A bona fide playoff contender well could have been molded in the muck of Municipal Stadium today when the Washington Redskins put together a miraculous 80-yard touchdown drive in the final 115 seconds to pull out a stunning 13-9 triumph over Cleveland.
Rebulding Washington now is 5-2, thanks to Joe Theismann's 14-yard scoring pass to Clarence Harmon with 27 seconds left. That perfect pitch won this roller coaster contest when it seemed the Redskins had done everything possible to give away the game.
The victory kept the Redskins a game behind Philadelphia and Dallas, each 6-1, in the NFC East race.
"We couldn't be in a better position from now on," center Bob Kuziel said in the joyous Redskin dressing room. "Who would ever believe we'd be 5-2 at this time? Now we go home, where we want to be."
Just as no one would have thought Washington would win today with two minutes left, hardly anyone could have predicted that the Redskins have this good a record after seven games, especially after having played the last four on the road.
But they won three away from RFK stadium, falling only to Philadelphia. and today's triumph was by far the sweetest, against an above-500 opponent, using a beautifully crafted two-minute drill that should be used as a training film.
"We're not nearly a finished product yet," said Coach Jack Pardee, "but you've got to be proud of this team for what it did today."
Washington wasted two excellent opportunities to gain the upper hand long before that dramatic finish.
In the second quarter, Theismann's first down, nine-yard pass was intercepted at the goal line by Thom Darden and, early in the third, the Browns held three times at their one and forced a 17-yard field goal by Mark Moseley.
Moseley earlier had booted a 35-yarder for a 3-0 lead, which was wiped out on a one-yard run by former Washington back Calvin Hill and Don Cockroft's 37-yard field goal late in the third, which had been set up by Hill's 33-yard run.
But Cockroft, normally one of the Nfl's most consistent kickers, had his extra-point kick blocked by Coy Bacon and a 43-yard field goal try blocked by Monte Coleman. And then the Brown veteran shanked a 32-yard field goal kick with 1:59 remaining after a 66-yard, 16-play, eight-minute drive appeared to have killed Washington's hopes.
The Redskin defense, however, had done its job. Coming off a horrid performance against Philadelphia and playing with two new linebackers, rookie Neal Olkewicz and Pete Wysocki, Washington held the Nfl's leading offense 18 points under its average.
Olkewicz replaced Don Hover, who was benched on Cleveland's first series. Wysocki played for Rich Milot, who fractured his left wrist on that series and will be out for two to three weeks.
"The defense did what it was supposed to; they played well," Kuziel said. "The offense was awful. We weren't doing our jobs. When Cockroft missed, we said, "Thank you.' We wanted one more chance. In the huddle, we said don't blow it, concentrate, it will work out."
And it did, despite the odds. There was 1:55 left, the ball was 80 yards from the Cleveland goal line and the Redskins, with only one time out left, were trying to move on a muddy field described by both teams as horrible.
But, somehow Theismann, who again turned in a splendid performance, completing 14 of 24 passes for 233 yards, was bubbling with confidence. All he proceeded to do was, "Run the same two-minute drill with the same plays as we ran to end practice (Saturday)."
The memorable drive began with a "14 pass X in ." Danny Buggs, the X end, cut over the middle on a crossing pattern. The Browns, in a nickel defence, left that area open and Theismann found his receiver with a bullet.
"I saw there was no one around me when I caught it and so I cut across the grain, away from the pursuit," Buggs said. Buggs raced down the left sideline before running out of bounds at the Cleveland 46 after a 34-yard gain.
"He beat their man-to-man," Theismann said. "I wasn't expecting that type of coverage. The hat should be on Danny's head. If he doesn't get open, I've got no where else to go."
Now there was 1:35 remaining. The Redskins had started the march thinking field goal, but Pardee and offensive coordinator Joe Walton began considering a touchdown. So did Theismann.
