Apparently, reports of the Washington Redskins' demise were a bit premature.
Last night, the Redskins (2-3) salvaged their reputation -- and perhaps their entire National Football League season -- with a convincing, 27-10 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals (3-2) before 53,134 at RFK Stadium.
"This win was just like that first win five years ago," said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, remembering his 0-5 start as a coach here in 1981. "We needed this badly . . . It was one of those days where they caught us when everything was going right for us."
How right? Just when you thought his career was on the rocks, there was quarterback Joe Theismann running 14 yards for the first touchdown, throwing for two more -- 10 yards to Gary Clark, eight to Clint Didier -- and throwing no interceptions.
Just when you figured the Redskins never would force another turnover, there were five interceptions -- the most in two seasons for Washington's defense in one game -- and one recovered fumble.
Just when you decided the Redskins always would have trouble stopping an opponent's kick returns, there was a revamped coverage team that allowed an average of just 12 yards on four kickoff returns, far better than the previous 37.3-yard average.
Left for dead before this game, the Redskins are very much alive and kicking this morning, with five days to prepare for Sunday's home game with the Detroit Lions at 1 p.m.
"We played as well as we can play," said Gibbs. "It's been a tough time for us. We've been searching for the right formula, and, hopefully, we've found it."
The formula was so familiar: run the ball. For the first time, two Washington running backs each rushed for 100 yards in a game.
Starter John Riggins gained 103 on 17 carries; George Rogers gained 104 on 25, but fumbled on back-to-back carries (losing one). Combined with a defense that sacked Neil Lomax four times (three by defensive end Charles Mann), it was the total victory that had eluded the Redskins all season.
"I said all week that the Redskins are a walking time bomb and I hope they didn't go off against us," said St. Louis guard Joe Bostic, Redskins center Jeff's brother. "Well, they did. They exploded right in our face, that's all I can say."
While one game does not salvage a season, it certainly can make a losing team very happy.
"At least it takes some of the heat off," Theismann said.
Theismann's statistics were not all that impressive: 11 for 20 for just 83 yards. But he made none of the mistakes that marked his first four games.
"We played with more enthusiasm and emotion that really started last week (in the first quarter against Chicago)," he said. "Nobody cared what was going to happen. We just felt no one was going to deny us the victory."
The game never was close. The Redskins jumped to a 10-0 lead with less than nine minutes gone in the game and, without a 99-yard kickoff return to deflate them this week, never really let up. The Cardinals never got closer than seven points.
When the Redskins ran to the locker room at halftime, staring at a scoreboard that told the world they were leading, 17-3, there had to be several players who thought, "It's about time."
About time, they surely said, that they got some field position.
About time that their kickoff coverage team didn't look like Swiss cheese.
About time that they scored some points.
Finally, a few breaks went the Redskins' way. For only the second time all season, they began a drive on the opponent's side of the 50-yard line. That was the Redskins' first possession. It happened again on the second and third possessions.
Net result: 10 points and renewed confidence. First, it was Theismann completing a 49-yard drive with a 14-yard bootleg around right end with 4:12 gone in the game. Then, on the next drive, it was Mark Moseley's 33-yard field goal after the Redskins stalled at the St. Louis 17.
Meanwhile, the Washington defense made Lomax, the third-rated quarterback in the NFC, look like Theismann, circa Dallas, Sept. 9. The fiercest of pass rushes encircled Lomax, forcing incompletion after incompletion until he started to dump the ball to his backs.
The Cardinals outpassed the Redskins, 243 yards to 83, but were outgained on the ground, 238 yards to 95.
Talk about role reversals. The Redskins going places? The Cardinals going nowhere?
"After we went down 10-0, I tried to make things happen, and you can't do that as a quarterback," said Lomax, who was 18 of 33 with four of the five interceptions (Scott Brunner threw the last).
"We were in dire straits," said Redskins free safety Curtis Jordan. "When we want to storm the gates, we're like maniacs."
An apt description for Mann and his buddies. The honor roll of interceptors began with rookie Raphel Cherry at the end of the first half, then bounced to Mel Kaufman, who intercepted Lomax inside the 10 in the third quarter, and Darrell Green and Rich Milot and Vernon Dean, who had to sit out awhile in the first half because of a mild concussion.
"Our defense just played out of sight," said Theismann.
In the second quarter, Neil O'Donoghue kicked a 22-yard field goal to pull the Cardinals to 10-3, but Theismann answered with a 10-yard pass to Clark for his first NFL touchdown.
Moseley added a 29-yard field goal in a sloppy third quarter that included a 51-yard run-fumble by Riggins, then St. Louis cut the margin to 20-10 with Ottis Anderson's 10-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
That touchdown was set up by Rogers' first fumble, at the Washington 19. He carried on the first play after the kickoff and fumbled again, whereupon Riggins pulled off his jacket and went in.
"We won't hesitate (giving the ball to Rogers)," Gibbs said. "I think he's a 100-yard back. We started off with John, and then George looked so quick I was content to stay with him."
Any Washington worries were assuaged when Didier caught an eight-yard touchdown pass with 2:28 to play.
Rookie linebacker Joe Krakoski, signed by the Redskins last Tuesday, was waived just before the game when the Redskins signed defensive end Doug Barnett, a former Los Angeles Ram who also is a long snapper.
The Redskins grew concerned over the weekend when linebacker Chris Keating, Pete Cronan's replacement at long snapper, twice hiked the ball over punter Steve Cox's head in practice.
Krakoski, an impressive special teams player, might return when the team's snapping situation is settled.