The Redskins ended their five-game losing streak and presented Joe Gibbs with his first head coaching victory today, thanks mostly to the generosity of the Chicago Bears.
Instead of committing turnovers, as had been the case until today, the Redskins finally forced mistakes. Three of four Bear errors led to two Washington touchdowns and a field goal, enabling the Redskins to ease to a 24-7 triumph before 57,685 fans in Soldier Field.
"It feels like a big weight has been lifted," Gibbs said in the middle of the Redskin locker room. "We kept hoping and praying that we would stop making turnovers and killing ourselves. That's what finally happened.
"I knew we'd win one eventually. After putting in all the long hours, well, no one goes through harder times than when you are losing. You are supposed to win, this is a winner's game. I really feel good for our players. They worked hard every week, and now they know it was worth it."
For the first time this season, the Redskins did not set up an opposition score through a turnover. Their only mistake came on a Joe Theismann interception in the third quarter, but the Bears were so inept offensively they couldn't take advantage.
Gibbs had lectured his players all week about protecting the ball and not helping the Bears. But he never expected that Chicago would wind up being afflicted with the same problems.
The Redskin offense also became conservative today, relying on its heretofore docile running game for 227 of the team's 301 total yards. Fullback John Riggins accounted for a season-high 126 yards and Joe Washington had 88.
The Washington defense, which had been burned consistently for big plays, confused quarterback Vince Evans with a variety of blitzes and secondary coverages that resulted in his worst performance as a pro.
Evans completed eight of 37 passes for 131 yards before leaving the game in the fourth quarter after being decked on a blitz by cornerback Jeris White.
Walter Payton also was ineffective. Playing despite a very sore leg, Payton gained five yards on five carries before sitting out most of the second half. Last year, in a 35-21 Bear triumph, Payton had scored two touchdowns in the first 25 minutes.
One of Evans' interceptions was returned 10 yards for a touchdown by middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz, who broke up an attempted screen play for halfback Walter Payton. Another was returned 26 yards by defensive tackle Dave Butz, who was tackled at the Chicago one after messing up yet another screen pass. And a third, by cornerback Joe Lavender, resulted in a 38-yard Mark Moseley field goal.
The Bears didn't score until 97 seconds remained in the game. By then, most of the fans had left the stadium and the Redskins already were hugging each other and shaking hands along the sidelines.
"We had to have this one, we had to win," guard Russ Grimm said. "The more we lost, the more we were doubting ourselves, the young guys in particular. Now we just have to build on this one. Now we know we can win. We don't want to go backwards."
Even injuries couldn't stop the Redskins today. Early in the fourth quarter, tackle Mark May (broken nose) was out and Grimm was playing tackle for the first time ever. And then tackle Joe Jacoby (sprained neck) had to be carried off the field. May came back in and the Redskins completed a 69-yard, nine-minute drive when Riggins swept into the end zone from the two to make it 24-0.
"We stuffed it to them when we had to," May said. "That wasn't bad for a young line, was it?"
Even though the Redskins opened in a two-tight-end formation with two running backs and only one wide receiver, Gibbs said he hadn't intended for the team to run as much as it did.
"What the formation does is it turns Joe Washington into a wide receiver when he jets out (goes in motion)," Gibbs said. "It was just another look. But as the flow of the game became apparent, I just wanted to make the Bears go a long way every time they got the ball. I wanted to keep them backed up.
"This was also the first time both Riggins and Washington have been healthy at the same time since the first game. We gave John a chance for some heavy ball carrying for the first time, too. He showed how well he can hold up when you give him a chance. We needed him and he came through."
Of the 25 passes Theismann wound up throwing, most were no longer than five yards, either swings to his backs or little dump attempts over the middle to his tight ends. The Redskins were content to play ball control, letting Joe Washington run wide and Riggins up the middle against an obviously discouraged Bear defense.
This was Riggins' 17th 100-yard rushing game, but his first since returning after sitting out last year. On the Redskins' final scoring drive, he gained 62 yards on 10 carries, mostly by running over tacklers.
But the game still belonged to the Washington defense, which had only three interceptions in the first five games. The Bears could complete only 11 of 41 passes and finished with just 204 total yards.
"We are healthier now and we can do more of what we want to do," Defensive Coordinator Richie Petitbon said. "We changed things up a little, blitzed some more, played well. I thought we came in with a great frame of mind and it showed."
Lavender's interception came when Evans tried to split zone coverage. The Redskin cornerback leaped, caught the ball and returned it to the Bear 24. Washington couldn't get a first down and Moseley, who had missed a 40-yarder on the previous series, was successful this time from 38.
"We were disguising a defense and Evans didn't read it right," Lavender said. "It was early in the game and it was a good time to confuse him."
Twenty-four seconds later, it was 10-0. On a second down pass from the 19, Evans tossed a screen pass to Payton. Olkewicz, who was covering him man to man, batted the ball with one hand, then caught it and looked up at the 10. He had nothing but clear field to the end zone.
"I haven't scored a touchdown since high school," said Olkewicz, a former fullback. "It was a great thrill, coming like this in a game we needed. We knew we had to force turnovers. We just had the right coverage on, and I was following my man. I just wish I had spiked it, but I got so excited it was hard to think about anything."
Butz helped make it 17-0 late in the first half by appearing in the middle of another Bear screen to Payton. He, too, had an unimpeded path to the end zone, but was caught from behind at the one. Two plays later, Riggins scored his first touchdown.
Gibbs was content in the second half to nurse the lead and rely on his defense. It proved to be a correct move. Even when the Bears began one possession at the Redskin 39, they wound up having to punt after Evans was victimized by one of Washington's four sacks.
"Chicago just wound up playing us the day we finally played the best we have," Gibbs said. "I can't describe how good this one feels. This time, it's going to be a happy plane ride home for a change."