Like fallen leaves at the onset of winter, there was no mistaking the signs of change for the Redskins on Monday night. First, there was Joe Theismann, his right leg a gruesome tangle, being wheeled off the field buckled to a stretcher like a crate of eggs. Late in the game there was Mark Moseley, statistically sound but largely irrelevant this season, jeopardizing their lead by missing an extra point and standing on the sideline in lonely anguish. And later, with the game on the line, the redoubtable John Riggins, having asked out after fumbling twice, slipping into his red nylon windbreaker, watching someone else carry the weight that for so long had been his alone.
Theismann, Moseley and Riggins, now 36, 37 and 36, with full, distinguished careers to look back on. Theismann and Moseley chosen most valuable in the NFL, Riggins similarly honored in a Super Bowl and bound for the Hall of Fame.
Surely we all knew sooner or later it would necessarily come, that crest on their graphs after which the lines inexorably slide. But who suspected we'd see a game of this symbolism, when there would be such a dramatic confluence of all three graphs? They'll not go gently into that goodbye, but they're all going.
The face of the Redskins is changing.
Sooner, not later.
In assessing the damage to Theismann, and its resulting damage to the team, we find ourselves looking at the glass of water and asking: Is it half-full, or half-empty? It wouldn't surprise me if next to sympathy for Theismann's plight, the second most pervasive feeling in the Redskins organization is that at least the quarterbacking software can be rewired cleanly, without rancor and division.
Theismann has been a great quarterback. But not this season. After 11 games he is ranked 13th of 14 NFC quarterbacks, ahead of only someone named David Archer in Atlanta. Of the 28 quarterbacks ranked in the entire NFL, only Vince Ferragamo's minus-12 differential between touchdown passes and interceptions is worse than Theismann's minus-8, and Ferragamo has been benched in Buffalo. How many, if any, coaches would have been as loyal to their slumping quarterback as Joe Gibbs has been to Theismann?
But although Gibbs may be a beneficiary in the sense that the decision to play Jay Schroeder -- or, rather, the decision to cease playing Theismann -- has been made for him, the Gibbs axiom "One-and-Only-One-QB" is now under unflattering light. Gibbs had been winning his gamble that at 36, Theismann would remain healthy and durable, but ironically, in winning that hand, Gibbs was in danger of losing the pot. Now if Schroeder does poorly, people can say Gibbs left him unprepared. If Schroeder does well, people can say Gibbs should have played him sooner. (Those of us who thought Theismann was being disproportionately blamed for the failure of the passing game when, in fact, his receivers should have shared that blame, had our eyes opened on Monday night when Schroeder's passes found willing hands and when Schroeder led the Redskins to the most second-half points they'd scored all season.)
In any event, Theismann's injury has irrevocably shifted his position on the team. He's a compleat competitor and he'll undoubtedly attempt to play again. But the equation has changed. Schroeder has honors; he can win the job outright. If he fails, the Redskins must draft or trade for a quarterback, because they can't reasonably deed the job to Theismann -- he probably won't be able to even work out until mid-May at the earliest. Should Theismann make a complete recovery, it is still unlikely that he would be allowed to play ineffectively for as long as he was this year. Three or four straight dull performances would put him where the Bengals put 36-year-old Ken Anderson, on the sideline in an advisory capacity.
Schroeder will be the man on the spot for the rest of the season, but isn't it curious what happened behind him in the last few minutes? While John Riggins and George Rogers -- about 1.4 million dollars worth of talent -- were on the bench, Keith Griffin, who probably hasn't thought too much about tax shelters recently, was in the backfield trying to protect the ball and the two-point lead. If that isn't time for the Riggo Drill, what is? According to Gibbs, Riggins had taken himself out, telling the coach, "It's not working, give George a shot." Can you guess why Rogers, who now has the third-highest rate of fumbles among NFC running backs, wasn't in at the end? As Gibbs said, "We had three turnovers from our big backs, and Keith gets going so I said, 'What the heck?' " Giving Griffin the ball wasn't always the Redskins' safest alternative. Not to play the Ironic Card too often, but you may remember that last season Griffin had the highest rate of fumbles of all running backs in the NFL.
So where does this all leave the Redskins? At 6-5, on that playoff bus with three teams, one of which, Detroit, they've already beaten, and the others, San Francisco and Philadelphia, on their schedule, and an untested, unproven understudy kid at quarterback. The worst that can happen is they tube this year. The best is that they gain the next 10. Yesterday they told you, you would not go far. Next day on your dressing room they've hung a star. There's no business like show business.