At a June minicamp with their new team, Washington Redskins
defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson lined up
next to each other in three-point stances. Side-by-side, the two
looked imposing--dangerous, almost. "Oh, yeah!" a player
standing behind them said in an our-prayers-have-been-answered
tone of voice. "We got these wide butts! Look out!"
Packing a combined 628 pounds and plowing forward on tree-trunk
legs, the Stubblefield-Wilkinson tandem should be staunch
against the run and murder on passing downs. "With guards in the
NFL in decline," says one offensive line coach whose team will
play Washington this year, "Stubblefield and Wilkinson ought to
make the Redskins two or three wins better."
In the six-year history of unrestricted free agency, no other
team in the league has spent so lavishly in one off-season to
strengthen one position. Then again, no other team has been as
needy along the defensive line the past two seasons as
Washington, which allowed an NFL-high 140 rushing yards a game
in that span. The Redskins not only committed $57.4 million over
the next six years to two players who don't touch the ball, but
also sent first- and third-round draft picks to the Cincinnati
Bengals as compensation for signing Wilkinson, whom Cincinnati
had made its franchise player.
As NFL training camps get into full swing, it's no wonder
Washington feels a sense of urgency to kick off the season.
"We've got the talent," says linebacker Ken Harvey, a 10-year
veteran who has spent the last four seasons with the Skins.
"There are no excuses anymore. This is the year that we have to
July 26, 1998
Washington was one of the league's oldest teams when it capped
the 1991 season by beating the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI.
After returning to the playoffs as a wild card the following
year, the Redskins suffered three consecutive losing seasons for
the first time in 31 years and were still just 8-7-1 last
season. One has to look only at the poor first-round selections
Washington made in the drafts following that Super Bowl to see a
big reason for the team's decline: In succession, beginning in
'92, the Skins picked wideout Desmond Howard, who caught 66
passes in three years before going to the Jacksonville Jaguars
in the expansion draft; cornerback Tom Carter, who played four
seasons before going to the Chicago Bears in '97 as a restricted
free agent; quarterback Heath Shuler, who started 13 games in
three forgettable seasons before moving on to the New Orleans
Saints; wideout Michael Westbrook, who has made more news by
punching out a teammate in practice than by anything he has done
in a game; tackle Andre Johnson, who did not play a down during
his rookie year and was released during training camp last
season; and defensive end Kenard Lang, a projected starter in
'98 who had 1 1/2 sacks as a rookie.
But such is life in the NFL today that even though the Redskins
struggled in '97, they would have made the playoffs if the New
York Jets had beaten the Detroit Lions on the season's final
Sunday. This fall Washington is pinning its playoff hopes
largely on Stubblefield and Wilkinson. The 6'2", 315-pound
Stubblefield, 27, had a classic salary-drive season for the San
Francisco 49ers in '97, sacking the quarterback 15 times--14
more than he had the previous year and only 9 1/2 fewer than he
had in his first four NFL seasons combined. At his best he is an
imposing force against the run who in a game last year against
the Philadelphia Eagles had five tackles and 3 1/2 sacks. On the
other hand, the 6'5", 313-pound Wilkinson had all of 34 tackles
and five sacks last season. In four years with the Bengals, he
was surrounded by virtually no talent, leading to repeated
double teams. Nevertheless much more was expected of a player
who was the first selection in the '94 draft. Scouts still see
Wilkinson, 25, as a player who is strong enough to tie up two
blockers and quick enough to shoot gaps. How these two players
wound up with the Redskins is a story in itself.
Two years ago Washington got solid play at defensive tackle from
Sean Gilbert, whom it had acquired from the St. Louis Rams for
the sixth pick in the '96 draft. But Gilbert sat out last year
in a contract dispute, and when he became a free agent after the
season, the Redskins held out slim hope of re-signing him. For
the second consecutive year they slapped their franchise tag on
Gilbert, meaning another team couldn't sign him unless it gave
Washington two first-round draft picks or some other agreed-upon
compensation. Then Redskins general manager Charley Casserly
looked at other free-agent defensive tackles on the market. He
told Redskins president John Kent Cooke, "If we're really going
to do this right, we've got to get two of them. But it's going
to be really expensive." Cooke gave Casserly the go-ahead.
On consecutive days in mid-February, Washington met with, in
order, Wilkinson, Gilbert, Stubblefield and Chester McGlockton,
late of the Oakland Raiders. Afterward Casserly, Cooke and coach
Norv Turner agreed that signing Stubblefield should be their top
priority. Before those negotiations got serious, the Redskins
had talked with Gilbert about a five-year, $26 million contract.
However, Gilbert balked at, among other things, a clause that
would have made $200,000 a year contingent upon an off-season
workout program. (Gilbert later signed with the Carolina
Panthers, who compensated the Redskins with two first-round
The Washington brass then turned its attention to Stubblefield,
and talks heated up on a Saturday in late February. That day
Stubblefield and his agent, Neil Cornrich, were in Philadelphia,
where they were being wined and dined by the Eagles. Redskins
director of player development Joe Mendes was also in Philly,
and he told Casserly that he felt he was close to a deal
averaging almost $6 million a year.
