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Fresh Starts Like the revamped, win-at-all-costs Redskins, players and coaches around the NFL were determined to kick off the new season on the right foot

Sept. 11, 2000
Sept. 11, 2000

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Sept. 11, 2000

Olympics 2000
Olympics 2000 [bonus Piece]

Fresh Starts Like the revamped, win-at-all-costs Redskins, players and coaches around the NFL were determined to kick off the new season on the right foot

The restaurant was packed, the party was in full swing, and the
majority of Daniel M. Snyder's guests were more interested in
stuffing their faces than in talking shop. But Snyder, the
amped-up owner of the Washington Redskins, couldn't contain his
enthusiasm as he hovered near the entrance to the posh D.C.
eatery. Each time another Redskins player arrived at the party,
Snyder would veer toward him, give a cursory greeting to his
companion, then blurt out, "So, are you ready for the season?"
Though the question seemed rhetorical, each player felt
compelled to answer in the affirmative--as insincere as that
response might have been.

This is an article from the Sept. 11, 2000 issue Original Layout

After all, it was only April.

Five months later, as he peered down from his luxury suite at
FedExField on Sunday, Snyder finally got to judge for himself.
Washington's 20-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers
simultaneously validated the owner's off-season spending spree
and confirmed the sobering fact that there are some things--love,
eternal life, adequate special teams play--that money can't buy.
While the Skins' fortunes were bolstered by an influx of talented
newcomers, sloppy play and a lack of discipline nearly cost
Washington in its opener. "It's going to take a little time to
get to where we want to be," said cornerback Deion Sanders, the
team's most conspicuous import, as he buttoned the top half of a
see-through purple suit following the game. "I'm not a fool, even
though I might look it, and I know that nothing happens
instantly. Even the Lord took six days to create mankind."

Then Sanders, as is his custom, paused for dramatic effect. "Come
on, man, this ain't college," he said. "You don't have to win by
a certain amount to preserve your ranking. You've just got to
win."

Never has that been more true than it is this season in the
nation's capital, where Snyder, since purchasing the Redskins and
their stadium for $800 million in July 1999, has thrown his heart
and wallet into an all-out quest for instant gridiron
gratification. Among the free agents he signed during the
off-season were two future Hall of Famers, Sanders and defensive
end Bruce Smith; a former All-Pro, free safety Mark Carrier; and
two prominent backups, golden-armed quarterback Jeff George and
halfback Adrian Murrell. Throw in new defensive coordinator Ray
Rhodes and the second and third picks in the draft (linebacker
LaVar Arrington and tackle Chris Samuels, respectively), and
Washington has undergone the most striking makeover since
Courtney Love.

The changes were accompanied by generous portions of hype, and
much of America bought into it. One Las Vegas sports book had the
Skins, at 5 to 2, as the preseason favorites to win the Super
Bowl, followed by the defending champion St. Louis Rams at 5 to
1. But it wasn't only gamblers and media prognosticators getting
hot and bothered over the Team That Lil' Danny Bought. "I
remember a few years ago when a team loaded up like this," says
Panthers cornerback Eric Davis, who along with Sanders was a
member of the San Francisco 49ers' mercenary-fueled Super Bowl
championship ensemble in '94. "It's a different time, but that's
a talented group over there."

Adds Carolina offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, a former
Niners quarterback, "On paper, I'd say the Redskins are just as
talented as that team. They're pretty scary."

Washington did plenty on Sunday to strike fear into future
opponents, beginning with the game's opening possession, a
12-play, 79-yard display of coach Norv Turner's scripted
brilliance that produced a 7-0 lead. Crisp passing by Brad
Johnson (who completed 25 of 36 throws for 234 yards) and hard
running by Stephen Davis (23 carries, 133 yards, one touchdown)
powered the Skins. The defense, buoyed by Sanders's tight
coverage, had six sacks, including two by the 37-year-old Smith,
who also forced a pivotal fumble by Carolina quarterback Steve
Beuerlein early in the third quarter.

Yet if this was the Redskins' first chance to make a statement,
it was striking how often they became tongue-tied. The
celebratory din following Washington's game-opening touchdown
came to an abrupt end when Carolina's Michael Bates raced 92
yards for a score with the ensuing kickoff, provoking a chorus of
boos from Washington's exacting fans. The special teams continued
to sputter--Tommy Barnhardt's first punt was partially blocked,
and Bates had another long return, this one inside the Washington
10, called back because of a dubious illegal-block penalty. That
misfortune, along with a shanked 27-yard field goal attempt by
Richie Cunningham late in the first half, might well have cost
the Panthers an upset. "We weren't intimidated," Carolina
fullback William Floyd said. "I'm sure they'll get better, but
right now I don't feel like they're a dominant team."

For all the Redskins' talent, projecting them as a juggernaut
seems premature given their potential flaws. Even last year, when
they won the NFC East and made the playoffs for the first time in
Turner's six seasons, there was a whiff of dysfunction in the
air. Snyder embarrassed Turner last October by meeting with him
for about 30 minutes immediately after a 38-20 loss to the Dallas
Cowboys. Players had little respect for since-fired defensive
coordinator Mike Nolan, whose unit ranked as the league's
second-worst. At times they had no respect for one another,
either. Early last season, after a group of defensive starters
decided to have Thursday-night team parties, those players who
didn't attend were ostracized to the point of not being told play
calls in practice. "There's a ton of jealousy in that locker
room," one team insider says even now, "and there's definitely a
leadership void."

