It was a season that began with dreams of a winning record, of the playoffs. Now the Baltimore Colts are trying desperately to avoid being remembered as the least competitive team in National Football League history.
With two games remaining, the Colts are on the verge of league records for futility, even those set last year by the rock-bottom New Orleans Saints.
The Colts bring a 13-game losing streak and 1-13 record into today's 1 p.m. meeting with the 6-8 Redskins in Washington's home closer at RFK Stadium (WRC-TV-4). They are 13-point underdogs. Only one NFL team ever lost 15 games (the 1980 Saints) and none lost more than 14 straight in a single season. Tampa Bay lost 26 in succession in its first two seasons, but statistically, those Buccaneers were far more impressive than the current Colts.
If the Colts give up 262 more total yards, two more first downs, 600 more passing yards, seven more touchdowns and 28 more points, they will establish league marks for dreadful defense, wiping out some that have stood for 15 years.
"We played New Orleans when I was with San Diego and that was a bad team," Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs remarked. "But I know the Colts have talent. We played them in the preseason and we scrimmaged against them. My players know they aren't this bad and that's what I've been telling them all week. It's a mystery to me what has happened."
Baltimore finished 7-9 last year, losing its last three games. But the Colts came within a touchdown or less of winning five more, which gave Coach Mike McCormack reason to believe his second year with the young team would bring continued improvement and probably a winning record.
Those feelings were bolstered when the Colts picked up two excellent players in the April draft, fullback Randy McMillan and defensive end Donnell Thompson. Certainly, no one at Baltimore envisioned anything like what has befallen the team.
Injuries, especially to quarterback Bert Jones and middle linebacker Ed Simonini, played a part. There was the blunder of trading away Joe Washington, who quickly stamped himself the Redskins' most valuable player. And the Colt defense, supposed to be improved, has instead played much worse.
What impact owner Robert Irsay's meddling has had on the team's performance is harder to measure, but it has been considerable. When he began second-guessing McCormack and, in one game, calling offensive plays, he essentially stripped his coach of any authority over his players. Under those circumstances, morale problems usually flourish, and the Colts have been no exception.
John Dutton, an ex-Colt shipped to Dallas in 1979 after a heated contract dispute, says that as long as Irsay owns the team, nothing will change.
"The only way the Colts can turn things around," Dutton said last week in an interview, "is to bring in a front office boss who knows football . . . I can talk to them (his former teammates) and look at their faces and see how much they're hurting inside. They realize they have no future with the Colts.
"You are not talking about washed-up players. They've got talent and character . . . but they've knocked the spirit out of these guys."
Joe Washington, who asked out of Baltimore after lengthy contract problems, does not hide his dislike for Colt management and a string of what he calls broken promises.
But he says he has tried to approach today's game "just like any other. I'm not out to prove anything to them. All they have to do is look at what I've done this year. But you always like to play well when you are playing against your friends. And I have a lot of friends on the Baltimore team. I know they have talent. I'd never have predicted they would be 1-13 this year. I'm just glad I'm here."
Baltimore sources say Irsay has cash-flow problems and may try to sell off minority interest in the team as a remedy. But he apparently has no plans to unload the franchise.
McCormack and Jones, however, have less chance of being around next year. McCormack, a well-liked former all-pro lineman and Redskin assistant, would like to continue but he probably will be replaced, maybe by Frank Kush, former Arizona State coach. Then again, friends of Kush are urging him not to take the job and become involved in the Colt mess.
Jones reportedly already is being offered around to other teams. He is troubled by a chronically ailing shoulder and has been criticized for his frequent onfield temper flare-ups at teammates.
Despite that sore shoulder, Jones probably will start today. The last time these teams met, Jones overcame a sore arm to direct Baltimore to a 21-17 triumph on Monday night national television in 1978.
That's one reason Gibbs says he is "really scared" about this one. "Jones can hurt you if he's on," he said. Besides, Gibbs doesn't want his team to be the one that stopped the Colt losing streak.
"They have the ability to suddenly get hot and beat someone," he said. "I don't want them to be hot this week."
"Joe talked about this game two weeks ago, when we were preparing for Philadelphia," said quarterback Joe Theismann, who already has set a personal record for season passing yards (2,982). "That's the first time he has ever mentioned another opponent that far ahead of time. But we won't be flat. We are taking this seriously. We want to win it badly."
There is yet the matter of the Redskins' very slim playoff hopes. If they win today, they survive at least until Monday night's Los Angeles-Atlanta game. Then, a Falcon loss would keep Washington in the running the final weekend. Some help came yesterday when Detroit defeated Minnesota. A Viking victory would have eliminated the Redskins.
If the Redskins had not switched first-round draft choices with the Rams last spring, they would have selected Thompson, former North Carolina star, as their No. 1 pick . . . The Colts have been outscored, 474-222.