Like low thunder rolling up the Potomac, there were rumblings last week in Washington that maybe the mighty Redskins were dead. The 1992 Super Bowl champs had been gunned down 23-10 by the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener on Monday Night Football, looking out-of-sync, listless, predictable, stupid and dull before keeling over. Cowboy head coach Jimmy Johnson had said, postgame, "I told a couple of the coaches we'd win this, but it's the Giant game next week that worries me." Looking past the Redskins? Holy Hogflesh, what a changeable world this is.
To complicate matters, arriving in the nation's capital for the Redskins' home opener were the nasty 1-0 Atlanta Falcons, with their blazing Red Gun offense, gambling defense and everybody from coach to ball boy dressed like Darth Vader wannabes. Somewhere in the skies over Atlanta outfielder/base runner/defensive back/kick returner Deion Sanders prepared to parachute in for his football spectacular, and suddenly the Redskins were looking at a possible 0-2 start.
To accumulate two losses usually takes the Redskins about four months, not six days. Washington fans, spoiled by a decade of Redskin dominance that has included three Super Bowl championships, were not pleased by the prospect. On a sunny and serene day, fans at RFK Stadium lustily booed quarterback Mark Rypien as he trotted out for the pregame introductions. If the putative Redskin corpse had a head, Rypien was it. Never mind that he was the MVP of Super Bowl XXVI—what had he done for anybody with a hog snout lately?
Rypien had held out during the preseason before signing a reported three-year, $9 million contract and then hadn't looked sharp against Dallas. But there had been failure aplenty in the opener: All-Pro left tackle Jim Lachey, also a holdout with a new contract, had looked like a green light for pass rushers; rookie return specialist Desmond Howard, another holdout with a big contract, had mostly stood on the sidelines, showing fewer moves than his Heisman statue; Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith had scooted through the Redskin defense like a rabbit through a carrot patch.
And then there were Washington's (less than) special teams, which conspired to have a punt blocked for a safety before giving up a 79-yard touchdown return on another punt. "We need the fervor we had in the past," said nervous special teams coach Wayne Sevier before the Falcon game. "It's a fine, fine line between 8-8 and Super Bowl champs."
Even head coach Joe Gibbs, who listed "bad coaching" as the main reason for the Dallas embarrassment, wasn't sure which side of that line his team was on. "It's going to take all of us, across the board, to improve," he said. "We have to set goals and work on getting there. How long that takes—that's the question."
Not long, as it turned out. The Redskins whipped the Falcons 24-17 in a game of droning, Redskin-style, grind-it-out meticulousness, sparked by exactly three episodes of high excitement. Well, maybe four, if you count Washington linebacker Kurt Gouveia's diving end zone interception of a Chris Miller pass in the fourth quarter that killed Atlanta's comeback hopes. Or five, if you count Rypien's five-yard TD pass to Earnest Byner for a 7-0 second-period lead. Or maybe six, if you throw in Rypien's sweet 16-yard pass to wideout Gary Clark for the TD that gave Washington a 21-7 lead, just before the half. But there was a trio of plays—all in the second quarter—that took the air right out of your gut, plays that let you see again why a man running with a ball while other men try unsuccessfully to stop him is the most exciting thing in sport.
Play number 1 occurred when Atlanta's Scott Fulhage punted to the Skins' Brian Mitchell, who caught the ball and started running up the right side of the field. A former quarterback at Southwest Louisiana, Mitchell abruptly stopped and fired a bullet pass crossfield to Howard. The Heisman winner took the lateral and set sail on a 55-yard touchdown return up the left sideline, stepping over Fulhage en route and showing just why the Redskins wheeled and dealed to get him in the first round of the NFL draft last April.
In the locker room after the game Howard wore a T-shirt that read BEFORE THERE WAS ANY HISTORY, THERE WAS BLACK HISTORY and held a game ball aloft. He smiled over his own entry into NFL history and laughed at the way Deion Sanders had given him just 18 seconds of game time to bask in the limelight before stealing the beam for himself. Which brings us to....
