On little dancing feet the NFL's three run-and-shoot teams paraded into the divisional round of the playoffs last weekend. The Detroit Lions were magnificent indoors. The Houston Oilers had some fine moments in the thin Colorado air. But the poor Atlanta Falcons ran into a pair of misfortunes that their dink-and-dunk, drive-you-crazy brethren didn't have to face: 1) the weather, which came up rainy and windy in Washington last Saturday, making for a soggy RFK Stadium that was unforgiving of all those little wideouts and their nifty cuts, and 2) a Redskins coaching staff that not only had two weeks to prepare for this game, which was bad enough, but also a year to prepare for the run-and-shoot, which was pure murder.
The result was a 24-7 Redskins victory in which the Falcons generated only 193 yards of offense. The groundwork for Washington's success was laid a year ago when the 1991 schedule came out. "As soon as I saw that we were going to play all three of those teams," Skins coach Joe Gibbs said after the win, "I told my staff, 'We're going to have to work real hard against this thing in the off-season.' "
Gibbs, whose background is Air Coryell, likes the run-and-shoot. "We're definitely going to incorporate some of it into our offense next year," he said. But the guy who had to devise the defense to stop it is a hard-eyed Louisianian named Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator, who learned his football as an oversized safety with George Halas's Chicago Bears and George Allen's original Over the Hill Gang in Washington. Petitbon's reaction to the run-and-shoot is the curled lip.
"I've said all along that I don't like that offense because it puts too much pressure on one man—the quarterback," he said. "If he has a bad day, if the weather comes bad for him, like it did today, then the whole thing is in trouble."
All those long hours in the meeting room and on the practice field prepping for the run-and-shoot paid off for Gibbs and his staff this year. In the regular season Washington walloped Atlanta 56-17 and Detroit 45-0, and squeaked by Houston 16-13 in overtime, holding the Oilers to 267 yards, their second-lowest total of the year. And now it was time for a rematch with the Falcons, a wild-card entry in the playoffs, with the emphasis on wild.
What a carnival Atlanta brought to town: Coach Jerry Glanville strode across the Falcons' hotel lobby in his cowboy hat and all-black attire, with a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate; the rap star Hammer, in soft velvet, sat in on the team meeting Friday night; heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, in leather, stood on the sideline during the game; and loud music blared everywhere.
"Hey, I love it," Atlanta defensive end Tim Green said on Friday. "If you're at a carnival, kick back, relax and enjoy the sights and sounds, because it's fun, and how many guys in the NFL can say that? And I think you'll notice that when the whistle sounds, everything changes, and we play as hard as anyone in the league."
Yep, this was a gang of impossible dreamers. Twice this season the Falcons looked whipped against the New Orleans Saints, but they clawed their way back on each occasion and won, the last time by 27-20 in the first round of the playoffs, to set up the return bout with Washington. Sure, the Redskins had wiped Atlanta out in November, but since then the Falcons had won six of seven. They were hot.
And then came the rain. Fat, heavy drops. A muddy field. Soaking ball and wideouts and quarterback.
Petitbon had drawn up a defense that included three linebackers in the base alignment, a rarity against the run-and-shoot, against which defenses usually employ an extra defensive back or two. But this was an unusual trio of linebackers.
The outside men, Andre Collins and Wilber Marshall, are cat-quick. The guy usually in the middle, 260-pound Matt Millen, whom the Skins acquired this year to stuff the run, was deactivated—Saturday's game was the first Millen had missed in 12 years. It just wasn't Millen's kind of game. His spot in the lineup went to one of the anonymous Skins who always manage to surface around playoff time: Kurt Gouveia, a fifth-year pro out of Brigham Young, where he sometimes played an outside spot. His main role in Washington had been as second-down middle linebacker. Honest, that's how specialized the Skins are; against most teams, Millen's in on first down, Gouveia plays on second, and Monte Coleman, who has been chasing receivers and blitzing the passer for 13 years, is the third-down guy.
On Saturday the safeties, Brad Edwards and Danny Copeland, lined up left and right, rather than strong and weak. In long-yardage situations, a little guy, Sidney Johnson, came in for Copeland; a nickelback, A.J. Johnson, came in for Collins; and Coleman appeared for Gouveia. The Skins opened in a double zone, with the cornerbacks pressing, and All-Pro Darrell Green lined up opposite the Falcons' most dangerous outside receiver, Michael Haynes. The safeties backed the corners up deep. When Atlanta started completing crossing patterns, Washington brought the safeties up.
It all worked beautifully. Gouveia made two big plays, diving for an interception and knocking the ball loose from Haynes for a fumble on the only pass he caught all game. Coleman came up with another of the four interceptions thrown by Atlanta quarterback Chris Miller, who was slipping and sliding on his setups as he tried to find receivers who were having just as much trouble keeping their feet. "Yeah, the run-and-shoot has problems in this kind of weather," Miller said. "But anyone would have had trouble throwing the ball today."
Washington quarterback Mark Rypien threw just enough (14 for 29,170 yards) to keep the Skins on the move, and the Washington offense, with an average weight advantage of 31 pounds per man, simply wore down the Atlanta defense. Washington's tailbacks, rookie Ricky Ervins (23 carries for 104 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown run) and Earnest Byner (14 for 57), pounded the Falcons.
So in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, the Redskins meet the last run-and-shoot survivor, the Lions, whose offense reached an absolute frenzy against the Dallas Cowboys. Detroit can run the ball, Atlanta couldn't; the Lions' Erik Kramer is the hottest passer in the playoffs so far. The Skins will be waiting.