Little mattered to the Washington Redskins late today except that little scoreboard with the flashing bright numbers high atop the Hoosier Dome.
The Redskins' 35-7 victory over Indianapolis' cuddly Colts, before 60,012 boo-prone fans, had been guaranteed much earlier. These Redskins had watched quarterback Joe Theismann throw four touchdown passes, three to wide receiver Art Monk to build a 28-7 halftime lead. They had watched John Riggins rush for 94 yards and the 102nd touchdown of his career and they had watched their defense sack the Colts' quarterbacks five times and hold the league's No. 2 rushing team to 71 yards on 20 carries.
So now, they watched the bright numbers. At last the scoreboard blinked the most meaningful of messages: St. Louis 31, Dallas 20.
Redskins free safety Curtis Jordan said, "We'd been watching all day and when that came on the screen, there were some rather profane words of ecstasy on the sidelines."
And so, one month later, the Redskins' reversal is complete: four straight victories have offset an 0-2 start. Now, the Redskins are back to what has become the status quo since Joe Gibbs became coach in 1981: they are back in first place in the NFC Eastern Division, back even with Dallas (also 4-2), with Tom Landry's team headed to RFK Stadium this Sunday.
"If there were any thoughts about us being lackluster," tight end Rick Walker said, "they have been erased. A new life has been formed. It's like back in the first year in 1981 when we started 0-5 (and finished 8-8). Only this time, we didn't take five weeks to do it."
Little went wrong for the Redskins today. The worst came when defensive end Dexter Manley suffered a sprained ankle late in the game. X-rays showed no fracture. "Day to day," trainer Bubba Tyer said of Manley's status.
This was, without question, the Redskins' most complete game of the season, as they controlled the ball for 40 of 60 minutes. The Colts (2-4) began nine of their first 10 drives inside their 24, so dominant were the Redskins on kick coverage.
Of course, these Colts are splendid foils for such masterpiece efforts.
"It was just a gradually disintegrating team effort," their free safety, Nesby Glasgow, said. "Luckily, the Redskins called off their wolves in the second half."
Actually, the Colts had a chance to take control early. It came on their first possession, to be precise, when the game was still scoreless.
When running back Randy McMillan was held to a one-yard gain, the Colts reached fourth and one from their 15. The Redskins declined a holding call against the Colts on the play, figuring surely that they would punt.
Kush had other plans. He opted to try for a first down. McMillan took the handoff and broke to the outside, away from the short-yardage defense crowded near the line of scrimmage.
McMillan was off on an 85-yard touchdown run and an apparent 7-0 lead.
"My heart sunk," Gibbs said.
"I knew I couldn't catch him," said defensive tackle Darryl Grant, who weighs 275 pounds.
But the touchdown didn't count. Tim Sherwin, the Colts' tight end who had gone in motion on the play, was cited for holding. It seemed the Colts were broken for good. Typical.
"It upset a lot of us," said Mike Pagel, who completed 10 of 23 passes for 140 yards and was intercepted twice by cornerback Vernon Dean (who has all six of the Redskins' interceptions this season). "It seemed like a late call. I saw the guy throw the flag and Randy McMillan was already 20 yards downfield."
Gibbs conceded, "That was a terrible break for Baltimore. If that hadn't happened, the game could have been a lot different."
Perhaps Gibbs had forgotten that the Colts had moved from Baltimore to this city. Perhaps, too, the Colts' coaches had forgotten to tell their cornerbacks to cover receivers, not merely chaperone them.
Soon after McMillan's negated touchdown run forced a punt, Theismann threw a 10-yard scoring pass to Monk for a 7-0 lead with 9:01 left in the quarter. Monk beat cornerback James Burroughs, who had his back turned away from the lobbed pass.
It mattered little that the Colts recovered a fumble by Monk at the Washington 34 and proceeded to score on Alvin Moore's two-yard run. The score was tied at 7-7 with 3:20 left in the first quarter.
Nevertheless, the Redskins' offensive and defensive lines simply controlled the game, wearing out the Colts, just as they had worn out the Giants (30-14), the Patriots (26-10) and the Eagles (20-0) over the last three weeks.
"The defense, over the last three or four weeks, has played the best since we've been here," Gibbs said.
This is made all the more remarkable in that the defense played without such injured starters as all-pro free safety Mark Murphy, defensive end Todd Liebenstein (both on injured reserve the last few weeks), linebacker Rich Milot and strong safety Tony Peters (replaced today by Ken Coffey).
Early in the second quarter, Monk beat cornerback Eugene Daniel for a 48-yard touchdown pass deep down the left sideline, regaining the lead at 14-7. Theismann's throw into the end zone was nearly perfect.
Still later in the second quarter, after Burroughs had suffered an ankle injury and had been replaced by rookie Tate Randle, Theismann lobbed a 16-yard scoring pass to Monk. The beaten man was Randle. The Colts played three cornerbacks and Monk beat each for a touchdown.
The game was over by the half. The Redskins' offense added a third tight end for "60 to 70 percent of the game," Gibbs said, to help block the Colts' active outside linebackers and because the wide receivers have been depleted by injury. With added blocking, Riggins scored from the one in the second quarter, which ended with the Redskins leading, 28-7.
Riggins ran 18 times for 88 yards in the first half alone. He still is 30 yards short of reaching 10,000 in his career. He played despite lower back pains that, he said, made him "more stiff than I've been all season . . . I've felt better playing with hangovers than I did today."
It didn't help Pagel and the Colts that running back Curtis Dickey (knee strain) and all-pro tackle Chris Hinton (fractured leg, out for the year) were injured in the first half and didn't return.
But, as Walker said, "No sympathy from here. We had (injured running back) Joe Washington sitting up in the press box watching this game and (injured receiver) Charlie Brown sitting back at home watching on TV."
By game's end, Monk had caught eight passes for 141 yards. In Brown's absence, Mark McGrath caught seven for 82 yards, including Theismann's fourth scoring pass, an 11-yarder late in the third quarter for the game's final points. This was a considerable effort for a player who had caught five passes for 52 yards in three previous professional seasons.
Theismann was 17 of 20 for 267 yards. "It was probably one of the best games of my career," he said.
The Redskins finished with a season-high 446 yards in total offense and the passing game, alive at last, accounted for 268 of them.
"The recent criticism of the passing game was a media phenomenon," said Theismann, who had thrown for 145 yards or less in each of the last three games. "Because we run the ball a lot, we don't get the (passing) stats. And everybody looks at the stats."
Told that Gibbs had been the person who first expressed dismay over the passing game, Theismann turned nearly apologetic. With a smile, he said, "Excuse me. I gotta go have a talk with Coach."
While Pagel was saying, "I'm sick and tired of everybody saying we're young and inexperienced," tackle Joe Jacoby was one locker room and one world away, saying of the Redskins, "Now what? We wait until Sunday."