Out of the mouths of babes sometimes comes the essence of NFL parity.
I was playing John Wooden to a collection of second graders in a low-key basketball league a while back, and we were rebuilding. Champions the year before, we faced the season without a big man. On tippy-toes, nobody came close to 5 feet.
We struggled, used every gimmick 7-year-olds can grasp. And lost. Badly. Got shut out once. Ever seen that happen in basketball? We did it, 16-0, to players almost good enough to try jump shots.
Came the last game of the season, and 12 minutes of dribbling off assorted feet and shots that usually missed the entire backboard produced a 2-2 tie at halftime. As my team caught its breath, a bolt of reality suddenly hit Jimmy. His eyes widened and a smile appeared.
"Hey," he shouted. "Those guys are as bad as us."
We won in a rout, 6-2.
Something similar may have struck the Redskins a few weeks ago. In Chicago, perhaps. Or at home against the New England Patsies. Awful beyond belief the first five games, the Redskins have pulled themselves by their cleatstraps all the way up to mediocrity.
They have discovered the truth and the light about the NFL. Offensive trickery be damned. If you run a small-risk attack, the other guys will find a way to lose most times. As long as nobody kidnaps Joe Washington and Mark Moseley keeps kicking field goals from the next time zone.
Men will be playing touch games in outer space before the next NFL team worth remembering more than a season emerges. Who will we toast in the future? Who will be compared with the '60s Packers and the '70s Steelers?
Last season's Super Bowl champs, the Raiders, are a game under .500 after 11 of the 16 weeks. The Cowboys have all but clinched a playoff spot despite the statistically worst pass defense in the conference. The league is bad enough for Bart Starr to save his job.
Five weeks from season's end, seven NFC teams have the fourth-best record in the NFC. They are not all tied for the final wild-card position, of course, but anyone who tries to sift though all the tie-breaking possibilities now shortly will be offsides in a looney league.
An assumed Super Bowl team, Atlanta, is wallowing among the stinkers. Vince Ferragamo has managed to keep teams in two countries out of the playoffs so far. San Diego's defense might not be able to throw Gary Coleman for a loss. The once-proud Colts are reduced to their owner, who knows little beyond air conditioning, babbling plays from the press box.
The latest issue of Sport magazine illustrates how quickly the fate of NFL teams can change. The cover is a picture of quarterback Steve Bartkowski and the suggestion that the next NFL dynasty will be his Falcons. Perhaps, though they do not have a winning record at the moment.
Inside, the magazine features the strong areas of "losers." One of the teams, the 49ers, has a three-game lead in the NFC West. Another, the Bengals, has a two-game cushion in the AFC Central. Three others, the Jets, Giants and Redskins, are in the playoff chase.
For the Redskins, the coaching staff finally knows it belongs in the NFL. Good fortune really does follow disaster now and then. From the day it was assembled, many within football volunteered unsolicited praise, talked about Joe Gibbs and his assistants as teachers and innovators.
Healthy as they now are, the Redskins are doing nothing more than what was expected before the season. They made a deep commitment to offense, two first-round draft choices, a second for Washington, and it finally is paying dividends.
The Redskins predicted they would get a very good offensive tackle prospect. It happened, though his name was not the one they had in mind. As very often happens with blockers, an obscure player, Joe Jacoby, has outperformed a more heralded one, Mark May.
Guard Russ Grimm evidently is all General Manager Bobby Beathard said he would be after a draft-day trade with the Rams enabled the Redskins to choose him on the third round and L.A. to get Washington's first-round pick next year.
Beathard wanted to take Joe Cribbs on the second round a year ago, but Buffalo had an earlier choice. For the same price this draft, Beathard got a wiser, quicker model, Washington.
Three choices that high, and the return of John Riggins, should make a dramatic difference in a 6-10 team. Lately, they have. With ailments no more serious than anyone else in the league, the Redskins ought to be winning more often than not against such as Detroit, St. Louis and the Giants.
And at least scaring such as the Cowboys here Sunday.
The Redskins have exactly the sort of offense that should frustrate Dallas the most, a short-passing game that attacks obvious weaknesses while striking quickly enough to keep a wicked front four from treating quarterback Joe Theismann as though he were a nacho.
Having done about what they were hired to do, not panic under adversity and win most matchups of equal personnel, Gibbs and his staff get a chance to strut against a better team. This one might be a track meet with more scoring than the 35-34 classic of two years ago.
The Cowboys still see the Eagles as their major rival. Unlike a few weeks ago, they are paying strict attention to the Redskins.