They are always steady in times of turmoil, always collect their 10 or 11 or 12 wins and are always ready to step in when the glamour teams are floundering. Their coach preaches strength of organization. Their owner antes up whatever it takes to keep the talent and the coaching staff in place. Now the Washington Redskins are 6-0, and everyone is asking, "Are they really that good?"
For some reason, Washington has never been accepted as a marquee team. The Redskins' two Super Bowl victories came in the strike seasons, 1982 and '87, and that has been turned into a negative, despite the fact that in '87 not one Washington veteran crossed the picket line. The Skins won all three of their strike games that year, even beating the Dallas Cowboys, who had Tony Dorsett and Randy White and Too Tall Jones. Beat 'em with a bunch of guys named Marvin. That victory has got to be one of Joe Gibbs's most remarkable coaching feats.
When the 1980s drew to a close, the Pro Football Writers of America naturally chose Bill Walsh as Coach of the Decade. But did they pick Gibbs—whose Skins had been in three Super Bowls during the decade and had won two of them, whose teams had won more games than anyone else except the San Francisco 49ers—as the runner-up? No, Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers came in second. Gibbs got stiffed. People just couldn't get excited about Gibbs or his Redskins.
Going into last weekend, the NFC's showcase teams from 1990 were in trouble. The Niners and the New York Giants were both 2-3. Giants fans were having a hard time figuring out whom to boo: the quarterback, the coach, the defense, life in general? In San Francisco, the medical watch on Joe Montana hogged the headlines. Meanwhile, the Skins were quietly going about their business and ringing up three shutouts—as many in five games as the Chicago Cubs had in 155.
When Washington traveled to Soldier Field for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, the "yes, buts" followed them. Sure, the Skins had crushed the Detroit Lions in their season opener, but Barry Sanders was out with bruised ribs. The next week, against Dallas, Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys broke a 75-yarder in the first quarter, but he saw only limited action after that because of a stomach ailment. Washington then shut out the Phoenix Cardinals, but their quarterback, Tom Tupa, who was making only his third NFL start, was still getting his feet wet. James Brooks, the Cincinnati Bengals' fine little all-purpose back, was hobbled by an ankle injury in the Skins' victory over the Bengals, and, of course, the Week 5 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles saw the departure in the first quarter of Philly quarterback Jim McMahon, who strained a knee ligament.
Chicago was next, with no cop-outs available. The Bears had had some squeaky wins of their own, but they were 4-1, they were at home and Gibbs had won two straight over Mike Ditka. No one had ever gotten a consecutive hat trick on Iron Mike. Final score: Skins 20, Bears 7.
Washington's offense started flat, its first three series ending in punts and the next one in an interception. A wake-up call was needed, and the defense, which was performing at the same high level that had marked its play all season, provided it. The Bears had 30 yards at the end of the first quarter, 93 at the half—and no points. Chicago quarterback Jim Harbaugh was getting rushed, his receivers were getting whacked around and were dropping the ball, and Neal Anderson had no holes to run through.
In the second quarter the Skins got a field goal and a 74-yard touchdown drive to go up 10-0. Chicago got back to 10-7 on a third-quarter march, but then the turnovers came, and it was all over for the Bears. An interception off a deflected Harbaugh pass set up a short scoring drive for a second Washington TD, and Redskins linebacker Wilber Marshall pressured Harbaugh into throwing another interception, which set up a field goal. That was it. The Bears ran out of downs on their next possession, and Marshall intercepted a pass in the end zone the last time they had the ball.
Even after this no-apologies win, people still want to know how good the Redskins really are. Plenty good. Better than the Giants at this point, and the 49ers and the Bears. Better than the 5-0 New Orleans Saints? A tough one—depends on where they're playing. At RFK Stadium, yes, Washington is better. At the Super-dome, with the fans raising hell and the Saints' defense playing out of its mind, who knows? We'll find out in the playoffs—maybe. Better than the Buffalo Bills, the best team in the AFC? That's too far down the road, and Gibbs doesn't like all this premature chatter.
"It's ridiculous to start putting us in the Super Bowl," he says. "The last time the Redskins started 6-0 was in 1978, and they wound up out of the playoffs. Two years later Jack Pardee got fired. Still, there's something about this team. It's a close-knit, smart, hard-working bunch. I've had good feelings about teams before, sometimes four games into the season, sometimes six. I've got those feelings now. I had them right off the bat for some reason. I love coaching this team.
