The home team's locker room at Washington's RFK Stadium on
Sunday was filled with hoots, hollers, hugs and high fives. It
was the kind of reaction to be expected from any NFL team after
its sixth consecutive victory. One of the league's youngest
teams--and certainly its most improbable division leader--the
Washington Redskins had just completed an emotional 31-21 win
over the New York Giants. There was bubbly joy, then abrupt
silence. Coach Norv Turner, who had watched his Skins almost
squander a four-touchdown halftime lead, entered and prepared to
deliver a postgame speech. In such a scenario a coach might be
expected to act as a human cold shower, and the Redskins braced
themselves. "This was a learning experience," Turner began, "and
we have a lot to work on. For starters, we have to learn how to
take a 28-0 lead at the half and protect it." Players stared at
Turner blankly, and then he started laughing. "I think we'll
enjoy learning about that," he added. There were smiles all
around, and the celebration resumed.
Though it's premature to anoint Washington as one of the NFL's
elite teams, the Redskins have emerged as pro football's
feel-good story of 1996. Devoid of big names and large egos, the
young Skins are growing up together--and growing on their
audience. Watching them at this stage is like viewing a
well-wrought sitcom in its early episodes: The scenes are
superbly written and the actors talented, but the timing hasn't
been perfected. Inevitably Washington has had some awkward
moments, but, helped along by a weak schedule, it nonetheless
sits atop the NFC East with a 6-1 record, a game better than the
mark of the Philadelphia Eagles and two games better than that
of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. Along with the Denver
Broncos and the Green Bay Packers, the Redskins, who were 13-35
over the previous three seasons, have the NFL's best record.
Remember that Washington's victories have come against teams
with a combined record of 10-26. The opposition gets much
tougher beginning this Sunday, when the Skins host the
Indianapolis Colts. Thereafter come tests against the Buffalo
Bills, Dallas (twice), Philadelphia and the San Francisco 49ers.
"There's no story here," insists 14th-year cornerback Darrell
Green, whose 68-yard interception return for a touchdown was the
highlight of Washington's victory over the Giants. "We're
nowhere. We're nobody. We're just a young team trying to get to
where the great teams are."
Having played for two of the Redskins' three Super Bowl
champions, Green can be forgiven for his restraint. One good
reason for his caution: Only three other current
Skins--third-string tight end James Jenkins, backup halfback
Brian Mitchell and tackle Ed Simmons--played on the last
Washington team to win the Super Bowl, in 1991. All but seven
Redskins players have been brought in since Turner took over as
coach in 1994.
In addition to upgrading the talent, Turner and Skins general
manager Charley Casserly have made it a point to acquire quality
individuals. "We don't have a lot of partyers," says quarterback
Gus Frerotte, "and it seems like when our guys do party, we do
it together." For instance, each Monday night after a Washington
victory Frerotte hosts a gathering for offensive players at a
restaurant near the team's Ashburn, Va., training facility. Says
fullback Marc Logan, "This is like the biggest fraternity around."
No fraternity would be complete without some roughhousing, and
four days before the game against the Giants, the Redskins acted
like Phi Kappa Slappa. In the early stages of a full-pads
practice, linebacker Marvcus Patton got carried away during a
pass rush and slammed into backup quarterback Heath Shuler,
Washington's No. 1 draft choice in 1994, whose chin strap was
unfastened. Shuler's helmet flew off, and he barked at Patton,
who promptly punched the Redskins' $19.25 million benchwarmer in
the face. After some shoving between other players, order was
restored and practice resumed at a higher level of intensity.
Still, Turner was worried that the Skins would be flat for their
rematch with New York, a team they had beaten 31-10 on Sept. 15.
"Obviously," he said late Sunday afternoon, "I didn't have a
very good read on the mood."
Otherwise, Turner was reading as expertly as Ted Koppel off a
teleprompter. He had the Giants thoroughly game-planned. Of
course, it takes a proficient quarterback to execute a game
plan. From 1991 to '93, when Turner was the Cowboys' offensive
coordinator and was forging his reputation as a mastermind, he
had Troy Aikman doing the slinging. Now he has Frerotte, a 1994
seventh-round draft choice out of Tulsa who lacks Aikman's
pedigree but is a tough, instinctive player. And Frerotte's
learning curve is shooting upward. On Sunday, in a first-half
performance (10 of 14, for 180 yards) that was marred only by
his fourth interception of the season, he smoothly directed
three scoring drives. Then, after the Giants cut Washington's
lead to 28-21 with 6:35 left, he engineered an 11-play,
four-minute drive that ended in Scott Blanton's 45-yard field
goal. Frerotte's most important test came early in that
sequence, on third-and-six from the Redskins' 29, and he
connected with tight end Jamie Asher on a brisk sideline pass
for 14 yards. "The biggest play of the game," Turner said.
In choosing Frerotte over Shuler as the starting quarterback
after a preseason competition, Turner showed his players that
personnel decisions would be based on performance rather than on
salary or draft position. Late on the night of Aug. 18, Turner
broke the news to Frerotte and Shuler in separate meetings at
the Redskins' Ashburn facility. Shuler got the word first. Then
Frerotte entered Turner's office, sat down and, as he recalls
it, was asked, "What do you think I should do?" Frerotte
replied, "What the hell kind of question is that? Coach, I would
not want to be in your shoes." Finally Turner told Frerotte of
his decision. "I nearly fainted," Frerotte says.
