The night before the undefeated Washington Redskins were to play the 7-1 Houston Oilers, Washington linebacker Monte Coleman looked at his teammates as they drifted onto the practice field for their final tune-up. Two portable light towers, powered by chugging generators, gave about as much illumination to the turf as a full moon. "Looks like Field of Dreams, doesn't it?" said Coleman, a 13-year veteran, wistfully. "When the players came walking out of the cornfield?"
Just a little bit—if you could picture 5'7", 200-pound rookie running back Ricky Ervins as Shoeless Joe Jackson, and 6'7", 310-pound veteran tackle Joe Jacoby as Buck Weaver, and an industrial park in northern Virginia as Iowa farmland. But Coleman, just a sentimental old fool who flourishes in Washington's nickel defense, wasn't far off in his reverie, because these Redskins are becoming the stuff of legend.
On Sunday they moved another step closer by beating the Oilers 16-13 in overtime to raise their record to 9-0, the Skins' best start in their 55-year history. This is a classic Washington team, with a fine blend of old players, young players, overachievers, gifted athletes and retreads. The Skins have a stone-wall defense, a solid offense, good special teams, the same coach they have had for 11 years, Hogs, backup Hogs and a piglet in Ervins. And, most assuredly, they have luck, perhaps the truest hallmark of a great team.
With the score 13-13 and :04 left in regulation time on Sunday, Houston lined up for a 33-yard field goal, only 13 yards longer than for an extra point, a certain game-winner. Just 1:38 before, the Oilers had tied the game on Lorenzo White's one-yard touchdown blast, which completed a 79-yard, 10-play drive. Then Houston had recovered ace Washington returner Brian Mitchell's fumble on the ensuing kickoff. What a lift this would be for the Oilers, for their much-debated run-and-shoot offense—which is not supposed to work on grass, on the road, in noisy stadiums, inside the 20, below the equator, in months with an r in them—and for their coach, Jack Pardee, who had not been to RFK Stadium since the Redskins fired him after the 1980 season.
However, Houston rookie kicker Ian Howfield hooked the ball wide to the left, Skins cornerback Darrell Green intercepted a Warren Moon pass in overtime, and Washington's Chip Lohmiller kicked a 41-yard field goal to end the game and dash the Oilers' bid for an upset. "I feel we lost a game we shouldn't have lost, to a team we're better than," said Houston defensive end Sean Jones in the locker room afterward. A lot of his teammates felt the same way.
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was happy just to have escaped with his 122nd victory since succeeding Pardee in 1981. "I saw it all pass before my eyes today," he said. "We had a chance to win, then lose, then win it again, and then lose it before finally winning."
But that pendulum keeps ending up in the W column for the Skins. One of the reasons is the way backups, castoffs and free agents seem to blossom in Washington. When Pro Bowl tackles Jacoby and Jim Lachey went down with sprained knees midway through Sunday's game, backup Hogs Russ Grimm and Mark Adickes filled in for them without missing a grunt; they helped spring running back Earnest Byner on a fourth-quarter TD run of 23 yards and did not allow a sack. Defensive backs Danny Copeland, Brad Edwards and Martin Mayhew, all Plan B free-agent pickups, had big games too, with Edwards, the free safety, intercepting a Moon pass and returning it 27 yards in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Alvoid Mays, who made two tackles, was packing orange juice in Florida last year when the Redskins invited him to camp.
"The character of our team has to stand out more than anything," said Byner, who stood out himself with 21 carries for 112 yards. A 10th-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1984, Byner went to Washington in '89 in an even-up trade for running back Mike Oliphant. Byner has rushed for 714 yards this year and is in line for his second straight Pro Bowl appearance.
On the other hand, it wasn't necessarily out of character for Howfield to misfire on a field goal try. Entering the game, he had been off target on five of nine attempts from beyond the 30, and the week before he had missed two extra points against the Cincinnati Bengals, giving him four errant PATs for the season. His holder, wide receiver Frank Miotke, was released last Friday, so punter Greg Montgomery handled the placements against Washington.
On the potential game-winner, Montgomery did not spin the ball so that the laces pointed downfield. Instead, he left them facing to the left side, which may have contributed to Howfield's hook. "He doesn't want me to spin it," said Montgomery later. "If you hit it pure, it shouldn't matter. He feels really terrible."
"It's unfortunate that the game often comes down to kicking," said Pardee philosophically.
Indeed, it is unfortunate, but a game has to be close for kicking to spell the difference. And this game was nothing if not close. Going in, a good showdown was expected, because both Washington and Houston had whipped opponents soundly. The Redskins had outscored their foes 248-95, while the Oilers had outscored theirs 231-105. Though in different conferences and sharing only one opponent, Cincinnati, in the first half of the season, the two teams had remarkably similar stats. Both had averaged 4.2 yards per rush, and both had completed 61% of their passes. Both had scored 29 touchdowns, while Washington had given up 11 touchdowns to Houston's 12. Their average time of possession was only eight seconds apart—32:17 for the Oilers, 32:09 for the Redskins.
