It is a piece of magic, what the Redskins have done. Perhaps we should sit back and enjoy it rather than furrow the delicate brow by trying here to figure out how they did it.But no. How did they do it? How did they escape from a locked and chained death box dumped into the Tidal Basin from George Allen's moving car?
There the Redskins were, sinking like Fanne Foxe. Everyone knew it. The Over the Hill Gang had been fired. Everyone knew that had to be done. The place was becoming a nursing home in cleats.
But how to replace the old codgers? All the Redskins had were low draft picks. Great gnashing of teeth was heard as they put the Redskins in straightjackets and stuffed them into that death box. Despair, even despondency, ruled the day. What the Redskins needed was Houdini, and all they had was . . . Joe Thesimann, who couldn't even swim for talking all the time.
Which makes the escape a Wonder to Behold! Here are the Redskins today, winner 10 times in 15 games. Here they are, one victory away from a division championship and three victories away from going to the Super Bowl. Here they are, bone-dry and laughing, when we all thought they were Dead, Drowned, Done Forever (or at best an 8-8 club that might make the Cowboys break a sweat).
Amazing things have happened: Joe theismann the quarterback is better than Joe Theismann the mouth ever was . . . From those low draft picks and from free agents, the Redskins found seven or eight guys who can flat play . . . The bitter old men have been replace by happy faces, making the clubhouse fun rather than mean, a place where age, color, salary and status have been replaced as standards by which the Over-the-Hillers wanted to be judged -- replaced by talent, discipline and goodwill, which means a very good coach, Jack Pardee, now can teach his stuff to people who want to learn it . . . And --
-- Yes, the Redskins have been lucky. They have had only two major injuries. And because Pardee has used so many people so well, Buddy Hardeman and Ken Houston could be replaced without an apparent decline in quality. . . . We could go on: the hiring of Fred O'Connor, the running back coach, added a disciplinarian/offensive mind who helped change the team chemistry from idle bitterness to active, businesslike pride . . . And the old men still around, Diron Talbert and Houston and Coy Bacon and John Riggins and Terry Hermeling, showed the kids by their work that they were not going to sink in any locked death box.
"It was the pride of the old guys and the intensity of the new guys, along with simple game plans by a great coaching staff," said Pete Wysocki, a Redskin five years now.
Another old guy, seventh-year man Dave Butz, said, "The key was having so many young guys who learned the systems so quickly. They're all smart. And we are all pulling for each other this year. There isn't anybody sitting on the bench bitching about he ought to be playing."
From the top to the bottom, NFL teams may vary in talent 10 percent. Attitude, as much as talent, wins NFL games. That's the lesson NFL players should learn from Hollywood Henderson's axing in Dallas. It also is a lesson to be learned from the Redskins' work this season.
Tom landry didn't fire Hollywood because the guy had forgotten how to make a tackle. He fired Henderson because the linebacker had forgotten he was part of a team. Landry knew -- as a great coach would -- that a henderson on the bench would poison his team.
Henderson was undisciplined. He was a confessed manipulator addicted to self-glorification. Only one of his kind is enough to upset the fragile chemistry -- the one-for-all mentality, no less true for being corny -- that a football team must have to escape from a locked box down there with Fanne Foxe's garters.
"Our morale has been excellent," Wysocki said. "It has to be when you don't have a team with 80 jillion superstars. We recognize that. And the coaches recognize it. That's why they are playing so many people every week. They want everybody involved. They want everybody thinking they're an important part of this team. This is our team."
Sometime last summer Bobby Beathard, the Redskin general manager, got together with the team's big boss, majority owner Jack Kent Cooke, a man who brooks no malarkey. Give it to me straight, Bobby, how good are my Redskins going to be this season? So Beathard pulled out a Redskin schedule and put a "W" by each game he thought the team would win and an "L" by those they would lose.
The boss and hired hand added up the Ws and Ls that day last summer.
"Ten Ws, five Ls and one question mark," Beathard said two days ago.
In the summer anyone predicting such outrageous success should have been carried away, either to the funny farm or to Congress, whichever had a bed open. Beathard, though, works with a confidence earned in the mid-1970s when, as the Miami personnel man, he hired the Dolphins who have been perennial playoff contenders. Beathard knew he would find good players, low drafts or not, and he knew Pardee, who had done it before in other towns, would make the Redskins a solid team.
By putting Bob Kuziel at center last season, by making Jeff Williams a guard this season, by starting rookie Don Warren at tight end and keeping three old guys inside, Terry Hermeling, George Starke and Ron Saul -- by doing all that, Pardee has created a very good offensive line, the foundation of any good team, that has made it possible for Riggins to gain 1,000 yards and for Theismann to become the quarterback he always said he was.
Pardee has done a job defensively, too. Bacon, at 36, suddenly became a complete defensive end when Pardee made it clear, by firing some old guys, that his order would be followed. Platooning his defenders according to situations -- a second-down linebacker here, a third-down safety there -- Pardee has extracted the maximum results from his people.
But the job Pardee did best, by giving it to his offensive coordinator Joe Walton, was the shaping of Joe Theismann into an amazing quarterback who, under pressure or not, has thrown wonderfully. Once, the yakety-yak quarterback talked big out of hopes the words might be true. Now, no chatter is necessary. Theismann believes in himself.
For an hour a day, three or four days a week in late February and March, Walton and Theismann studied Redskin films to see where the quarterback went wrong last year. "I'd tell Joe what I was thinking on each play," Theismann said, "and he'd tell me what he was thinking."
From those sessions emerged a wiser quarterback by far. Wysocki, in admiration, has called Theismann "Captain Bubbly," because the guy bubbles with life. But there have been times when witnesses thought the bubbles came out of holes in the quarterback's head.
"Now we believe in Joe, too," Wysocki said. "He has been great. We count on him. And we even kid him about the way he is. We voted him the most valuable player on the team the other day. Well, Joe starts making a speech about how there are 45 guys on the team. So we yell at him, 'Shut up, hot dog'."
Ah, yes. One of show business' bright new acts: The Redskins' Magical Escape Extravaganza, Starring Captain Bubbly & His Buddies.