The Redskins' season ended today, just when they produced a performance worthy of a playoff team.
"One game short, just one game short," Coach Joe Gibbs said after his players had defeated the listless Los Angeles Rams, 30-7. "I'd love to able to keep playing. But we didn't start (playing well) early enough."
After losing their first five games, the Redskins won eight of their last 11, losing only on the road to Dallas, Buffalo and Miami. All three made the playoffs.
"I'd like to be able to tack the first five games onto this end of the schedule," guard Russ Grimm said. "If we didn't have that 0-5 start, we'd be in the playoffs. But we'll just rest six months and then keep it going just like we finished."
Still, the Redskins realized that a .500 record after such a dismal start was a heady accomplishment, especially considering the roster turnover and the early injuries that beset Gibbs at every turn.
They could have folded after the first five games, just as the Rams appeared to do today after falling behind, 16-7, at the half. Instead, Washington continued to improve.
"I never thought we were an 0-5 team even when we were," said veteran tackle George Starke. "It gave a false picture. I thought we could finish .500 and we did. Now these people expect to win when they come onto the field."
Just ask the Rams. They were overwhelmed by a Redskin offense that gained 502 yards, second-highest total of the season, and an improving defense that gave up 165, second-lowest.
It got so bad for quarterback Dan Pastorini (eight completions in 21 attempts, 102 yards, one interception) that Coach Ray Malavasi took pity and finally replaced him late in the third quarter with rookie Jeff Kemp, the former Dartmouth star who played at Churchill High School in Potomac.
"Once they got behind, it looked like they sort of lost it," said Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator. "I guess they used up everything Monday night (against Atlanta). But we still played well. It was a good effort, and the offense helped out by holding the ball for so long."
Except for two mistakes, the offense was so effective it probably could have scored another 14 points. Certainly, the Redskins had no trouble moving the ball against a defense that had been ranked first in the league against the pass and fifth overall in the conference.
Against the Rams' highly regard secondary, quarterback Joe Theismann completed 14 of 22 passes for 247 yards. He didn't have to throw more because his running game was accounting for another 241 yards, the most Washington has gained on the ground this season.
"It didn't surprise me, it amazed me, the way we moved the ball on them," said Theismann, whose 293 completions this season broke the team mark of 288 set by Sonny Jurgensen. Running Gibbs' offense, Theismann wound up with the second-best seasonal passing statistics of any quarterback in Redskin history.
Gibbs hadn't expected things to work so easily, either.
"This was the smoothest operation we had offensively all season," he said. "The Rams play you tough and we knew to win, we had to hit some long ones on them or they would press us to death."
It was a long pass to receiver Art Monk, covering 64 yards, that broke this one open for the Redskins after the Rams had taken a 7-6 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
Washington had scored first, moving 60 yards on the opening possession behind the running of Joe Washington (38 yards on three carries) before Theismann and Washington combined on a four-yard touchdown pass. Mark Moseley's attempted conversion was blocked.
The Rams rallied after holding the Redskins on fourth and one at the Los Angeles 27. For the only time in the game, Pastorini was able to blend passing and running well enough to keep Washington off balance. Cornerback Jeris White helped out by interfering with receiver Billy Waddy in the end zone, giving the Rams a first down at the one. Three plays later, Mike Guman went over on an end sweep, Frank Corral made the extra point and Los Angeles was in front.
On first down after the ensuing kickoff, Monk beat cornerback Leroy Irvin's pressing attempts at the line. Then it became a matter of Theismann's throwing the ball long enough to catch up with Monk. He did, although Monk had to slow down a bit and almost dropped the pass before being tackled at the six.
On third down, fullback John Riggins (15 carries, 56 yards) scored from the one behind blocks from Grimm and tackle Joe Jacoby, the Redskin members on the league's all-rookie team. This time, Moseley made the extra point and Washington was in front for good, 13-7.
"We used a play-action fake on Art's pass," Theismann said. "The Rams fell for it and that made the play. It's wonderful what you can do when you have a running game working. We didn't have that early in the season and we had to pass too much."
A 34-yard pass down the middle to Monk (two catches, 98 yards) set up a 35-yard field goal by Moseley. An interception in the end zone by cornerback Pat Thomas, after a 37-yard completion to Terry Metcalf, turned back one first-half threat, and time ran out before Moseley could try a short field goal at the end of the half.
The Rams weren't so fortunate in the second half. The Redskins, who held a 351-89 advantage in total offense at intermission, got one touchdown (a one-yard run by Riggins, his 13th rushing score of the season) after Monte Coleman's interception at the Los Angeles 39. They got their final points on a 39-yard completion to receiver Virgil Seay after Joe Lavender intercepted Kemp. Seay beat all-pro cornerback Rod Perry on a straight fly pattern down the left sidelines.
"Perry came up to me and told me he knew better than to go to sleep for one play," Theismann said.
Said Gibbs: "Every time this season we've limited our turnovers and forced two or more, we've usually won. When we were losing, we were the ones making all the mistakes."
Following their opening possession of the third quarter, the Rams were never in Redskin territory again. By early in that half, their fans were booing on almost every play. By the middle of the fourth, the stadium was more than half empty. It's been that kind of season for Los Angeles (6-10), which was in the Super Bowl two years ago.
Things ended differently for the Redskins. Joe Washington had another superb day, running for 96 yards (his draw plays constantly befuddled the Rams) and catching four passes, although he missed by three breaking the club record of 72 receptions. The Redskin offense, which gained 486 yards last week against Baltimore, wound up scoring the second-most points and gaining the most yards and first downs of any Redskin team in one season.
Mike Nelms returned two kickoffs for 60 yards and finished with 1,100 for the season, breaking the team mark of 1,086 set by Larry Jones in 1975.
"This team ought to feel good about itself, the way it came back from that start," said Gibbs, who completed his first season as a head coach on any level. "And I hope the town feels good about us, too. We can use what we did at the end of this season to build for next year. It leaves a good taste in everyone's mouth."
There is no question the players were pleased.
"We set as our goal, after we were 0-5, to finish at least 8-8," Coleman said. "Now we can say we didn't have a losing season. In fact, I think we really had a winning season, considering the way we came back. That's how I'm going to remember what happened."