The following morning, Casserly updated Cooke on the
negotiations, and the two agreed to proceed toward signing
Stubblefield and Wilkinson. At the same time Wilkinson's agent,
Jim Gould, was getting antsy. The Raiders and the Lions were
pushing for a meeting with Wilkinson, but Wilkinson badly wanted
only two things--to leave Cincinnati and to play for the
Redskins. Casserly thought he could meet Wilkinson's price, but
could he satisfy Cincinnati president Mike Brown's compensation
demands? The two had already held preliminary discussions when
Casserly called on Sunday afternoon.
The Bengals were in a tough spot. Not only had Wilkinson been an
underachiever on the field, but personnel directors around the
league knew that he hated Cincinnati; he had even called the
city racist. What's more, he had pleaded no contest to a
domestic violence charge after being accused of striking his
pregnant girlfriend. He had also feuded with Bengals coaches
about his playing weight. When Casserly offered first- and
third-round picks for Wilkinson, Brown accepted conditionally,
with the deal contingent on the Arizona Cardinals' declining to
match an offer the Bengals had made to defensive end Michael
Meanwhile, Stubblefield flew to Washington on Sunday afternoon,
and by that night he had signed a six-year, $36 million
contract. Four days later, Wilkinson signed a five-year, $21.4
million deal. "I knew they were talking to Dan, but I didn't
know how serious they were," Stubblefield recalls. "A couple of
days later I'm home, sleeping, and I wake up with the TV on and
there's a story about the Redskins signing Dan Wilkinson. Well,
that woke me up. I said, 'Whoa! Now we can turn something good
into something great.'"
Stubblefield chafes when talk turns to the Niners because he
believes they didn't try hard enough to re-sign him after a
season in which he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Year.
He knows that some in the organization wonder why he performed
so well only when a contract was on the line. "I'll just have to
show 'em," he says. "I'm bringing an attitude here that I
learned from the 49ers--nothing's acceptable unless it's the
The Redskins trust Wilkinson will get the message. He left Ohio
State after his redshirt sophomore season to take NFL millions.
In his second pro season he reported to a spring minicamp
carrying 345 pounds and munching on french fries. One year
later, he stormed out of an off-season practice after getting
ripped by then coach Dave Shula for his lackadaisical attitude.
In '97, playing for his third defensive line coach and second
coordinator in four years, he was moved to end in Dick LeBeau's
3-4 zone-blitz scheme. "This is the best position for me,
because it gives me a lot more freedom to get to the passer,"
Wilkinson, who had primarily been a 4-3 tackle, said at the
time. He had such freedom that he finished 69th in the league in
sacks and 14th on his own team in tackles.
Wilkinson calls his time in Cincinnati "a learning experience.
If I had some things to do over again, I'm sure I would. But I
have no regrets. As far as football goes, I've played the 4-3
all my life, and now I'm back in it. I'm happy. The Bengals
didn't have the personnel to run the 3-4 with me at end. But in
this defense, at tackle, my job will be to be stout against the
run, get up the field, penetrate and let my talent show."
Washington also expects Wilkinson will be more at ease on and
off the field as a mere spoke in the wheel rather than the focal
point of a defense. "He's going to have guys like Harvey,
Stubblefield, Darrell Green, Marvcus Patton and Cris
Dishman--leader types--on him all the time," says Casserly.
"It's a lot different being Number 6 or 7 than being Number 1."
Despite his 26-37-1 record in four years as Redskins coach,
Turner, similarly, is operating without the pressure he might
have felt elsewhere, or even in Washington five years ago.
(Turner's predecessor, Richie Petitbon, was fired after going
4-12 in '93, his first season on the job.) Longtime owner Jack
Kent Cooke, who died in April 1997, was a big Turner fan, and
son John may be an even bigger one. Turner has a contract
through the 2001 season, and John Kent Cooke says Turner's job
won't be in jeopardy even if the Redskins miss the 12-team
postseason party again this year. "If we're not in the
playoffs," Cooke says, "it will not be because of Norv Turner.
It will be because of injuries, or god knows what. Norv has
proved to me that he is a fine coach. Now he's got the players
to prove that to the rest of the NFL."
Maybe that's why Turner seems particularly focused and placid,
shrugging off any suggestion that this could be a make-or-break
year for him. "If you go around with an air that there's
pressure on you to win, it'll rub off on others," he said
recently, as he drove by Petitbon's American Grill. "If you sit
around talking about it and worrying about it, how can that help
you win? So I ignore it."
Or does he? Later that night, as Turner watched his son Scott's
Babe Ruth League game, one fan after another stopped by to wish
him well. He knows what the expectations are. "We've got the
best team we've had since I've been here, hands down," Turner
said between innings. "We've got to play well. We just have to."
"There are no excuses anymore," says Ken Harvey. "This is the
year we have to win."