The weird thing was how different their offenses were, how strange it was that two travelers could get to the same place—one by mule, one by whippet. The Redskins play it safe, using three tight ends at times, pounding the ball, eating up the clock until quarterback Mark Rypien throws some play-action passes or goes deep to his wondrous trio of wide receivers, Gary Clark, Art Monk and Ricky Sanders.
Tucked nicely into that package is the fleet piglet, Ervins, a third-round draft pick from Southern Cal, who acknowledges that he sometimes goes under tackles. Two weeks ago he gained 82 yards on 20 carries in the second half against the New York Giants. Two weeks before that he had 133 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries in the second half against the Browns.
Houston, of course, would stick with its run-and-shoot—with its four wideouts, its lack of a tight end and its reliance on the timing, the reads and the footing of the receivers as well as on the skill of the deft, cannon-armed Moon. The question was: How would the run-and-shoot fare in an extremely hostile environment? Could it stand up to the Redskins defense and work on grass amid the noise and possible foul weather at RFK?
Washington's defense also wasn't without its worries. "The biggest burden for defensive backs is reading a lot of routes," said Edwards last Saturday. "They have guys all over and 30 to 40 yards downfield. It's like third down every down." Washington's assistant head coach/defense, Richie Petitbon, was less in awe of the Houston offense but just as concerned. "Myself, I'd rather have more options, have some tight ends," he said the day before the game. "But they obviously don't agree with my opinion. And you can't fault what they've done."
The Skins would substitute a lot on defense, he added, sometimes inserting six defensive backs to counter the pass. "They could kill us tomorrow, kill anybody," Petitbon said. "But they're not winning because of the run-and-shoot. The Oilers have got talent, man. They could run any type ball they want."
During the week Houston was mostly concerned about achieving its potential. "You can be around a long time and not have the pieces we do," said Pardee. "There's no need to wait till next year. Look at the ages of some of our players—Warren [Moon, 35] and Drew [Hill, 35]—how much longer for them?"
"Somebody said this will be Super Bowl XXV½," said Oiler defensive end William Fuller during the week. "I don't know about that, but this is our biggest test—on the road, versus a great team, in front of that crowd, as underdogs."
One thing that both teams felt good about was defense; Washington's was ranked third in the league and Houston's sixth. Each unit is led by a revitalized linebacker, the Skins' by eight-year veteran Wilber Marshall, the Oilers' by second-year man Lamar Lathon. Marshall, who struggled in 1989 and '90 after coming to the Skins from the Chicago Bears in '88, plays like a huge strong safety, and the 6'3", 250-pound Lathon, who performed poorly last year, now runs around like a mean man in a very foul mood. One day last week he was furious after practice because someone had hidden his car keys—again. Then, on Sunday, he had six tackles, assisted on another, broke up a pass, forced a fumble and made an interception. Afterward, said Lathon, "I feel like I can do anything out there now. It's a feeling—I don't want to sound like a braggart—but I feel invincible."
While the run-and-shoot didn't fail against Washington—Moon finished with 250 yards passing on 25 completions in 44 attempts—it seemed almost ordinary, nothing special at all. The conditions were perfect for football—cool and dry, with little wind. The Oiler running backs gained only 19 yards on 13 carries, showing how important it is to have somebody, like a Barry Sanders, who can pick his way through holes in an offense such as the run-and-shoot.
Houston took a 6-3 lead at the half, after Lohmiller had kicked a 21-yard field goal and Howfield had followed with boots of 24 and 23 yards. Both teams had some very long, time-consuming drives, but the game seemed fated from the start to end up on one of the two kickers' right in-steps. Which it did—the same way golf tournaments end up on the blade of those godforsaken putters.
"You can run, but you can't hide," said Howfield, who stood up bravely to the press after the game and answered every last question about his worth, mental status and job security. "Last week I stormed out of the locker room. I know I'm in for a hell of a week, too. The papers are going to say, 'Cut the sonofabitch. You think you're a Super Bowl team?' "
It turned out the Oilers didn't wait for the media's advice; they cut Howfield when he reported to the practice facility on Monday. "I had a long road to get here, and it's going to be a long road to get back, but I'm not going to give up," Howfield, who kicked for the Oklahoma Twisters of the Minor League Football Alliance last season, said after Pardee delivered the bad news. "That's part of my business, but I'll tell you what: When I get my next shot, I'm going to remember this day, because it hurts."