It was, perhaps, the strangest Sunday Washington has seen from its Redskins at RFK Stadium. After an afternoon of angry protests and surprisingly respectable play, the Redskins' replacement team presented everyone on the scene -- strikers, fans, coaches and one ecstatic owner -- with an enticing victory over a team that had no right to lose.
The totally nonunion Redskins beat the partially nonunion St. Louis Cardinals, 28-21, to keep Washington in a tie for the NFC East lead with a 2-1 record. St. Louis dropped to 1-2.
But that's only part of the story. For the first time since 1966, the Redskins did not sell out 55,750-seat RFK: 44,763 tickets were sold for this game, but only 27,728 spectators showed up. There were 17,035 no-shows and 10,987 unsold tickets. Those who did come heartily cheered the replacement Redskins at every turn, and even chanted, "Stay on strike," several times during the fourth quarter -- although they undoubtedly weren't loud enough to be heard outside by the striking team.
When the clock ticked off the final seconds, the Cardinals, playing with 11 regulars, helplessly stood at the Washington 6-yard line, with no time remaining for another play to possibly tie the game. An improbable game was over. The new Redskins joyously jumped on the field, hugging teammates they did not know two weeks ago. Coach Joe Gibbs smiled for the first time in 13 days. Minutes later, in the locker room, owner Jack Kent Cooke made a rare trip to find his coach, wrapped his arms around him and exclaimed, "Oh God, I love you."
The strike took football away from the fans for one week. A startling scouting and coaching performance gave it back to those Washington fans who were interested enough to watch.
A wide receiver named Anthony Allen, who played for Atlanta last season but showed up to play for the Redskins late Wednesday and practiced just three days, set a Redskins team record with 255 receiving yards. He caught seven passes, three for touchdowns, from quarterback Ed Rubbert, who completed 14 of 24 passes for 334 yards on the day. Allen broke Gary Clark's record of 241 yards, set nearly a year ago against the New York Giants.
NFL owners have said records set in nonunion games will count. Allen said he didn't much care either way because what mattered to him was the performance, not the record.
"I needed a day like this to show teams I still can play," Allen said. "They can put an asterisk by it. Fine with me."
Allen caught a 34-yard pass to put the Redskins ahead, 7-0, with 1:20 left in the first quarter, then an 88-yarder for a 14-7 Washington lead with 9:05 left in the second quarter, and, finally, a 48-yard pass to put his team ahead, 28-14, with 3:02 left in the third period. He beat two nonunion cornerbacks on the first and last touchdown catches, and got by all-pro strong safety Leonard Smith, who went for the interception and didn't get it, on the 88-yard play. That pass play was the longest by the Redskins in nearly 12 years. Frank Grant caught a 96-yard pass from Billy Kilmer against the New York Giants on Nov. 9, 1975.
Allen, the Falcons' sixth-round draft choice in 1983 out of the University of Washington, had told seven teams he was not interested in playing during the strike. But Charlie Casserly, the Redskins assistant general manager, called Monday and again Tuesday, and, after thinking about it, Allen agreed to join the Redskins Wednesday, four days before this game. Offensive assistant Dan Henning was Allen's head coach in Atlanta and knew Allen could help the Redskins in an area that was a problem -- speed at wide receiver. Allen, who bounced around the U.S. Football League for a while, also liked the idea of playing once again for Henning.
He was asked if he had any thoughts about the striking players outside the stadium, who probably still had no idea what he had done inside.
"They can thank me first and then be mad at me, because I helped them win a division game," Allen said.
Many of the replacement Redskins said they were pleasantly surprised by the warm greeting they received from the sparse crowd when they took the field to warm up. The fans' approval grew as the Redskins repeatedly withstood the test of playing against veterans like defensive end Curtis Greer, the NFC sack leader who didn't get to Rubbert once yesterday; linebacker E.J. Junior, who also was not much of a factor; and wide receiver J.T. Smith, who did have six catches for 116 yards. All-pro Roy Green caught one pass for 16 yards but pulled a hamstring muscle early on and never returned.
"The fans treated us like humans and Redskins, at least for the few days we are Redskins," Allen said.
One of the reasons was that they kind of looked like Redskins. They never fumbled and their special teams looked more than respectable, especially with Derrick Shepard returning three punts for 118 yards, the first for 73 yards seven minutes into the game. Running back Lionel Vital rushed 27 times for 82 yards and an eight-yard touchdown out of the one-back formation, Rubbert played flawlessly except for an interception that linebacker Peter Noga returned 60 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown, and H-back Craig McEwen showed why he almost made the team this summer, catching four passes for 43 yards.
"I'm happy for these guys," Gibbs said. "It was kind of like their day in the sun. Looking at them, I'm happy they had a good day."
Afterward, it was as if the Redskins had won a playoff game, the way the coaches and some players were savoring it.
"This is a superb victory," Henning said. "They had a third of their team walk across the line. We started 10 days ago with these players."
There were some bizarre moments, like when strong safety Charles Jackson was suspended for one play for wearing his left knee pad illegally, or when punter Jack Weil mishandled a snap, then avoided a tackler and somehow got off a 35-yard punt to the St. Louis 15, only to have it all called back for having an ineligible man downfield.
But, overall, the Redskins' quality of play even surprised Gibbs. "It was technically pretty good," he said. "This was rewarding. It was hard to do."
The Redskins led at halftime, 14-7, on the two touchdown catches by Allen, countered by nonstriking regular Earl Ferrell's one-yard run. Ferrell tied the game with another one-yard touchdown with 8:01 left in the third quarter, but the Redskins came back with Vital's scoring run, then the last Rubbert-to-Allen touchdown pass. The Redskins were in control until Noga's interception return for a touchdown with 12:17 left.