Several Washington Redskins laughed hard enough to make their shoulder pads quiver yesterday when they thought back to the sly and shifty move punt returner Mike Nelms pulled on the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.
The game was tied, 10-10, early in the fourth quarter. Nelms fielded a punt on Washington's 39, ran toward the middle of the field, where four Eagles quarantined him and prepared to make him swallow some of the 40-yard line.
As several Eagles reached to grab him, Nelms, coyly enough, stepped back. Redskins linebacker Pete Cronan, blocking in the middle of this pileup, recalled, "All at once, I heard three Philadelphia guys say, 'Oh, no.' I started giggling."
And Nelms started for the left sideline on an 18-yard gain to the Philadelphia 43, setting up the winning touchdown in the Redskins' 23-13 victory.
"Nobody held on to me hard enough," Nelms said.
"That was a deflating thing to the Eagles," said Wayne Sevier, special teams coach. "Got him stopped cold, then he goes for 18 yards. It happened right in front of their bench. That had to be depressing to them."
"That was the turning point of the game," Philadelphia Coach Marion Campbell said. This, of course, is the same thing Dallas Coach Tom Landry said last January, after Nelms' 76-yard kickoff return set up a touchdown in the Redskins' 31-17 victory in the NFC title game.
"I guess that was my most important return, against Dallas," said Nelms, the former Baylor star. "It did get us to the Super Bowl."
Nelms also has spent the last three Pro Bowls challenging opposing special teams to catch me if you can. Often enough, they can't. He is 28, signed by Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard in 1980 after three years in the Canadian Football League.
Right now, he might be the most proficient kick returner in the league. He averages 25.8 yards per kickoff return (fifth in the conference), 13.1 yards per punt return (third in the conference). "He gives us an offensive weapon on special teams and few teams have that," Coach Joe Gibbs said.
He utterly refuses surrender. Consider that he says he will return all kickoffs less than six yards deep into the end zone.
Consider further that over the last two seasons, plus this 1-1 season, Nelms has returned 84 punts and has made only one fair catch. That was in 1981 and it came unintentionally; when Detroit was penalized for interference on the return, Nelms was credited with a fair catch. A technicality.
"I don't like to fair catch, because I think it would be selfish of me to do it," Nelms said. "The team needs as much yardage as I can get; even one yard gained is better than a fair catch. You never know what can come out of it. The one time I might break it (for a long gain) justifies the 99 times I might not.
"It's possible I might fair catch some time. There are instances where a fair catch might be the thing to do, like if we're ahead with only seconds to play. I might fair catch and let the offense run out the clock.
"But," said Nelms, "I'd rather not fair catch."
"I think it's a thing of pride," Gibbs said. Then the coach chuckled and said, "If that's what makes him happy . . ."
So many times, Nelms has turned a suffocating situation into good field position. Twice in the opener against Dallas he returned punts for more than 20 yards. Then there are the times he returns kickoffs straight into a crowd of defenders, then leaps over them without bodily concern or cape.
"I'll do that when I think I can get more yardage," he said, "and when I don't think I'll get killed."
"We know never to stop blocking on returns until we hear the whistle," said Darryl Grant, the defensive tackle who plays on the kick return team. "The guy's awesome."
What allows Nelms such success? "He's got the subtle moves on impact," said Sevier. "A lot of times, when one of his legs is hit, he'll let it go limp and shift his weight to his other leg. So when he's getting hit, it's more of a glancing blow."
Nelms is more slick than slight, a 6-foot-1, 185-pounder who broke the obstacle course record in the Super Teams competition in the offseason, scaling the feared wall without the aid of the rope provided. "Easy," he said.
Because he has made the Pro Bowl for three straight years and because his 1981 averages were swollen with success (a league-best 29.7 yards on kickoff returns and 10.9 yards on punt returns), Sevier said, "Mike Nelms is a marked man now. Each week, (opposing) special teams are preached to hit him hard or you'll get beat."
To which Nelms says, quite typically, "I can see how some people would fear punt returns. I really never have. It's just not in me. I just do it."
Running back John Riggins did not practice yesterday, resting his injured ankle. He is listed as probable for Sunday's game against Kansas City (1-1) at RFK Stadium. Also listed as probable are wide receiver Alvin Garrett (bruised thigh), strong safety Curtis Jordan (bruised thigh), cornerback Vernon Dean (jammed neck), offensive tackle George Starke (ankle injury) and offensive guard Russ Grimm (slightly separated shoulder). Linebacker Monte Coleman, who has a deep thigh bruise, is definitely out. His return remains uncertain.