"After the Buggs catch, we wanted to either go down the middle to our tight end (Don Warren) or hit the fullback (Harmon) in the slot," Walton said.
Theismann executed those instructions perfectly. He found Warren in the middle for six yards, then Harmon in the slot for 12. The Redskins were on the Cleveland 28 with 1:07 remaining and the Brown fans, still stunned from Cockroft's miss, were screaming for their team to end this unexpected threat.
For a moment, their wish almost came true. Theismann could not connect with Buggs. The, a surprise running play, with Buddy Hardeman carrying, picked up only two yards. But Theismann quickly drilled a pass to Warren, again down the middle, for 12 yards and a first down and Washington again was in charge.
The Redskins took their final timeout at this point, stopping the clock with 38 seconds left. They had used their other two of the half just before the two-minute warning, at the end of Clevelnd's last drive, and now that strategy was giving the team precious extra seconds.
"Cleveland put their regular three linebackers in during the timeout," Theismann said. "On first down, I tried a sprint out, but Clarence wasn't open and threw it (the ball) away." There were 33 second to play.
Washington was well within Mosesley's range, so Theismann wanted to be careful -- no interceptions, no wild plays.
He dropped back, intending to pass either to Hardeman, Warren or, as a third option, Harmon. Warren was covered, and middle linebacker Dick Ambrose moved over to take Hardeman. Linebacker Charlie Hall wound up on Harmon.
Theismann pumped once and the Clevelnd pass rushed closed in on him slightly. So he backed up a few more steps, moving slightly to the right.
Harmon, looking back, saw Theismann was in trouble.
"I moved to a passing lane on my right," Harmon said. "i turned and there was the ball, so I caught it."
Theismann had lofted a beautiful toss, just high enough to clear Hall, who had his back to the play. The pass, Theismann said, "was either going to be caught by Clarence or go incomplete and we'd have overtime. It wasn't going to be intercepted."
The Redskin bench mobbed Harmon and Theismann. After Mosely kicked the extra point, the celebration continued along the sideline while the defense forced Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe into three inmcompletions and a futile, game-ending pass to Hill.
"We have a set of six or seven running plays," Theismann said. "They gave me what I expected and it worked."
Said Walton: "Joe's becoming a leader, he's doing what he needs to do for us to win."
There was good reason for a lot of smiling faces in the Redskin locker room, especially those of the offensive linemen. They had protected Theismann so well that he was hurried only once on the winning drive and sacked just twice in the game. Guard Ron Saul shut out Jerry Sherk, the Browns' top pass rusher, while tackle Eorge Starke held off all-pro Lyle Alzado.
That protection made up for the poor effort at Cleveland's goal line in the third period. Pardee blamed the muddy footing for the Redskins' inability to score from the one, after getting there on a 62-yard pass from Theismann to John McDaniel. But Kuziel was not offering nay excuses.
"We're pros, we should have scored," he said. and John Riggins, who failed on all three runs, blamed himself.
"I take the blame," he said. "I made three poor reads. I should have scored."
Riggins carried just once more the rest of the game, as Pardee went mostly with Harmon and Hardeman "because the field was so heavy we wanted fresh lesg in there. Both of them are quick. We just played a lot of people."
Sipe, who passed for more than 300 yards last week against Pittsburgh, was handicapped in this game by the bad field and the continued absence of star runner Greg Pruitt, who did not play because of a bad knee. Sipe completed 13 to 25 passed for just 160 yards.
He had Cleveland within scoring range in the first quarter, only to have Cleo Miller fumble on the Redskin five. Theismann later returned the mistake with his intercepted pass that nullified Lemar Parrish's pickoff of a Sipe toss late in the second quarter.
But until those final two minutes, Sipe and Hill had done enough to put the Browns on top. Then Theismann and his teammates took over.
"To me, this shows how far We've come this season," Pardee said. "This has got to help us down the line. Hey, this is a big win for us, it's our fifth. And don't think we are finished yet."