The consensus at Redskin Park this week was that maybe it was a good thing, over the long haul, that the St. Louis Cardinals' Neil O'Donoghue had kicked a game-winning field goal last Sunday.
First, O'Donoghue's kick sped 21 yards in the game's final seconds to beat the Redskins, 26-24, at Busch Stadium and create a three-way tie for first place in the NFC Eastern Division between the Redskins, Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys.
Then, the ball crashlanded on the Redskins' consciousness. "It put us in place," said defensive end Charles Mann. "You win five straight and you forget what losing is like. Now, we remember."
The Redskins will play the New York Giants at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Meadowlands (WDVM-TV-9). The Giants are 4-4 and, like the Philadelphia Eagles, are just one game behind the trileaders. At the halfway point of the season, five of parity's children are separated by only one game.
The Giants lost to the Eagles last week, 24-10. Six weeks ago, the Redskins beat the Giants, 30-14, at RFK Stadium to start their five-game winning streak.
The Giants have established almost no running offense this season, averaging a chuckle-inducing 2.8 yards per carry. In a 33-12 defeat by the Los Angeles Rams, the Giants gained eight yards on 13 carries. Their offensive line is young, with two rookies and one second-year player. In fact, rookie left tackle William Roberts has an ankle injury and is expected to be replaced Sunday by a third rookie, Conrad Goode.
And the Giants' most consistent producer of last season, kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh, is having nightmarish difficulties. As a rookie, Haji-Sheikh kicked a league-record 35 field goals in 42 tries last season. This season, he has made just five of 15 field-goal attempts. No wonder some New Yorkers are calling him Ali Haji-Shank.
The Redskins are favored by seven points over the Giants. Then they will tiptoe through what should become a nourishing November, against five opponents (Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Minnesota) currently a combined 12-28.
Coach Joe Gibbs has a more immediate, more troublesome matter on his mind, though. He is not worried so much about the Giants, the Cardinals or the Cowboys. Said Gibbs, "The thing that concerns me is our play. If we play subpar, we know we will get beat. Last week was a perfect example of that."
The Redskins' offense was held to 296 yards by the Cardinals and now will face one of the league's superior defenses. The Giants held the Redskins to a season-low 260 yards in Week 3.
"Last year we set a league record for most points scored," said guard Mark May. "This year, we'll set a league record for most injuries. We're not scoring like we used to." (Last season, the Redskins scored a league-record 541 points; they are on a 434-point pace this season, averaging 27 points per game, fifth best in the league.)
The Redskins' defense had been on a five-week tear prior to last week. That's when quarterback Neil Lomax unraveled the pass defense for 361 yards and three touchdowns. Strong safety Ken Coffey is expected to play the entire game Sunday, while Tony Peters again rests his lower abdominal muscle pull.
"We did not play well last week. We want to get back to the dominating defense that we played against Dallas at the end of last season (a 31-10 victory) and against the Rams (a 51-7 triumph) in the playoffs," said linebacker Rich Milot, who will return to the starting lineup against the Giants. Milot's elbow has recovered enough for him to start and for linebacker Monte Coleman to return to alternating play situations with Mel Kaufman on the left side.
The Giants' two greatest strengths are quarterback Phil Simms (12 scoring passes, six interceptions and 55 percent completion rate) and an aggressive pass defense that is made most effective by blitzing linebacker Lawrence Taylor (eight sacks).
The Giants had a 2-0 record this season when Simms showed accuracy and big-play capability. But he completed just 22 of 45 passes against the Redskins in Week 3 and had three passes intercepted by cornerback Vernon Dean, who returned one 36 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, turning the Redskins' 16-14 lead into a rout.
"That has been somewhat of a letdown," Simms said, recalling what has transpired since the Giants' 2-0 start. "We have played very well to win the games we have won, but I don't think we have the kind of talent to be a great offensive team . . . We rely on our defense. Our defense has the potential to be great. We just want the offense to be stable."
It seems the Giants' defense has been the unit that has kept the team from falling off the face of the football earth in recent years. This season, the unit has been tough to run against, even tougher to pass against.
Redskins' quarterback Joe Theismann completed just 15 of 31 passes for 145 yards, with two interceptions, and was sacked twice by the Giants earlier this season. Fullback John Riggins ran for 92 yards on 30 carries, with a long run of nine yards, in that game. It's no coincidence that Riggins' lower back pains became worse after playing the Giants.
"My memory of that game is at the goal line: it was Riggo against Carson. They went at each other head to head," said Gibbs, referring to the Giants' all-pro inside linebacker, Harry Carson.
When the two players' smacked helmets at the goal line, Riggins somehow managed to fall forward, for a one-yard touchdown. "(Offensive guard Russ) Grimm made one of those fantastic scrambles that you could only see on the game films," Gibbs said. "He hit Carson just enough so that it got Carson a little offbalance when he hit John."
Gibbs knows, too, that the Hogs of his offensive line are in a bit of a bind due to injuries. All-pro center Jeff Bostic is out for the season with a knee injury and will be replaced Sunday by Rick Donnalley. Veteran right tackle George Starke again missed practice time this week due to his pained right knee, although line coach Joe Bugel said Starke likely will start.
If Starke does not, May would replace him at tackle and Ken Huff would start at May's right guard spot. That would mean three of the five down linemen would be at different positions, hardly the type of continuity the Redskins desire. Further, the Hogs never have started a game with two of their five down linemen missing.