If one play can symbolize a season and help us to understand why the Redskins are 4-0 and the Eagles are 1-3, it might well be the first punt of the second half yesterday at RFK Stadium. Mind games were being played at a fierce pace--and Philadelphia was winning.
The Eagles had intercepted a Redskins special-teams signal, and Max Runager held the ball for perhaps four seconds. That gave his outside rushers lots of extra steps toward one of the few men in football who can spook a team that is 50 yards from the ball: Mike Nelms.
Runager slipped, and the ball fluttered all of 19 yards.
It's been that way for ever so long. Even when they think right, the Eagles often execute wrong. They have lost eight of their last 10 regular-season and playoff games. Even when it should, very little has gone awry for the only unbeaten team in the National Conference. The Redskins are 12-3 since Oct. 11 of last season.
"Like the third interception I threw," Joe Theismann was saying. "Roynell (Young) makes a great return (to the Redskins' 39), but they get caught for holding and we get the first down."
Theismann tapped his head.
"Gotta wonder how those cornerbacks stick their heads in there," he said. "I was 6-foot-1 when I made the tackle; I was 5-5 when I got up."
Still, Theismann made one more tackle than Dexter Manley for the game. That came on his second interception, early in the second quarter, when the Redskins seemed ready for a rout. But the rain made certain the game would be dominated by the defense; Clarence Harmon made certain everybody knew it.
Through a thicket of scribes in the Redskins dressing room, Harmon pushed his way to a defender, Joe Lavender, and offered a postgame smoke.
"Today," Harmon said, "I'll even light it for you."
Lights out is how some of the Eagles must have felt after several Redskin licks. No love taps from Washington defenders any more. Catch a ball this year; get a mouthful of grass.
"We've been so conscious of being aggressive on the run," said Mark Murphy, "that it's carried over to the pass."
The weather and Ron Jaworski sort of helped, but the secondary was sensational. Jeris White, who doesn't talk to reporters, intercepted two passes; Murphy and Tony Peters, who do, got one each.
"We've been on the verge of being excellent," Peters said of the entire defense. "We're coming into our own."
And not a moment too soon. Having beaten the Eagles twice, the Redskins collide with the Cowboys for the only time before the playoffs here next Sunday. That ought to eliminate any complacency a one-game lead on everybody in the conference might bring.
"Got America's Team coming up," Theismann chirped.
Got the defense legally wicked; got Nelms in a mood that can only be called cautiously reckless. He has promised to protect the ball more carefully on kickoffs, having lost fumbles in both poststrike games. He vows to keep returning any punt he can field.
The Eagles kicked away from him whenever possible. Once, Ray Ellis hit his chest the instant the ball did; twice, Nelms grabbed the ball and twisted for a yard or so when the ball was a turn from rolling still and several Eagles nearby, when anyone else would have walked away.
The only punt on which he had any chance for a decent return went 14 yards.
"Could have had a good average (by fair-catching once and not fielding the other two)," he said. "But that's not how this game's supposed to be played. If I can get one yard closer to the end zone, I'll get us one yard closer to the end zone.
"I've never been a stats-conscious guy; I never will be."
If recent history means anything, it might be a good idea for the Redskins' special teams to make a minor mistake early against the Cowboys. They always seem to make a major recovery in a hurry. Yesterday, it was Nelms following that fumbled kickoff with a 58-yard kickoff return after the Eagles had cut the Redskins' lead to 10-9. The run set up Mark Moseley's field goal and the final points of the game.
A good deal of the intrigue came on special teams. The Redskins generally knew which way Runager would punt, right or left, by the way the punt team talked just talked before the snap. The Redskins figured an R-word meant a kick to the Eagles' right; "Louie" or some such meant left.
Nelms accepts any advantage.
Except for Jaworski, the Eagles and Redskins found a way to match something sad with something spectacular. Young made two interceptions, although only one counted; he also was embarrassed on a stop-and-go by Charlie Brown for a touchdown. Jerry Robinson was a favorite Redskin pigeon early, before intercepting Theismann.
After his two interceptions, White was beaten for a touchdown by Harold Carmichael. Then Carmichael dropped what very well could have been the winning touchdown pass. Poor Jaworski. In Washington, he always seems to resemble Craig Morton.
After his two interceptions, Theismann threw beautifully on Brown's 65-yard touchdown. That was only fair, Brown having made a wonderful catch earlier of a play that danced out of Joe Gibbs' mind not long ago.
"The man's amazing," Theismann said as he watched the coach redoodle that flea-flicker off a reverse once again. The play starts with Theismann handing off to fullback John Riggins, who then hands off to receiver Art Monk, who then pitches back to Theismann.
Theismann caused some pens to dart out of control with what he could have done on the play.
"Screen was the first option," he said.
Presumably because everybody thinks long on a flea-flicker.
"But I was going to Charlie all the way," Theismann said.
Next time? Well, it's something for the Cowboys to ponder.