To put what happened yesterday in RFK Stadium in its proper focus requires looking back more than two months. Impossible as it now seems, the Colts had a better record than the Redskins five weeks into the season. And, although both teams seemed capable of sliding to monumental depths, only Baltimore did.
On the evening of Oct. 4, some customers in RFK were covering their heads with bags on which were written: "Deadskins." After the 49ers had humiliated them, the 0-5 Redskins were the only winless team in the NFL. The possibility of 0-16 was raised. Coach Joe Gibbs was asked if he feared for his job.
How did this resurrection come about? How can one team continue to self-destruct, to lose every game after a season-opening success, and the other still have a remote chance for the playoffs? What makes the Redskins now 24 points better than their equal in futility not so long ago?
"They got problems," former Colt Joe Washington said over his shoulder as he left the dressing room, "and I know what a few of them are."
He wouldn't be specific. Neither would the other Redskins, who were having a hard enough time trying to pinpoint the reasons for their reversal of form. Today, we let 'em crow. The Colts have shown us how awful a team in the Redskins' early season position can become. Today, we drift among some once-maligned Redskins and let 'em brag.
General Manager Bobby Beathard, who had questioned the Redskins' will to win after the 49er game: "We never thought 0-5 was indicative of this group. We had injuries, really bad injuries (to such as Washington and Mike Nelms). I like to look at the progress of players and a team as you would a chart, and everybody here has gone up."
If they make the playoffs, if the combinations of their beating Los Angeles next week and other teams losing actually come to pass, do the Redskins deserve to be there? Beathard's honest self spoke first: "No. Not if we're 8-8." Then his public self recovered that verbal fumble, and he quickly added:
"But it'd be great to be there. And I'm certain we'd do all right if we got there."
In his return to St. Louis the third game of the season, Terry Metcalf had endured a fumble-laden performance and a sign that read: "Be yourself, Terry, we need a turnover." Yesterday, he said, "We were giving the other teams more chances than we should have with turnovers. Also, we weren't real ready yet with the new (offensive) system. Chicago gave us a little momentum."
Ah, yes, the Bears. What if Vince Evans had not been thoughtful enough to throw a touchdown interception to Neal Olkewicz and another pass that Dave Butz hauled to within a yard of the game winner?
"Our bad luck had to even out," safety Mark Murphy said. "I saw lots of things happen those first five games I couldn't believe."
One of them was Dwight Hicks of the 49ers plucking a Metcalf fumble out of the air and dashing for a pivotal touchdown. Last week, while Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil was screaming for a timeout, the Redskins' Monte Coleman grabbed a tipped screen pass and scored a touchdown in a 15-13 victory.
"The Colts (now) look like we did in the beginning," Murphy said. "It's like they're standing around waiting for bad things to happen."
During that ugly stretch, boos were smacking Joe Theismann the way interest rates were many other businessmen.
"Our 7-3 record the last 10 games is up there with anybody's in the league," he said yesterday. "Times like that (0-5) are when you really have to suck it up, to find out how much you really want it. I was not a happy person back then. But our mistakes (and he included his own) were correctable."
Gibbs was under the most intense pressure of all after the 49er game. A rookie coach, he easily could have lost his composure, and his team.
"I remember after about three or four weeks my paper carrying an item about Mike McCormack jumping on some of his players in a press conference," said Mark Moseley. "Right at that point might have been bad, because if a coach criticizes you in public, it can all but destroy your confidence.
"He (Gibbs) never did that. He'd point out mistakes, but he also kept encouraging us."
And what could possibly be positive about an 0-5 team?
"We had great stats, offensively and defensively," Gibbs said.
He also realized a football team is quite delicate, that public panic and irrational behavior can make a bad situation irreversible. He remembered how a seemingly splendid move last year in San Diego, the acquisition of Chuck Muncie, inexplicably had been followed by a three-game losing streak.
"I also realized how much Joe Washington and Mike Nelms meant to this team," he added. "And we helped ourselves on the special teams by adding some players (Pete Cronan, Alvin Garrett and some others) and bringing some back (Dallas Hickman and Rickey Claitt)."
Like so many of us, Gibbs began the season with the feeling that if two runners (Washington and John Riggins) are better than the extra tight end on hand they ought to be in the game at the same time. For some reason, one great back at a time has worked better.
The Redskins whose positions demand that they be leaders -- Washington, Nelms, Theismann -- have acted the part during the good times. Nelms and Washington, especially, scratch and drive for every inch.
"They treat me okay," said Washington, "I'll play. The better they treat me, the better I'll perform."
These Redskins also have illustrated one sporting truth: it's not the final record that often matters, but when you achieved it. In Jack Pardee's first season, 1978, they had a 6-0 start, ended about where they should have all along, 8-8, and much of the town was incensed.
"I'd rather get there the way we're doing it," Murphy said.