The Redskins combined two early touchdowns because of Cardinal turnovers, an opportunistic blitzing defense that constantly frustrated quarterback Jim Hart and what Coach Jack Pardee admitted was a lot of luck to emerge with a wild 17-7 triumph today.
The surprising Redskins recorded their third triumph in four games, but this was the sweetest yet because it came against a favored opponent far from friendly RFK Stadium.
"Sure we've been lucky," Pardee said, "but we still are the type of team that needs to be lucky. And if we keep playing as hard as we are, we are going to keep getting lucky. At this stage, this was a tremendous win for us."
It certainly wasn't an easy triumph. The Redskins jumped to a 14-0 lead on Don Hover's recovery of a fumble in the end zone and Buddy Hardeman's 41-yard touchdown reception just 12 minutes into the game.
Then Washington had to contend with the Cardinals' relentless, thrilling attempts to catch up.
Despite Hart's third-best statistical day of his 14-year career (24 of 43 passing for 306 yards), Washington allowed only a third-period score by rookie Theotis Brown. The Cardinals outgained the Redskins in total offense, 376 yards to 191.
A blend of five timely St. Louis turnovers and standout play from blitzing safety Ken Houston and middle linebacker Hover shut off the Cardinals' running attack and thwarted their comeback aspirations.
Hart helped out the Redskin cause considerably with a surprising call five minutes before the game's end. On a first down from the Washington two, he tried to find tight end Garry Parris in the end zone, only to have cornerback Lemar Parrish cut in front of the receiver and pick it off, finally wrapping up the victory for his nervous teammates.
"A safe call," Hart said.
"It's been good for us for eight years," center Tom Banks said.
"I wasn't surprised," Parrish said, "just glad he did it. Nothing can surprise me, because I look for pass first."
Hart had not come into the game expecting to pass 43 times, especially with rookie sensation Ottis Anderson such a threat at running back.
But the Redskin line and linebackers, getting a big lift from Houston's surprise blitzes, neutralized St. Louis' strong offensive line and held Anderson to 67 yards, about half of what he had been averaging through the first three games.
"This was the best the defense has played so far," Pardee said. "They were aggressive. They gave up passing yards but Joe Lavender and Lemar were tough when they had to be. Ask Hart, he knows that."
Nor did the Cardinals ever expect what happened in the game's first 12 minutes, when they found the football harder to handle than their fans' lategame booing.
On the contest's second play, Hart called for a screen to Anderson from the Cardinal 26. Redskin rookie linebacker Rich Milot, anticipating the pass, smacked the Cardinal back in the middle, shaking the ball loose at the 18.
What ensued was something made to order for the NFL'S Football Follies highlight film. It appeared that almost all of the 22 players on the field had at least one shot at recovering the fumble as it rolled toward the St. Louis end zone.
"I had two chances," Milot said, "then it just passed me by."
The elusive ball finally squirted out of a huge pile in the middle of the end zone. Hover, arriving late, looked at the ball and jumped on it. Touchdown Redskins.
"I was the most surprised person in the world," Hover said about his first score in his football career. "It had taken me that long to get involved. Rich made the play; I just had good timing."
After Mark Moseley kicked the extra point, Washington was up, 7-0, with just 57 seconds elapsed. The Cardinals were stunned, but things soon got worse.
Hart quickly moved his team into Washington territory on the next series before finding receiver Dave Stief wide open over the middle from the Redskin 42.
Stief headed toward the end zone, but Houston caught him from behind and stripped away the ball. Teammate Mark Murphy picked up the ball at the one and returned 22 yards.
The Redskins wasted little time capitalizing on the break.
An eight-yard pass from Joe Theismann to Benny Malone and a 10-yard run by Malone helped set up fourth and inches at the St. Louis 46.
Pardee elected to try for first down. John Riggins made it easily, powering three yards after a Redskin timeout.
Three plays later on third and eight from the 41, Washington anticipated St. Louis would be blitzing. The Cardinals did send their linebackers and Theismann called an audible at the line of scrimmage before dropping back to pass to either Ricky Thompson or to Hardeman coming out from halfback.
"St. Louis must have blown a coverage," Offensive Coordinator Joe Walton said. "Joe made a good call and he looked at Ricky, then saw Buddy was open. He went to the right man."
St. Louis cornerback Ken Greene had gone inside to help out on Thompson, leaving Hardeman uncovered. Hardeman grabbed the pass at the 35 and practically strolled into the end zone. No Cardinal came near him until he reached the goal line and then a quick step allowed him to cruise in untouched.
Another Moseley extra point and the Redskins were ahead, 14-0, with 6:52 to go in the quarter. Already the Cardinal fans were starting to boo.
The negative sounds grew stronger on the Cardinals' next possession. Again, Hart had his team moving briskly when, at the Redskin 30, he tried what Pardee said was going to be a flea-flicker pass off a reverse from Anderson to Gray to Hart.
Anderson took the ball from Hart and headed toward Gray. As the handoff began, Houston sprinted five yards deep into the backfield and tackled Anderson while knocking over Gray with his legs.
The ball squirted loose and Hart gained possession, only to be slammed by both Hover and end Coy Bacon. Again, a mad scramble for the ball followed, with Redskin Karl Lorch finally landing on it at the Washington 45.
But Thompson could not hold onto a third-down pass at the Cardinal 30 and the Redskins had to punt. Nor could Washington take advantage of great field position on their next series. On first then pulled up and tried to pass to Riggins, who was a good 10 yards behind any defenders.
Hardeman, however, failed to get any loft on the throw thanks to good pressure from the Cardinals. Safety Ken Stone cut over to intercept the line-drive pass, which might never have reached Riggins anyway.
"We could have been 21-0," Pardee said. "That might have made a difference. Getting a big lead on a team like St. Louis is dangerous, though. You might let down and the way they can score they can come back."
Washington's only other scoring threat came early in the fourth period immediately after the St. Louis touchdown. The Redskins moved 48 yards in 11 plays to set up Moseley's 47-yard field goal for a 17-7 margin.
Otherwise it was all Cardinals. While the Redskins were dropping passes or just missing first downs by inches. Hart was passing successfully on almost every down.
Hart put together one picture drive of 87 yards at the end of the third quarter to draw his team to 14-7. Passes of 30 and 14 yards to Pat Tilley, who totaled seven catches for 114 yards, led to Brown's one-yard drive for the touchdown.
Then, after Moseley's field goal, Hart cranked up again. Starting from his 39, he completed five passes, including tow on third downs, to have the Cardinals threatening at the Redskin 13.
But on a third and nine, Murphy broke up a pass down the middle to fullback Wayne Morris, so kicker Steve Little came on to try a 30-yard field goal. Holder Roger Wehril couldn't handle the snap and Washington gained possession.
However, Dallas Hickman was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after using the back of a teammate to vault into the air. It was first down for St. Louis at the five with five minutes left.
Pardee, enraged that he could get no explanation from the officials about the Hickman play, went on the field and Washington was penalized again. Now it was first and goal from the two. But Hart's pass became Parrish's fourth interception of the year and Pardee could begin to breathe easy for the first time in the game.
"We could be 4-0 right now," he said. "But no I'm not complaining. Anytime you hold a team like St. Louis to seven points, especially at home, you have to be happy.
"We got some help but we did some good things too. Who expected us to be 3-1?"