On the surface, yesterday was just one more afternoon of Washington Redskins glory, one more sample of the same football pandemonium that has made RFK Stadium a theater of thrills for three straight seasons.
This time, the day brought a game-winning field goal with 93 seconds left by Mark Moseley, an NFL record 106 catches in one season by Art Monk and, above all, a third straight NFC Eastern Division title for the Redskins.
At first glance, it was simple joyous elation at the gun in RFK Stadium yesterday, with Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs on his knees in muddy supplication as a 50-yard field goal attempt by St. Louis kicker Neil O'Donoghue failed on the last play, and the Redskins, once 16 points ahead, escaped with a come-from-behind 29-27 victory.
To the Cardinals, the outcome meant the nothing of an all-or-nothing alternative. A victory would has given them the division title. The loss eliminated them from the playoffs.
To the sellout crowd here, this aerial circus of a game -- in which Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax set anti-Redskin records of 37 completions and 468 yards gained -- meant easy, fun things. Their team earned a bye in the playoffs next week, then have a home field advantage in its first playoff game two weekends hence against Chicago or the Los Angeles Rams.
But on the inside, this day was an agony for the Redskins that merely culminated an entire season of torments, worries and doubts. "This season has been an ordeal," said Gibbs after Moseley's 37-yard kick with 1:33 left finished an 11-5 regular season. "I'm so happy I don't know what to say . . . With all the injuries we've had (22 players have missed games, five of them all-pros), there were times when we could have said, 'Wash this year out.'
"I told them before this game, 'Now we'll find out if we have that burning desire great teams have."
On smiling Redskins faces, this was a day of atonement, accomplishment, courage.
It was atonement for Moseley, who botched a first-quarter extra-point attempt that hung over the whole game like a season-curdling omen until his final kick split the geometrical center of the uprights, never deviating from plumb.
It was an unexpected historic accomplishment for Monk, who caught 11 passes for 136 yards (including touchdowns of 23 and 12 yards) this chilly afternoon. "I never thought I'd catch 70 or 80 balls in a year," said Monk, who broke Charley Hennigan's 20-year-old mark of 101 catches by five. "Catching 100 balls is so far out of sight you don't even think about it."
Monk's last catch of the regular season was probably his most important. On third and 19 from the Cardinals' 47 with only two minutes to play, the Redskins looked out of luck. They tried a new play called "Z Divide" that they'd unveiled for 36 yards earlier in the quarter.
This time, Monk caught the ball near the right sideline and battled three defenders for the final yard necessary for a first down at the 27. Needing 19 yards, he got 20. Three line plunges later, Moseley kicked the game-winner.
As for the courage, that belonged to John Riggins, he of the aching back, who got out of a hospital bed once more to be battered to the earth 27 times by defenders who held him to 76 yards, including a five-yard touchdown run.
All that was on the outside for the smilers. In the heart, this brutal game was a "gut job" (Gibbs) and a "complete sellout by everybody" (quarterback Joe Theismann) and a test of nameless football virtues that were never so painfully measured in the last two blessed Super Bowl seasons.
"This team has had a better year than either of the previous two," said Theismann defiantly after completing 20 of 35 passes for 298 yards. "Then, we were healthy and had big leads in lots of games. This year, everything has been against us . . . We spoiled our fans."
"We knew that if we lost and had to go into the playoffs as a wild card our chances of getting back to the Super Bowl wouldn't be good," said Theismann. "Everybody said this had to be a total sellout," he added in the NFL vernacular that means you play at a level of abandon that "sells out" any chance of protecting yourself from injury.
For the Redskins, this was a triumph over human weakness more than a victory over St. Louis.
"Complacency is coming," said Gibbs yesterday.
All season, he says he's seen it coming, that insidious and all but inevitable combination of bad luck, broken bodies and lost desire that dry-rots almost every champion.
He's even seen it in the fans of his Redskins, the followers who no longer throng to Redskin Park by the thousands after a victory over Dallas but, rather, drag in by the hundreds.
"Used to be 5,000 rockin' and sockin' and having a party after we beat Dallas," Gibbs said. "This week, it was 200-300. It's the little things like that which wear at you. You've got to have that burning desire and you need every little thing to keep it. That's why this game was so important . . .
"This is two gut jobs back to back."
Even such proven champions as these Redskins could easily have folded in a game like this when Lomax was in the midst of a career second half: 25 of 28 for 314 yards including touchdowns of 75 and 18 yards to the splendid Roy (Jet Stream) Green, who caught eight passes for 196 yards and who, to be fair, has completed a season to match Monk's.
While Monk's catches have amassed 1,347 yards and seven touchdowns, Green's 78 catches in '84 have netted 1,555 yards and 12 scores; at such levels, we're talking about matters of taste. Green strikes deeper and faster; Monk is more versatile, a better blocker and at his best on third down.
Even the Jet Stream couldn't stop the Redskins from offsetting their 26-24 loss to the Cardinals in St. Louis in October. Over the last three seasons, the Redskins have gone into each of the last four weeks of the regular season needing to win to sustain their chances for a division title. In those dozen games, they're 12-0.
At one level, such a run of clutch play feeds on itself. Last week's 30-28 victory over Dallas reinforces the notion that a way to win will be found. But, at another level, no team can go so deep into its well indefinitely and win so often. There's luck in the equation, too.
For instance, Theismann didn't even know it was third and 19 on the game's biggest play; he was still stunned from a sack. "I just knew it was third down," said the quarterback who was sacked six times. "I never saw Art catch it. I got to see very few completions today."
Even Gibbs, who seems to have a new play such as "Z Divide" for every crisis, is not really all-seeing in a pinch.
"When the clock was ticking down, I thought for an instant, 'They may not get this off,' " he said. "I thought Lomax would throw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock, actually."
It was fourth down, he was told.
"Hey, good thing he wasn't listening to me," said Gibbs.
He was laughing then, and kept right on, telling about the big bruise in the middle of his forehead that came from playing with his son on Friday night. "My only night off and he nearly kayoes me."
For the moment, all the strains of the season were in remission. Moments before he'd talked about "all the criticism, severe criticism we took early in the season and again in the middle. When you win, that happens. You expect it. But you don't like it. It hurts."
For the moment, he could grab an old friend in a bear hug and say, "Three years in a row. Did it again."
As Gibbs walked back to see his team, his mood seemed to blend his ambivalence -- the uneasy marriage of joy over another division title and the knowledge of how precariously that high altitude is maintained.
Gibbs looked back at his friend wryly, almost sardonically, and said, "It'll be another year before you can get rid of me."