For 60 minutes tonight, in a game that lasted 210 minutes, the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Colts found ways to play poorly. They committed 31 penalties, dropped passes, missed tackles and blocks and generally made most of the 44,937 in Memorial Stadium wish they had found another way to spend a glorious August evening.
But two players, with brief flashes of brilliance, showed that the game can still be beautiful.
For the Redskins, who finally won this marathon, 13-7, the hero was Mike Nelms. For the Colts, although not a hero, the artiste was Bert Jones.
Nelms was the man responsible for the Redskins' only touchdown, returning a punt 54 yards with 7:26 left in the third quarter, giving Washington the points it needed to win.
It was a sweet moment for Nelms, who had a 59-yard return for an apparent touchdown called back in the first quarter because of a clipping penalty. It was his first return for a touchdown since coming to the Redskins from the Canadian Football League two years ago.
"It's a great feeling to break one like that," Nelms said. "When the first one was called back I was a little disappointed, but not really down because it gave me confidence that we could break one on them.
"On the one in the third quarter, they had been bunching up in the middle so we just set up a wall left. I got the blocks. Without the blocks I never get anything done."
Nelms is modest. Although his blockers helped spring him, he broke two tackles and ducked two more as he went down the left sideline and then outran the Colts to the goal line.
"I'm still learning about returning punts in the NFL," said Nelms, 26. "In Canada the players aren't as big or as fast and the field is much larger. And there they have to give you five yard of room when you catch a punt.
"Here, if you're not going to fair catch it, which I don't like to do, you're apt to get tagged the minute you catch the ball. Last year I spent a lot of time worrying about bobbling the ball. This year I'm a lot more relaxed and that helps me get started quicker."
There was double irony involved in the Nelms return that came back. The man called for the clip was Nelms' roommate and close friend, Rickey Claitt. The man Claitt was called for clipping was Dallas Hickman, a Colt for 24 hours and a Redskin until five days ago.
"It was a good lick, a clean hit and I told the official that," Claitt said. "If i can't get a guy clean I just step back and let Mike miss him. You've go to hustle like crazy for a returner like Mike because you know if you get him a block he can go anytime."
On a night when Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs struggled to find good things to say about his team -- "We just couldn't get a ball caught," he said -- he had plenty of praise for Nelms. Our guys love to bust a gut blocking for Mike," Gibbs said. "He's just an unusual football player. They know that he'll sell out everytime so they want to sell out for him. They are just better blockers when he's back there. I think that's the case whenever a team has a great return man."
Nelms, who played in the Pro Bowl last year, looked at tonight's accomplishments as just a tuneup. "This is exhibition," he said. "This is still for learning and for all of us to get to know each other out there. I still have to prove to my blockers that if they do something good I'll make it worthwhile."
Jones has proved himself for many years. But tonight was a significant test for him because he had missed a full week of workouts and had only played two preseason quarters because of a sore shoulder. Coach Mike McCormack had planned to play Jones for as much as three quarters in this game and ended up playing him into the fourth quarter.
"Bert still needs a lot of work because he's missed so much time," McCormack said. "That's why I wanted to get him as much work as possible tonight. He knows he still has a ways to go to be sharp."
Perhaps. But in the first half Jones, 30, brought back memories of the quarterback of the mid '70s who led the Colts to three straight divisional titles. Throughout the first half he was throwing to his receivers, beating good Redskins coverage. He even scrambled for first downs on occasion, risking his tender body and drawing cheers from the often skeptical Baltimore crowd.
"I felt pretty good most of the game out there," Jones said. "In the second half we made so many mistakes that we were constantly in a hole and it was difficult to get anything going. A lot of that gets back to timing. I still need a lot of work before I'll feel as if I'm ready."
An incomplete pass in the third quarter on a play that didn't even count because of a holding penalty made it clear that Jones can still throw a football. Running to his right to dodge the Washington pass rush, Jones stopped and threw a perfect spiral 65 yards in the air to wide receiver Ray Butler. Naturally, in this game, the ball was dropped. Naturally, there was also a penalty.
Finally, just to prove that the Colt fans still love him, Jones was booed late in the game when he ran in on fourth and sixth at the Redskin 31 to replace backup quarterback Greg Landry.
"They needed a messenger, that's why I went in," Jones said. "(Don) McCauley was already in the game and they wanted the play to go to him. There were no tight ends available and they didn't want to put in a fresh lineman on fourth down. I just said, 'Guys, I'm here,' and they sent me in."
As for the booing, Jones smiled thinly. "It's only an exhibition game," he said. "I'm not worried about any of that. I'm worried about getting ready to play.
Juding by this game, both teams have a lot of work to do. But Nelms and Jones showed tonight that when Sept. 7 arrives they will definitely be ready.