Play number 2. Neon Deion, who had just joined the Falcons after working out a lucrative deal, according to which he will be speeding between the Falcon practice facility in Suwanee and Brave games at Fulton County Stadium—or taking a helicopter as he did once last year—gathered in the ensuing kickoff at the one-yard line and took off for second, er, the middle of the field. He blew past would-be tackier Alvoid Mays, headed right, sidestepped a diving Danny Copeland, then outran everybody to pay dirt. When he crossed home plate, uh, the goal line, Sanders did a nice dance that, were it done on the diamond rather than the gridiron, would certainly earn him an earful of horsehide on his next at bat. After the game Sanders had nothing to say to the press, but he did allow the scribes to witness his getting on the team bus, rather than a spaceship, to leave the stadium.
Play number 3 occurred after the Falcons, down 21-7, had gone backward on their first two plays of the series and faced second-and-19 at their own 11. Miller dropped back and fired a pass to wideout Michael Haynes, the former Big Sky Conference 100- and 200-meter champion, who had faked Redskin cornerback Darrell Green to the ground and broken free up the middle. With the ball nestled in his left arm, Haynes lit out for the end zone as Green, three-time winner of the NFL's Fastest Man competition, recovered and rocketed after him. Exactly 89 yards from the line of scrimmage, Haynes, untouched, was declared the winner. The whole thing was over faster than a long sneeze. Let us now pronounce Mr. Haynes the Fastest Man in the NFL in Full Gear Carrying a Ball.
Unfortunately, both Haynes and Green were injured later in the game (Green broke his right forearm and will miss at least four weeks; Haynes sprained his right shoulder and will be out at least one week) and were not around afterward to comment on their footrace. But here are a couple of friendly tips to the Falcons, whose run-and-shoot attack often seems to falter inside the opponent's 20 (as it did twice against the Redskins in the fourth quarter): Develop a running game—Miller led the ground attack Sunday with 13 yards—and throw the ball to Haynes a little more. Here's a guy who averaged an astounding 44.9 yards per touchdown catch last year. Keep tossing it his way and sec if the whole thing's a fluke.
It's likely the Redskins, who had 24 first downs to the Falcons' seven, are back to their old winning ways. But some of the questions raised after the Dallas loss still hang like a vapor. Has success made the Skins fat and happy? Do they want another ring badly enough to fight off all attackers? "I don't think the Super Bowl had an effect on us," says guard Mark Schlereth. "But maybe it did on players on other teams. They're not going to roll over and die for us."
As for the dismal showing by the offense against the Cowboys, Lachey blames it on the crowd noise in Texas Stadium. "I had to watch the defensive man to know when to move," he says. And even the special teams' play in that game was limited by circumstance. "Burgundy [the name of the punt return play with the lateral to Howard] would have worked against Dallas, too," says Sevier. "But I wouldn't call it because Desmond hadn't run enough returns yet."
There has been speculation that the large number of born-again Christians on the Redskins—including Gibbs—has somehow made the team too goody-goody and fatalistic to stay at the top of a brutal game. An article in the September issue of The Washingtonian magazine describes how one player has "heard the voice of the Lord" during practice sessions, how born-again players supposedly have a better chance of sticking with the team, how running back Byner (91 yards on 22 carries against Atlanta) was baptized into the faith in, of all places, Green's Jacuzzi.
Safety Brad Edwards, born-again himself, shrugs off such implied criticism. "Getting baptized in Darrell's Jacuzzi is not high on the list of things to do," he says. "I wasn't baptized there. This is just a heart thing. Remember, the people who were attracted to Jesus were drunks and prostitutes. How can it be divisive? Love God, love each other."
But who, besides his teammates, loves Rypien? The boos at RFK were a shock to him. He's wealthy now, yes, but hasn't he produced for the fans? A family man, Catholic, humble, he talked before the game about how he has always tried to be a good role model for kids. But maybe, he added caustically, he would be better off acting like a "butthole," like so many other athletes.
When he was asked why he thought the fans had booed him, he said, grim-faced, "I don't know. I really don't."
No wonder so many Washington players throw in with the Big Guy from Bethlehem. At least He doesn't dog you after one bad night in Texas.