the starting role four weeks ago—and who now is the league's top-rated quarterback?
Rypien's four-touchdown, 303-yard passing performance on Sunday during Washington's 33-17 mashing of the are-they-for-real-or-not Phoenix Cardinals won't make Redskins coach Joe Gibbs's decision any easier when it comes time to pencil in a starter for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. This is the first week that Williams is eligible to come off injured reserve. Rypien's statistics as a starter: 70 completions in 116 attempts (60.3%), 1,075 total yards, 9.27 yards per attempt, 12 touchdowns, three interceptions. Compare those to Williams's three-game log—66 completions in 125 attempts (52.8%), 860 total yards, 6.88 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, three interceptions—and you've got the makings of a controversy.
"When you've got a boss man who makes the decision, there's no controversy," says Williams, doing his best to defuse the issue with good humor—a trait that sets him apart from former Washington quarterback Jay Schroeder, who was traded to the Raiders on Sept. 5 after going into a funk when Williams took over as starter at the end of last season. Said Williams, "I had more controversy when I was growing up and my little brother and I wanted the same bed. Now, that's controversy."
Rypien, who sat out most of the fourth quarter on Sunday with bruised ribs, agrees. "Whatever decision the coach makes, I'll live with," he says. "Doug and I are both team players. But it'll be frustrating for one of us."
October 23, 1988
As for Gibbs, he was noncommittal when asked who would start against the Packers. "They've both done about everything you could ask them to," he said. "But I will say I've never had a young quarterback come in and play as consistently and as smart as Mark. Everything we dreamed he might do, he's done."
With Sunday's win, which put the Redskins in a three-way tie for first in the NFC East with the still-surprising Cardinals and the New York Giants—all have 4-3 records—Washington seems to have answered another hotly debated question: Which version of the defending Super Bowl champs is the real one? For a while it looked as if it might be the injury-riddled, mistake-prone team that started the season with a 2-3 record, had a minus-eight in turnover ratio after five games and lost twice to the archrival Giants. But now it appears that the real Redskins are the juggernaut that had manhandled the Cowboys in Dallas, 35-17, the week before the game against Phoenix.
"This is a team that's still trying to establish an identity," said broadcaster and former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen last Friday. "So far the Skins haven't had any continuity."
The lack of continuity has been partially a result of injuries; cornerback Barry Wilburn, defensive ends Charles Mann and Dexter Manley, tight end Don Warren, linebacker Monte Coleman, center Russ Grimm and punters Steve Cox and Tom Barnhardt have all sat out at various times this season. It has also been partially because of an offense that, until Sunday, had failed to come up with the game-breaking plays. Running back Timmy Smith, a hero of last year's Super Bowl, had averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per carry this season behind the vaunted Hogs, who had been shuffled around like so many piggies going to market because of the addition of tackle Jim Lachey, who came over from the Raiders in the Schroeder deal, and an injury to All-Pro guard R.C. Thielemann. During Washington's 30-21 loss to Phoenix on Sept. 25, the Cardinals' defensive line, led by end Freddie Joe Nunn, dominated the Hogs and held Washington to 53 yards rushing. "They stuffed us," says Rypien, who was tackled for a safety and had a fumble returned for a touchdown in an otherwise respectable NFL debut (303 yards, three TDs and one interception).
"The big thing about the Cardinals is they've changed the hand techniques they use on the defensive line," says Skins right guard Mark May. "They slap you around a little more. They're playing to win, not just to keep their jobs."
Winning is not exactly second nature to the Cards, who went all 28 of their years in St. Louis without so much as one playoff victory. But third-year coach Gene Stallings seems to have infused a bunch of old hands with new life since the team's move to Phoenix. Led by veteran quarterback Neil Lomax, running backs Stump Mitchell and Earl Ferrell, and wideouts Roy Green and J.T. Smith, Phoenix recovered from losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cowboys at the start of the season to reel off four straight wins. During that streak, which was the Cardinals' longest since 1984 and gave them their best start since '76, Phoenix averaged 33 points a game. "Their offensive line is underrated," says Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard. "And big. Really big."
