A funny thing happened in the St. Louis Cardinal locker room Monday: Pat Tilley, the wide receivere, told Ken Stone, the free safety, "I'm kind of thinking of playoffs."
The 3-7 Cardinals think they can get into the National Football League playoffs?
"That kind of took me back," Stone recalled yesterday. "But it's realistic if you think about it."
All the Cardinals have to do is win their last six games, figures Joe Sullivan, the team's vice president for football operations, and that would start with a 1 p.m. game Sunday against the Redskins at RFK Stadium.
Oh, what a victory will do, like last Sunday's 37-7 triumph over Minnesota, in which the Cards' running back, Ottis Anderson, became the second rookie (earl Campbell was the first) in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards rushing.
"If we can play at that level," said Sullivan, an assistant here under George Allen, "we can give everybody we play a hard time. We play Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Cincinnati, Chicago and San Francisco. It's possible (to win all six). We're certainly in a class with those teams."
The Cards figure their toughest games, one with Pittsburgh and two against Dallas, are behind them.
The last time Washington and St. Louis met, the Redskins won, 17-7, and held the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Anderson to 67 yards in 19 carries. It was his least productive day as a pro. He also fumbled away a pass early in the game that Don Hover recovered for a touchdown.
Anderson is holding onto the ball better now, but the Cardinals remain plagued by injuries. When kick returner Thomas Lott went on the disabled list Tuesday, he was the seventh such Cardinal since the season started.
Last week against Minnesota, the Cardinals started only two regular offensive lineman, center Tom Banks and right guard Terry Stieve, and only one of the usual linebackers, Eric Williams, in their 34 aligment. The others have been injured.
No position better illustrates the St. Louis blues better than that of tight end. J. V. Cain, a very good player, collapsed and died on the field in training camp. Until the Cardinals obtained Gary Parris from the Cleveland Browns, Al Chandler had been the starter.
With Parris, and free agent Bill Murrell developing as a good backup, St. Louis put Chandler on waivers. The next week Parris hurt a leg -- and Chandler had been picked up by New England because Russ Francis had been injured.
This week, in addition to Lott, who will be out four to six weeks with a knee injury, the Cardinals list Parris, guard Bob Young and tackle Keith Wortman as questionable.
A number of their offensive linemen have tried to play injured. But last week some of them could not go and Coach Bud Wilkinson started such unfamiliar players as George Collins at Young's slot and Brad Oates at Wortman's position.
The Cardinals gained 325 yards rushing, a club record, and there was speculation that the healthy, lesser-known players had done so well because they were at full speed.
"The offensive line," said Sullivan, "kind of had a certain amount of pride among themselves that they would play every game. Pride got them to come back and play sooner than they should. Maybe they don't level with the doctors and trainers and come back too soon.
"You like that spirit, but sometimes it's better to rest. Last week they just couldn't go, so the youngsters went in and did a good job."
Stone looked at the situation from a different perspective -- unemployment.
"You find that in the liague," he said, "because of the insecurity of the profession. There's always someone waiting to take your job."
However, it appears that Anderson will not have to worry about anybody taking his job for a while.
Simply put, the Cardinal game plan now is to get the ball to Anderson.
"(Quarterback Jim) Hart had a good day throwing and it kept Minnesota off balance," said Sullivan. "But the big thing is to get the ball to Ottis Anderson. The game plan is to feature him running -- and put in some passes to him, also."
In addition to his 1,000 yards, in 203 carries, the rookie from Miami leads the Cardinals in receptions with 31.
"He's worried himself crazy about catching the football," said Sullivan. "He finally seemed to relax against the Vikings. He should have no problems because he does have excellent hands."
In the seven weeks since the Redskins last played St. Louis, when they used a number of safety blitzes to stymie the Cardinal offense, Redskin free safety Mark Murphy has noticed, watching films, subtle improvements in Anderson's performance.
"He seems to be running better, picking up his blocking better," Murphy said. "You don't see the ball on the ground as much now. He protects it better."
Anderson is that rare running back, a man with the power to run inside, yet with the speed to get outside. One way the Cardinals take advantage of this is with short passes, especially screens.
"It's almost like a run, like the Bills used to do for O. J. (Simpson)," Murphy said. "It gets the ball to him at the line of scrimmage."
"He's a gifted athlete, a power back with speed," said Stone. "I'm glad we have him. I'd hate to have to tackle him."
And that got Stone back to thinking about the playoffs.
"There are few teams we're going to play that have more talent than we do," he said. "There's no reason we can't win the final six. It's not going to be easy at all. There's no reason we can't do it -- but I'm not going to guarantee it."
Cornerback Lemar Parrish was fitted with an air-cushion vest yesterday, but did not practice. His rib injury makes him questionable for the Cardinals, but Parrish said he plans to run today, get back to drills Friday and expects to play.