The 35-year-old owner, who insists upon being called Mr. Snyder
by everyone, has instilled a measure of fear that players say
wasn't there before he arrived. He often seems like a high school
outcast who hasn't gotten over the rejection, and his frequent
use of swear words and one-on-one meetings with players hasn't
succeeded in making him one of the guys. But players certainly
are hip to his obsession with winning. "Dan is not out of
control; he's not the meddler that people make him out to be,"
insists Sanders, who was released by the Cowboys in June in a
cost-cutting move. "He didn't do anything this off-season that
Tampa Bay didn't do; he just brought in higher profile athletes.
Shoot, everyone went shopping this off-season, even Dallas. It's
just that Dan's shopping at Versace, and some teams are shopping
at Wal-Mart."

To his credit, Snyder has taken steps to make players feel that
they're in the loop. Last February he asked wideout Irving Fryar,
a 17-year veteran, to help him scout rookies at the NFL combine.
Before making a play for Sanders, who seized the starting job of
18-year veteran Darrell Green, Snyder not only rewarded Green
with a contract extension but also persuaded the revered
seven-time Pro Bowl player to recruit Sanders, who gives
Washington its first true superstar in years.

If Green, the erstwhile locker room leader, has been reduced to
playing the role of elder statesman, it may fall on Sanders to
establish the team's temperament. Despite his much-publicized
embrace of born-again Christianity in recent years, Prime Time
insists he is his usual, flamboyant self. "Only my dance partner
has changed," he says. "I'm dancing with Jesus now, instead of
dancing with myself."

Slowed by a toe injury for the past two seasons, Sanders bristles
at the notion that his physical skills have eroded. "Instead of
listening to the experts," he says, "you should ask the receivers
I play against if I've dropped off." He has become a mentor to
fellow cornerback Champ Bailey, a 6'1", 184-pound second-year
standout who, Sanders says, "can become the best corner in the
game. He just needs to bulk up a little. The other day I told him
he was built like Ally McBeal."

In a rare stroke of humility, Sanders said Rhodes, who was fired
as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and then the Green Bay
Packers after the last two seasons, "was the Redskins' biggest
acquisition of the off-season." Rhodes's player-friendly demeanor
and aggressive coaching style have energized a unit that, in
Smith, Sanders and tackle Dana Stubblefield, features three
starters who have been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"New coaches, new scheme, new players--it's like a whole new
world," says defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson.

Offensively, the Skins march to the steady, pounding beat of
Davis, their fifth-year back who last Saturday signed a reported
nine-year, $90 million contract extension that, in this era of
salary-cap massaging, is actually a three-year, $15.75 million
deal. Until last season, when he won the starting job in training
camp and ran for an NFC-best 1,405 yards, Davis was known mostly
for being the guy on the wrong end of a sucker punch thrown by
teammate Michael Westbrook during a 1996 practice. "He hit me,
and I hit the ground," Davis says of the incident, which was
captured on videotape. "That was the hardest I've ever been
punched."

Davis and Westbrook, a wideout who caught five passes for 53
yards on Sunday, have repaired their relationship, though others
won't let the memory fade. Davis, a stickler for fair play on and
off the field, says fans and opposing players frequently try to
bait him about the incident, "but I put up a wall, because I'm
trying to help clean up the NFL's bad-boy image." Early in an
Aug. 19 preseason victory at Cleveland, Davis says, Browns
linebacker Wali Rainer referred to Westbrook's punch during an
on-field staredown. "The guy was pulling me down by my neck, and
I got up and said, 'Hey, man, I'm not with all that,'" Davis
recalls. "So the guy says, 'Then how you gonna let Michael
Westbrook whup your ass like that?' I stepped forward and said,
'You do it, then.' The cool thing was that Mike heard it and got
mad, so the two of us were in his face together."

Westbrook, who earned teammates' respect last season by playing
with a broken left wrist, doesn't buy the notion that Snyder's
win-now-or-else mentality has placed undue stress on the players.
"What pressure?" Westbrook asks. "Dan's mentality is the same as
ours. The pressure's not on us; it's on the coaches."

Indeed, the Skins are so loaded that they're expected to win big,
and guess who'll get the heave-ho if they don't? That might help
explain why Turner, his team trailing 10-7 and facing a
fourth-and-four at the Carolina 35 midway through the second
quarter, elected to go for it--and watched in frustration as
defensive tackle Eric Swann's bull rush forced Johnson to dump a
pass to fullback Larry Centers, who was dropped for a one-yard
loss.

It's too early to tell whether Snyder's middle initial stands for
meddlesome, but there's little doubt that if Washington struggles
early, there will be talk of George replacing Johnson, perhaps
even of Rhodes taking over as coach. Yet Turner seems unperturbed
by the situation, and the Redskins, with all their weapons, might
well work through their kinks and build a unit worthy of its
hype. "In your opening game there are things you're not ready to
handle," Turner said on Sunday afternoon, just before hitting the
showers. "The key is fixing those things and winning as you go
along."

O.K., Mr. Snyder: Ready or not, here they come.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER RIDING HERD Stubblefield (top) and linebacker Shawn Barber combined for one of the Redskins' six sacks of Beuerlein. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER BREAKING LOOSE Davis celebrated his reported $90 million deal by running for 133 yards and a score.THREE COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS PIVOTAL Smith forced a fumble by Beuerlein that went in and out of the hands of Marco Coleman (99) and was recovered by N.D. Kalu, setting up the game-tying field goal.
"Dan is shopping at Versace," said Deion, "Some teams are
shopping at Wal-Mart."