Normally Frerotte is an ice man under pressure. The latest in a
long line of standout quarterbacks from western Pennsylvania, he
seems to possess the signature traits of at least two of his
predecessors from the region: the fiery brashness of Dan Marino
and the insouciant wit of Joe Montana. "He has a knack for
knowing when he can relax and joke around and when he has to get
in people's faces, and that's odd for a young guy," says
35-year-old wide receiver Henry Ellard, Frerotte's favorite
You want anger? Frerotte is still steamed over an incident that
happened when he tried to attend his first Super Bowl, last
January in Tempe, Ariz. Still a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers,
Frerotte purchased a pair of game tickets and flew west with his
wife, Annie, and their infant daughter, Abby. When the Frerottes
walked up to a gate at Sun Devil Stadium shortly before kickoff,
a ticket taker told Gus he needed a ticket for Abby, who was
five months old. "I couldn't believe it," Gus recalls. "I had to
go over to the security window, and the guy there was
standoffish. I told him, 'I'm Gus Frerotte. I play quarterback
for the Redskins. My daughter's going to sit on my lap.' The guy
finally said, 'I don't care how old she is. She can't get in
without a ticket.'"
After muttering an expletive, Gus had Annie sell the tickets for
face value, and they returned to their hotel room to watch the
second half on TV. "I thought about writing a letter to [NFL
commissioner] Paul Tagliabue, but I never did," Frerotte says.
That story will be often retold if and when Frerotte leads
Washington to a Super Bowl. In the meantime several other
Redskins have tales worth telling. For starters there are the
two ageless wonders, Ellard and Green, who have a combined 28
seasons' worth of experience to offer this youthful team.
Ellard, who caught five passes for 119 yards on Sunday and is
third in the NFL with a 20.1-yards-per-catch average, is among
the most anonymous big-play receivers in league history. A
former Los Angeles Rams star who is in his third season with
Washington, Ellard ranks sixth on the NFL career reception list,
with 747 catches, and is fifth in receiving yards, with 12,646.
Yet, as he says, "if you take 20 people and ask them who the
top-10 receivers are, I don't think my name would even come up."
In recent years he has compensated for a loss of speed by
running meticulous patterns, most of which, he says, "I can run
with my eyes closed."
If Ellard has lost a step, it's possible Green has stolen it.
With three minutes to go in the first half on Sunday, Green
looked ready to win a fourth NFL Fastest Man title. With the
Redskins leading 21-0, having held the Giants to three first
downs, Green got his 43rd career interception when New York
wideout Thomas Lewis bobbled quarterback Dave Brown's pass.
Green snatched the ball and raced so rapidly down the right
sideline that the Giants appeared to be chasing him in slow
How long can Green, 36, keep it up? "That's like saying, 'Do you
know how long you're going to live?'" he says. "I really don't
know." In a notebook he keeps for studying game plans, Green
this year inscribed the message, "Play every play like it's my
last play. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy."
Washington's first three trips to the end zone were completed by
halfback Terry Allen, who has twice recovered from
career-threatening injuries--a torn anterior cruciate ligament
in each knee--to become one of the NFL's best runners and its
leader in touchdowns this season, with 10. Allen rushed for
1,031 yards with the Minnesota Vikings in 1994, only to be
waived after refusing to take a pay cut. He is yet another
low-key Redskin who thrives outside the limelight. "That way,"
he says, "I can sneak up on people."
Perhaps Washington is lulling opponents into submission with its
lack of bravado. Outside linebacker Ken Harvey, one of the
league's best pass rushers, has written a children's book.
Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, acquired in a predraft trade with
the St. Louis Rams last April for the sixth overall pick, has
been Mr. Milquetoast since becoming a born-again Christian two
years ago. "Before that," Gilbert told The Washington Post last
spring, "I had a master's degree in cussing, a bachelor's degree
in deceiving and a Ph.D. in psychology, playing mind games. I
was doing wicked things."
The biggest reason things are hunky-dory in Washington is
Turner, whose players remained faithful to him, though he lost
22 of his first 28 games with the Redskins. "We probably lost
more close games in a 1 1/2-year period than any team ever,"
Turner says. "We knew the problems were correctable." Liquid
Paper was never this good: Dating back to a victory at Dallas
last December, the Skins are 9-2. Their only defeat this season
was a 17-14 loss to the Eagles in the opener.
"The spirit of the kingdom emanates from the king," backup tight
end Scott Galbraith said in the giddy locker room on Sunday.
"Norv has created an environment of unselfishness and maximum
effort, and we love him because he cares. He's not like a Bill
Belichick or a Bill Parcells--some czar, ruler or dictator. He
takes a back seat and allows personalities to shine."
On Sunday that meant letting the postgame revelry proceed
unabated. "This team is growing up so quickly," Turner said. He
sounded sentimental, perhaps even a little sad.