"The mix just seems to be perfect. At the heart of the team you've got that nucleus of older guys, every one a leader, guys who have been here as long or almost as long as the 11 years I've been here—Art Monk, Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic, Monte Coleman, Darrell Green, Charles Mann, Donny Warren—tremendous people. These aren't loud guys who talk a lot on the field, but when things were tough last season, when we were struggling, they took it on themselves to turn it around. They got together, held meetings, and we won four of our last five and got in the playoffs. They've kept it going this year."
There's also just enough young talent: linebacker Andre Collins, the star of last season's playoff win over the Eagles; Brian Mitchell, who's leading the league in punt returns; and rookie tailback Ricky Ervins, who's still on spot duty. "He doesn't have the scheme down yet," says Gibbs of Ervins, "but when he's ready, he's going to make a lot of yards, and I'm going to get criticized for not having used him sooner."
Recent trades and Plan B signings have paid off for the Skins, too, bringing them four defensive linemen plus middle linebacker Matt Millen and tailback Earnest Byner, who ranks third among NFC rushers and fits perfectly into Gibbs's basic plan for a punishing ground game to serve as a launching pad for his imaginative offense. The most intriguing deal, though, was the one that brought Marshall from the Bears in 1988. In Chicago he had been a two-time Pro Bowl player, a havoc linebacker who was gifted playing in space (rushing the quarterback or dropping into deep coverage). But Marshall played out his option, and Washington got him for two first-round draft choices. The Skins gave him $6 million over five years and plugged him into defensive coach Richie Petitbon's rather complicated scheme, in which he became a cog but hardly the impact player he'd been for the Bears. "Disappointing" was the word you heard.
This year Marshall was switched from the right side, generally the side without the tight end, to the left, into the heavy traffic. Gibbs made the move because Marshall is sturdier against the run than Collins. "What people don't understand is that we originally got him to play the run," says Gibbs. "The fans tend to measure everything in sacks, and that's unfair to him. We needed a run-stopper."
Marshall has again blossomed into the monster he was in Chicago. On Sunday, besides making one interception and forcing another, he had 10 solo tackles and one assist, and deflected two passes. Marshall is on a pace to become Washington's first Pro Bowl linebacker since Chris Hanburger of the George Allen teams.
Marshall and Green, a veteran cornerback who's having his best season, are the most visible members of a defense that is the ultimate in situation substitution. Any of the four linemen can switch from end to tackle or vice versa. Millen is the middle linebacker on first-down plays, Kurt Gouveia replaces him on second down and a defensive back comes in for the third-down nickel package, but you also can see wild-card linebacker Ravin Caldwell in there at unexpected times.
Millen, who was acquired in the off-season, was at first a bit upset at his lack of playing time, but he found there are compensations. "The way they're using me," he says, "I can play till I'm 60. One thing, though, is that I'm stronger than I've ever been. Less playing means more lifting, and strength has always been a trademark of the Redskins. They've always been the strongest team in the league."
Indeed, Washington's hog-style ground game has gotten new oomph, now that the 6'7", 314-pound Jacoby has settled in at tackle on the right, or power, side. But the effectiveness of the Skins' running has overshadowed the sophistication of their passing attack. Gibbs has taken the three-wideout set, which is part of his basic offense, to new heights. He can line up the three receivers to spread the defense or he can line them up tight, designing the plays so that one receiver always breaks free. But most of all, he has a feel for attacking the defense at its weakest moment. Of course, having the best trio of wide-outs around—Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders and Monk-helps, but the concepts are always subtle.
The one question mark was Mark Rypien, the 29-year-old quarterback. He was known to be courageous—he came back early from a knee injury last year to lead the final push—but he had a history of getting hurt. He also went through one tough season, in 1989, of coughing up the ball on sacks. "That's behind me," says Rypien. "They used to have drills in camp where they had four linemen chase me, all trying to knock the ball loose. That cured me. My main goal now is to complete a 16-game season without injury."
So the elements are all in place for a big year. Perhaps Charley Casserly, Washington's general manager, puts it best. "In 1983, when we were 14-2, we had unbelievable intensity," he says. "We went out and played every game like it was a playoff. I see the same thing this year."