Washington's formerly punchless Redskins gained 521 yards and scored 30 points today, yet decisively lost their third straight game when errors by their once-proud special teams led to two St. Louis touchdowns.
Those 14 points were all the Cardinals needed to erect a 23-point lead, offset Washington's superior offensive output and run up a 40-30 victory, their first over the Redskins in Busch Stadium in six years.
For the Redskins, it marked an 0-3 start for the first time since 1965. For the 1981 Cardinals, it was the first success in three starts.
Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs had no problem pointing fingers. He was incensed over the play of the special teams and vowed to make changes.
"When we have a chance to do something great, we seem to screw it up," he said. "There are lots of things that make up a team and we have to put it all together at the same time. We have to find out what our problems are on special teams and correct things as a coaching staff and from a personnel standpoint."
As fast as Gibbs seems to be able to solve one Redskin problem, another crops up to thwart any chance the team has of giving him his first head-coaching victory.
Today, the offense used a two-tight-end alignment to rediscover a running game and it gained a season-high 133 yards, including 104 by Wilbur Jackson, who rolled up more than 80 in the first quarter. And Joe Theismann, receiving excellent protection (no sacks), threw for four touchdowns and a career-best passing total, 388 yards (on 25 of 37). The Redskins outgained the Cardinals by 207 yards.
But the special teams had their third straight poor performance and the defense, which played so well against the Giants last week, could not stop Cardinal quarterback Jim Hart. So the Redskins surrendered 40 points for the first time since 1970.
St. Louis scored one touchdown when Stump Mitchell returned a punt 50 yards in the first half through ragged Redskin coverage. The Cardinals had another score set up when punter Mike Connell fumbled away a fine center snap at the Redskin 13 in the fourth quarter. And Washington had poor field position most of the afternoon because of dreadful kickoff returns.
Hart, coming back from a knee injury that had sidelined him the last two weeks, completed only six passes in the first half. But two went for touchdowns -- 58 yards to wide receiver Roy Green, a converted defensive back, and 27 to tight end Greg LaFleur. Early on, Hart moved past Sonny Jurgensen into No. 4 position in NFL career passing yardage.
In the second half, Hart's ability to nullify third-down blitzes with passes to his backs allowed the Cardinals to run off an impressive 24 plays and take a 40-17 lead before the Redskins had the ball for more than seven plays.
Hart for the day gained 226 yards by completing 12 of 22 passes, including four for 115 yards to Green, who also intercepted a pass as the Cardinals' nickel back.
"This is the most discouraging one yet," said Redskin linebacker Neal Olkewicz, credited unofficially with 10 solo tackles and four assists although he seemed to be involved in almost every second-half defensive play. "We are losing to teams that we shouldn't lose to. We need a win bad, really bad."
When the Redskins jumped to a 10-3 lead in the first quarter on a 21-yard Mark Moseley field goal and a 34-yard Theismann pass to Ricky Thompson off a flea-flicker play, Washington appeared capable of bagging that first victory.
But St. Louis outscored the Redskins, 37-7, over the next 36 minutes. In that span, Washington began drives at its 16, 11, 16, 13, 9 and 22. St. Louis contributed to that poor field position through the fine punting of rookie Carl Birdsong (40.2 average). But the Redskins were hurt considerably when Terry Metcalf and Mike Nelms, their return men, kept wrestling each other for the ball on kickoffs. Usually, either a fumble or a weak return was the result.
"You hate like hell to keep coming in after games and make excuses," Theismann said. "This is just getting difficult to swallow. One day I'd like to be able to say that collectively we played well as a football team and that's why we won. There are three parts to every team, not just one. We've all got to play well at the same time. Then we'll win."
Washington further needs to get healthy quickly, especially at linebacker, where Rich Milot played today despite a still-sore shoulder and where free agents Kevin Turner and Mel Kaufman were hobbling.
"It's hard to be good with so many people hurt," Gibbs said. "We need to get people back and we need to keep improving."
This was the first regular-season effort in which Gibbs' offense functioned properly, after scoring 17 points in the first two games. Yet Hart's ability to pick apart the Redskin secondary, the strength of the team, offset that Washington advancement.
Green's performance stunned Gibbs and his players. Green spent his first two years in the league in the secondary, and caught his first NFL pass just last week against Dallas. "We didn't really know anything about him," Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon said.
The Redskins now know more than they want about the Henderson State product. He beat Joe Lavender cleanly before catching Hart's 58-yard first-quarter pass that pulled St. Louis within 10-9. He outmaneuvered Lemar Parrish for a 35-yard reception from a third-and-27 hole, setting up a 47-yard Neal O'Donoghue field goal for a 12-10 Cardinal lead.
Moments later, Mitchell returned a line drive punt by Connell for his touchdown (only center Jeff Bostic touched him). Then after Art Monk caught a Theismann pass at his own 45 and outran two pursuers for a 79-yard score, Hart capitalized on a Redskin defense that had Olkewicz covering LaFleur. The tight end won the mismatch and St. Louis was ahead, 26-17, at the half.
"It was my man, my coverage but he just beat me on it," Olkewicz said. "We used it earlier in the game and I guess Hart remembered it."
The Cardinals dashed Redskin chances of rallying in the second half with fine ball-control tactics. They ran off nine plays on the opening possession of the third quarter before punting and, after a short Redskin series, drove 82 yards in 12 plays, Hart tossing the last six yards to Dave Stief for six points.
The game was all but decided four plays later. Connell took the snap from Bostic at his 13, stepped forward to kick, took his eye off the ball and dropped it. The Cardinals recovered and used three Ottis Anderson runs, the final one from seven yards out, to stretch their lead to 40-17 with 14:04 left in the game.
Washington made the final score more respectable when Theismann threw touchdown passes of 20 yards to tight end Rick Walker and 10 yards to Thompson, who had his best day as a pro with seven receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
"It's really discouraging when you feel you are improving in one area and then another falls down," Gibbs said. "We went into this game determined to improve our running game, cut down on our mistakes and our turnovers. I think we did all those things pretty well, but now we have something else to solve (special teams).
"We'll get it done. I don't know when, but we'll get it done."