Tonight, live and in prime time, comes a "Monday Night Football" game with enough characters and subplots to become a miniseries. This is not to say the game will be a classic. When a 7-2 team plays a 2-7 team, that's not likely. But certain individual performances by the new stars of this show, set against the backdrop of the story of the juicy, L.A.-style demise of a football team, are just too enticing to pass up.
Remember when the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Rams were two hulking teams who used to pound the daylights out of opponents by running them silly? Well, things have changed.
At 9 p.m. at RFK Stadium, Doug Williams will jog onto the field as Coach Joe Gibbs' quarterback of choice. If he plays well, the job will be his for the foreseeable future. If he doesn't, he might not last until halftime.
One of three black starting quarterbacks in the NFL (Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham and Houston's Warren Moon are the others), Williams knows he wears many hats tonight: role model; caretaker while Jay Schroeder gets his mysterious problems solved; prospective hero; veteran playing out the last, or next-to-last, hurrah.
"I've been through a lot," Williams said. "I look at it this way: I'm the starting quarterback. I want to play well and keep the job. What happens next is Coach Gibbs' decision."
"Doug doesn't have to do it all himself," Gibbs said yesterday, after a final closed practice at Redskin Park. "We want him to play a solid game and be sharp. But others have to do well around him."
The Redskins hope to run against a Rams defense that has fallen especially hard especially fast. But starter George Rogers could rush for 200 yards tonight and, Tuesday morning, most fans still will be buzzing about how Williams did.
By closing their practices, the Redskins have spent the last week making people wonder what they've been doing. All season, fans have been wondering that about the Rams.
When the Redskins traveled to Anaheim to play the Rams in the final preseason game 2 1/2 months ago, the talk in Orange County was that this team could contend for the Super Bowl. Problem was, it took them 10 weeks to win a game. The Rams lost their first two games before the strike, then their next three after the strike (their replacements were 1-2), before beating St. Louis, 27-24, last week. To do that, they kept the ball for the final 11:01 of the game, driving 94 yards in 23 plays in the rain to set up Mike Lansford's 20-yard field goal.
"I've never heard of anything like that before," said Rich Milot, who will be back starting at middle linebacker for the Redskins after missing two weeks with a sprained ankle. "You worry about a team with the capacity to hold the ball like that."
Dissension and controversy have rocked the Rams this summer and fall. All-pro running back Eric Dickerson became tangled in a contract dispute and finally was traded in midseason to Indianapolis. Disgruntled cornerback LeRoy Irvin called in "sick," was suspended for a game and returned when he couldn't be traded. And running back Charles White was discovered brandishing a trash can lid in a field one night after a drug-and-alcohol binge.
While players and coaches scratch their heads at what has gone wrong, they know these distractions have only made matters worse. Safety Nolan Cromwell, linebacker Carl Ekern, tight end David Hill, defensive end Gary Jeter and offensive linemen Dennis Harrah, Jackie Slater and Doug Smith are all at least 10-year veterans. This is not a young team. The defense, ranked fifth overall last season, has dropped to 25th. And quarterback Jim Everett still is young and relatively inexperienced.
Many wonder: What's wrong with the Rams?
"Their being in L.A. is part of it," said Washington guard R.C. Thielemann, smiling. "Then they lose Dickerson, and LeRoy Irvin created a stir. I don't care how good you are, you can fall apart. But you can always come back together. They still have great players. What you worry about is that their great players will play great against you."
White, who had admitted problems with drugs before, happily has returned to making news on the field. He rushed for a career-high 213 yards against the Cardinals and leads the NFL with 703 rushing yards. He is not Dickerson, but he certainly has been an able replacement.
The Redskins are wary. They know White doesn't have Dickerson's burning speed, but they say he is more of a slashing runner who hits an opening awfully quick. "We have to react quickly along the line," Milot said.
The Redskins, who have beaten the Rams five times in a row including the NFC wild-card game last December, are desperately seeking a return to normalcy. Three weeks ago, they played a near-perfect game at Buffalo. But then came a loss at Philadelphia and a shaky win over Detroit. This team is struggling; take out the replacements' three victories, and the Redskins are 4-2. Winning ugly is not Gibbs' style, and he has told his players that.
And the Rams? Almost certainly out of the playoffs for the first time since John Robinson became head coach in 1983, they just want to have fun.
"We're just playing to redeem ourselves," Everett said. "We weren't ourselves in those first few ball games. I don't know what it was, I don't know what caused it. There's a million excuses, but we did not have the will to win. At this point, we're going to play with reckless abandon. We're just going to go up there and have fun."
With the ABC-TV audience watching. For a while, anyway.