Joe Gibbs weekly proclaimed the importance of the Redskins winning their next preseason game. Meanwhile, the Redskins went 0-3. Then along came Joe Theismann on a television pregame show last weekend, saying, "It is mandatory we win tonight." You may have wondered: If these are only warmup wars, what's so mandatory about winning? History students know.
They know the precedents that foretell gloom for these Redskins.
The Redskins lost that mandatory-win game to Cincinnati and ended the exhibition season as football's only 0-4 team.
Since the NFL cut its exhibition schedule to four games in 1978, only seven other teams lost all four games.
Those seven teams did miserably in the real season, too. Their records: 2-14, 5-11, 5-10-1, 6-10 and three 7-9s.
The Redskins lost all their exhibitions two other times in the last 20 years. They were 0-4 in 1965 and 0-5 in 1963. They followed those warmups with 6-8 and 3-11 seasons.
Perhaps this exhibition season is a fluke. The Redskins played three playoff-caliber opponents, including Super Bowl runner-up Cincinnati. Perhaps an 8-8 team, as the Redskins were in 1981, couldn't win against such teams. So maybe the 0-4 is not telling.
To deny the significance of the stumbling start, however, is to deny the truth of probability. Seven other teams went 0-4 in exhibitions and none reached .500 in the real season. If we accept the probability that the Redskins will be the eighth to suffer so, the question is: Why have the Redskins, a Super Bowl team 10 seasons ago, fallen so far they haven't won a playoff game since 1973 and haven't made the playoffs since 1976?
The answer begins with George Allen giving away the future with profligate spending of draft choices. The equation includes Bobby Beathard's hit-and-miss drafting and impatience that leads him to trade away No. 1 draft choices that Allen left. And the answer includes Jack Kent Cooke's refusal to follow through on his public promises to do anything -- even buy a first-round draft choice -- to make his Redskins "even more dominant than the Dallas Cowboys."
Today's NFL winners are built patiently. Teams with good personnel people -- they don't have to be geniuses -- can produce winners if they do nothing but draft. Probability ensures that enough of the drafted players will be good to make the team good. If a team has no draft, as Allen made sure the Redskins had no draft by trading choices for veterans, then that team must have a talent-hunting genius to sustain even mediocrity.
Because of Allen's trades, the Redskins had no No. 1 choices from 1968 to 1979. They are paying the piper. They are mediocre, with a patchwork roster of low-round draft choices and free agents. Unless a miracle happens, they are five years away from a Super Bowl.
Beathard, in his fifth season as general manager with orders to undo Allen's damage, has succeeded only in part. The team was crumbling around Allen's ears. Beathard has stopped the rot. But his work has not been touched with genius, as demonstrated by his second-round choice of Mat Mendenhall and third-round choice of Carl Powell (one floundering in his third year, the other released yesterday).
Impatiently, Beathard reaches too far for the bold move that will hurry up a process that resists being hurried. Super Bowl teams are made over years, not overnight. Beathard in his first year traded the 1979 No. 1 for Lemar Parrish and Coy Bacon. Those two contributed two good seasons. That is not enough in return for a No. 1.
Beathard also traded this year's No. 1 choice for last year's third-round choice of Russ Grimm (along with a fifth-rounder, Dexter Manley, and this year's second-rounder, Vernon Dean). Grimm is a very good offensive lineman; the defensive end Manley is inconsistent, and Dean is as lost as the other Redskin cornerbacks.
Ask this: Would the Cowboys trade a No. 1 to draft a second-round cornerback, third-round guard and fifth-round end?
No, because it's too much a gamble against probability.
You win by going with the odds, not against them. The Steelers proved it (on their last Super Bowl team, not a player ever worked anywhere but Pittsburgh). The Cowboys have drafted players in every round of every draft since 1970 (with the rule-proving exception of 1980 when they traded a No. 1 and No. 2 for John Dutton).
Look also at last year's Super Bowl teams.
Of San Francisco's 45 players, 18 were chosen in the draft's first five rounds.
Of Cincinnati's 45, 29 came in those critical first five rounds.
The Redskins' roster had seven players they chose in those five rounds.
Beathard argues, convincingly, that the trade of a No. 2 for Joe Washington is a steal. Still, trading two No. 2s for Wilbur Jackson -- even in a panic situation when John Riggins walked out two years ago -- is an act of impatience that undermines the draft process for years.
Cincinnati has made a choice in every round of every draft in every year of the team's existence. Because Paul Brown bows to probability and is so confident he can be patient waiting for success, the Bengals never traded away a No. 1. They traded to get more No. 1s. In 15 drafts, the Bengals had 20 No. 1s.
San Francisco built its defense through drafts the last two seasons when it had 11 picks in the first five rounds (the Redskins had seven picks).
One thing more. Patience works wonderfully with occasional daring. San Francisco needed a defensive end badly, as did the Redskins. When Fred Dean became available, the Redskins wouldn't buy him. The 49ers paid a second-round choice and a switch of first-round drafting positions. That's not expensive for a Pro Bowl player.
The Redskins have been neither patient nor bold. They passed over Dean, as they later passed over Bruce Clark and Renaldo Nehemiah. Cooke, the owner who once said he wanted a "first-class club, no matter what it takes," said Clark and Nehemiah wanted too much money. Their salary demands, if met, would create dissension among other Redskins, Cooke said. So off they went to the Saints and 49ers, while the Redskins still search for a defensive end and a wide receiver.
The 0-4 start is the logical conclusion of such impatience and timidity.