So big that they call themselves the Wide Bodies. Others simply call them fat. Whatever, with an average weight of 281, Lance Smith, Tootie Robbins, Luis Sharpe, Todd Peat and Derek Kennard have been opening holes that have been as generous as their waistlines. Going into Sunday's game, the Cards were averaging 159 yards rushing and 408 yards total offense a game, giving them the second most productive offense in the league. Said Smith earlier in the week, "We're sending a message to everyone in our division that we're for real."
And if Phoenix residents weren't exactly screaming "Ya gotta believe!" from the rooftops, at least they had stopped blaming the players for owner Bill Bidwill's decision to charge an average of $38 a seat to see a team that went 7-8 last year. "We can't get carried away yet and say, 'Here we come, Miami, for the Super Bowl!' " special teams star Ron Wolfley said last week. "But it's fun to put on your best jeans and walk into a nice restaurant and not get food thrown at you."
Wolfley better think about donning an apron after the Cardinals' performance on Sunday. They were outclassed by the Redskins, who, after falling behind 7-0, scored 33 of the next 36 points, with most of the yardage coming through the air. The Washington rally started when linebacker Ravin Caldwell, subbing for Monte Coleman, tackled Lomax for a safety after a 34-yard punt by Greg Coleman had pinned Phoenix back at its one-yard line. "The safety changed the momentum," said Lomax afterward. "It was a big turning point emotionally."
Rypien took the Redskins straight down the field after the ensuing free kick and connected on a 19-yard pass to a diving Art Monk in the right corner of the end zone for the first of his four TD passes. After a field goal put Phoenix back on top, Rypien threw a 47-yard first-down pass to Kelvin Bryant coming out of the backfield. Two plays later Rypien found Gary Clark on another 19-yard touchdown pass to put Washington on top to stay.
Bryant, who has been used primarily on second and third downs in his two-plus seasons with the Redskins, was making his first start of the year in the backfield. The week before, he'd come off the bench and destroyed the Cowboys with three TDs and a combined 200 yards rushing and catching. With Bryant in the lineup, particularly on first down, the Skins have a different look from their banging, wear-you-down style of the John Riggins and George Rogers eras. In the second quarter, for instance, on its eight first-down opportunities, Washington attempted to throw five times. Two of those passes went to Bryant, who finished the day with a nice balance of 68 yards receiving and 73 yards rushing.
The Redskins could have passed all day because the Cardinals' secondary was almost invisible. Rypien, a good-humored, self-effacing 26-year-old who was born in Calgary and raised in Spokane, looked away defenders, pump-faked and executed other moves that made it difficult to believe that two years ago he was the 146th choice in the NFL draft. He silenced any doubts about his gameness by threading a 46-yard touchdown pass to Monk one play after nearly getting his head ripped off by the rampaging Nunn. And for good measure Rypien scorched the Cardinals' secondary in the third quarter with a 60-yard pass to Clark, which resulted in the Redskins' longest touchdown of the year.
The Cards did extract an ounce or so of flesh early in the fourth quarter when Rypien mishandled a snap near the Cardinals' goal line and was slammed to the ground by a pair of defenders. At first he thought he had broken his collarbone, but the injury was diagnosed as bruised ribs. Rypien played one more series, then retired for the day because the pain in his chest made breathing agonizing.
Asked later if he would be ready to play against Green Bay, Rypien said, "Tuesday night should help me. That's when I go to Lamaze class with my wife. Not only might it help her breathe, it might help me breathe." Annette Rypien is due any day, and her husband reported, "Her hips and back have really been bothering her the last few days. Now we'll have something to compare when I go home tonight."
Now that Williams is back, Gibbs will have something to compare Rypien with, too.