An unsuspecting Steve Dils didn't learn until just before kickoff yesterday that he would be Minnesota's starting quarterback. But ultimately it was the Redskins who received the biggest shock of the day when the previously low-scoring Vikings embarrassed them with an overwhelming offensive blitz that left Washington thoroughly confused and battered.
"It was a nightmare," Coach Jack Pardee said after the crushing 39-14 loss at RFK Stadium that finally should put to rest any playoff talk at Redskin Park. "We made every kind of mistake we could have made. We aren't very proud of the way we played."
The Redskins couldn't wait to go after the inexperienced Dils, who replaced injured starter Tommy Kramer. But, by the time the contest ended, they had seen all they wanted of the former Stanford star. Dils shredded their No. 1-ranked defense for a season-high 200 yards while throwing for two touchdowns and holding up under every gimmick Washington could toss at him.
The Vikings wound up gaining 401 total yards, the most Washington has surrendered this season. And the 39 points were the most against a Redskin team since 1970 when Dallas scored 45. In the past two weeks, the Vikings had scored only two field goals.
The better Dils played, the more the 3-6 Redskins seemed to self-destruct.
All the problems that had plagued them earlier in the season, when they were losing five of their first six contests, came back to haunt them.
Their running game was nonexistent. They picked up penalties at the most inopportune times, the most prominent being a running-into-the-punter call on John McDaniel in the third period to ruin any chance of a Redskin comeback from a 23-7 halftime deficit they had quickly reduced to 23-14. They missed tackles, made killing mistakes and got uncharacteristic errors from their special teams.
They even added a new trouble area: their defensive substitution pattern was thrown into chaos by the Vikings' ingenious decision to keep 12 offensive men on the field until the last possible moment.
The result of that maneuver was to disrupt Washington's defensive calls. Minnesota wound up frequently with superior matchups and the Redskins had to call timeouts twice in the first half because, first, they had too many men on the field and, then, too few.
"It looked like we didn't know what we were doing," Pardee said, referring to the frequent confusion caused by Redskin players running on and off the field belatedly on almost every defensive play, "but we really got things straightened out by halftime."
It took Washington a half also to straighten out its offense.
Until the final three minutes before intermission, Joe Theismann had not completed a pass and the Redskins had registered only one first down. By then, Minnesota had a 23-0 lead, thanks in part to a safety (Theismann was tackled in the end zone) and a 70-yard runback by Keith Nord on the ensuing free kick by punter Mike Connell.
"I guess you could say it was a teamwide breakdown," linebacker Monte Coleman said. "The offense, defense and specical teams all had their problems. We kept looking for a turning point to get us going, but it never came."
Still, nothing can detract from Dils' performance. He had thrown only eight passes in his two-year NFL career and didn't expect to start this game. But Kramer, who has a sore hand, was bumped by Coach Bud Grant after going through warmups.
"He played better than Kramer has recently," Redskin safety Mark Murphy said about Dils. "He throws more to his backs and shorter. Kramer likes to go long, but they didn't do that much today."
Instead, Minnesota played what Pardee called "a basketball offense, just flip the ball out to the backs on the side and let them run. It's like a fastbreak offense." With Washington using six defensive backs to shadow the Vikings' talented wide receivers with double coverage, Minnesota had little choice but go to the backs, and with great effectiveness.
Rickey Young and Ted Brown, the team's starting backfield, had 10 catches between them for 110 yards, with Young grabbing a five-yard pass for Minnesota's first touchdown. A two-yard pass from Dils to reserve tight end Joe Senser early in the second quarter extended the lead to 14-10.
Then the Vikings again drove deep into Washington territory. The march stalled and Minnesota set up for a field goal, only to gain a first down at the three when Jeris White jumped offside. Again, the Redskins held, halting Brown inches short of the goal line on fourth down.
Moments later, however, Washington's joy ended. Theismann, running a rollout, sprinted left from his 10 while the rest of the offense pulled right. Defensive end Randy Holloway penetrated quickly and grabbed Theismann as he tried to pull away in the end zone. The quarterback couldn't shake loose and was downed for a safety.
The Redskins quickly compounded that mistake with a bigger one. Connell punted from his 20 and Nord caught it in the middle of the field, cut to the right sideline and raced right through the Washington coverage. Connell had the last shot at him but couldn't push him out of bounds and Nord sprinted across the goal line.
It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown against the Redskin since 1975, and the first by a Viking against anyone since 1967. Worse, it gave Minnesota a 23-point lead.
Washington immediately came back for a touchdown.
Theismann completed his initial pass of the half after eight misses. Then two strikes to Art Monk of 14 and 13 yards, respectively, had the Redskins at the two with 31 seconds left in the half. Two plays later, Theismann withstood a savage blitz and found Clarence Harmon for a one-yard scoring pass.
"We talked at halftime about getting things together and playing a real good half, because we still could win," Theismann said. And the Redskins did perform well to open the third period, driving 65 yards in 14 plays to narrow the lead to 23-14 on a one-yard run by Harmon. Passes of 10 and 14 yards and a ten-yard run by Theismann preceded the Harmon plunge.
The home crowd, which had been booing loudly, now came alive. The Washington defense responded by forcing a Minnesota punt at the 34. But McDaniel, trying to block Greg Coleman's kick, ran into him instead for a Viking first down.
"I just missed by a fraction of an inch," McDaniel said. "I took a gamble and lost. I wanted to make a big play, because we needed it. It was just an unfortunate thing, that's all."
Nevertheless, the Redskins had another chance to stop the Vikings. Three plays later, end Joe Jones had his hands around Brown's waist deep in the backfield, only to have the Viking runner break away and dash for a first down. Then a roughing-the-passer penalty on Perry Brooks and an unneccessary roughness penalty on Joe Lavender moved Minnestota to the three, from where Young scored the pivotal touchdown for a 30-14 lead.
"We had a chance to get back into the game and killed ourselves," Pardee said. "The penalties were errors of judgment. You just can't have penalties like roughing the kicker and those personal fouls."
Theismann would up with decent passing statistics -- 20 of 34 for 206 yards -- but he admitted the offense "didn't execute well. They didn't do anything differently than we studied. We just didn't do the job out there."
But Dils did. "He kept us off balance all day," middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz said. "They ran when we thought they'd pass and passed when we thought they'd run. And by keeping those guys on the field for so long before the snap, we didn't always have the matchups we wanted in the game.
"This will be a big week coming up. People were thinking about the playoffs and now that is pretty remote. It will take a lot of effort to keep everyone ready to play from now on."