Yesterday could only happen in the National Football League. The Redskins could lose by winning and win by losing, and the Rams essentially had come nearly 3,000 miles for little more than a live scouting report. Maybe.
By dusk, the one certainty was that the Redskins had won, 17-14, in an affair that naturally was in doubt until the final play and only became dramatic when the Rams decided to get serious and put in the second-team runners and quarterback.
Because the Redskins could still be eliminated from the playoffs if the Vikings beat the Lions last night and the Bears beat the Giants today, the team and its faithful rooted desperately for some quarterback named Gary Danielson against Minnesota. You take them one at a time, even in fandom.
Regardless of whether the Redskins make the playoffs, the victory over the Rams was especially vital for coach George Allen. For him, the difference between a 9-5 record and 8-6 is more significant than it might seem.
At 9-5 and considering all the injuries to key veterans, Allen is in a fine bargaining position - with Redskin management and other NFL teams. If he had finished 8-6, Allen would not be so strong, even if the Redskins had backed into the playoffs.
Before today, an Edward Bennett Williams or somebody else being asked to retinquish nearly total control of a team might reasonably say to Allen, assuming the best. "yes, coach, I knew you made the playoffs, but who did you beat to get there?"
And Allen would have to admit that the combined record of the teams the Redskins had beaten was more wobbly than any pass Billy Kilmer ever threw - 24-54 to be precise.
Only one, the St. Louis Pigeons, had a record over .500.
Until yesterday. Coming into the game, the Rams were the second-best team in the National Conference, if perhaps only the fifth best in the entire league, and the fact that they did not need to win to clinch anything important is almost irrelevant.
In a league obsessed with the letter W, yesterday was a nice one for Allen. He might be able to ride it almost anywhere he chooses. Perhaps that was why he acted so un-Allen like after the game.
Usually, Allen can be counted on for something solemn no matter what the occasion - a sermon on character or how this way was the most important Redskin victory in history, or the virtues of defense and special teams.
He said all of this, and was appropriately sober. And then the damnest grin you ever saw spread across his face and he almost leaped for joy about how he and the team had pulled off what many witnesses would regard as magic.
On a team dotted with ancients, Allen gave important assignment to two more fossils. One was Calvin hill, and yes, one might honestly call him a graybeard because there is a gray fleck or two growing under his chin. The other was Charley Taylor, who has caught more passes than many Miss Americas, but has been a seldom-seen Redskin of late.
"We started the old pros," Allen chirped, and you could almost see every fiber of his body dancing. "We pulled them out of the woodshed, out of mothballs."
And it worked, especially with Hill. It might not work next Monday in the possible playoff rematch with the Rams in Los Angeles - and one touchdown was a tipped-pass sort of fluke that might not happen again in two years. But so what?
In truth, there was a reaffirmation of justice in the NFL in the Redskins' first points - the pass Monte Jackson tipped smack into the hands of Frank Grant for a 59-yard touchdown.
Recall the Redskins' season-opener, the three-point loss, the game in which the Giants scored a touchdown when Ken Houston accidentally batted a pass into a receiver's hands. Yesterday, they evened the ledger on freak plays.
And Calvin Hill gave his admirers another glimpse of a special back running with a gusto not seen in years. Hill gained 89 yards yesterday with the sort of slashing, almost reckless style that so infuriated the Redskins when he was a Cowboy. When was the last time he gained that much yardage?
"I had 155 in the WFL two years ago," he said, "And whenever it was I played last with Dallas. No, there was no special feeling about starting (what might have been his final game as a Redskin, if not as a pro).
"I know my role on this team (behind Mike Thomas, who was hurt yesterday), and I've given him an extra week to get well. In my position, you can't afford to sit down on the bench. Last week (against Buffalo), I was in on the second series. I believe. I thought I'd probably start this game last night."
Hill was briefly reflective:
"I suppose we could look back (to the two losses to the Giants); but this isn't a team that does that very much. And today felt good, because if there's one important point about this team this year is that it's never quit.
"I just hope today was not for naught."