In this, their season of the picket line and the overthrown pass, the Washington Redskins still can't tell how good they are -- or if they are good at all.
The most unusual of all regular seasons is behind them. Their playoffs begin next weekend.
But who can figure the Redskins?
They have not distinguished themselves as either a great passing team or a great running team. Their defense has been nothing special. Their special teams have been spotty. They've come from behind in some games, held onto the lead in others. Name a most valuable player. Wide receiver Gary Clark, strong safety Alvin Walton and cornerback Barry Wilburn come to mind. But who else is a candidate? Might not there be others?
This is a team still in search of itself. It sounds strange to say that in January, after 5 1/2 months of football, after eight wins and four losses (the strike replacement team won three more). It sounds even stranger to hear the Redskins say it.
"The potential of a great team is there," veteran wide receiver Art Monk said the other day. "But we're not playing with any consistency or cohesiveness. I can only think back to the years of the Super Bowl, when we played well and we played smart. But there also was a closeness there I haven't felt before or afterward. Once you get to the Super Bowl, the hunger just isn't there anymore. You never get the same feeling as if you've never been there before.
"I just don't feel like the team is as close as it was then," said Monk, who likely will not be available for the first playoff game because of a knee injury. "We have the perfect blend for a great team, old guys and new guys. Yet at times we played like we were unstoppable and at other times we played like we couldn't beat anybody. This is something everyone's been trying to figure out since Day 1. I guess you never figure it out."
When the Redskins play their conference semifinal at either San Francisco or Chicago next weekend, Jay Schroeder, Russ Grimm and Monk will be sitting on the bench. In September, who would have thought that? Each played in the Pro Bowl less than a year ago. Now, due to inconsistency and/or injury, they won't be in the starting lineup.
For 1988 (the first two weeks, at least), quarterback Doug Williams is in, Schroeder is out. Center Jeff Bostic is in, Grimm is out. Middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz is in, Rich Milot is out.
The coaches said Bostic was too small to play center when the season began. He hasn't grown, but now he's the perfect man for the job, those same coaches say. Olkewicz thought he was being "phased out" in the middle of the season. Now, he's playing and his buddy Milot can't seem to buy playing time.
Williams was hoping for a trade before the season, and still thinks one might occur after the season. Yet he, more than anyone else, is the man on whom the Redskins' Super Bowl hopes rest.
What's going on here?
"It's been a crazy year, but the last strike year seemed crazy, too," guard R.C. Thielemann said. "Lots of changes, but that happens with all teams."
"All the position changes have made things seem real mixed up, from an outsider's viewpoint," said defensive lineman Markus Koch. "As a team, we know we can do so much, but different things happened from week to week to cause problems."
Few thought the strike would take place, but it did. Coach Joe Gibbs had not changed quarterbacks midway through a game before, but he did. Veterans who are nearing the end of their careers were demoted, then promoted.
For the Redskins under Gibbs, the watchword always had been consistency. Until this season.
It began during the summer. When Gibbs wanted to be spending all his time on football, he found himself talking about a quarterback who had been released a year earlier. Joe Theismann's controversial autobiography presented Gibbs with the season's first off-the-field distraction. There were to be many more.
There was a voluntary AIDS test for players. There were injuries to key starters at nearly every spot on the field. No Redskins team had ever had so many before this one. A partially torn medial collateral ligament was the injury of choice in 1987: defensive end Dexter Manley, tackles Mark May and Ed Simmons, Grimm and Monk all suffered the knee ligament injury. Each was gone five weeks, minimum.
The Redskins won their first game of the season, at home against Philadelphia, but it cost them dearly. Going into the game, five starters already were out with injuries. Three more got hurt in the game: Schroeder, running back George Rogers and kicker Jess Atkinson. Schroeder and Rogers returned to have erratic and disappointing seasons. Atkinson hasn't returned yet, but might come back for the playoffs.
Soon came the strike. While the union Redskins walked the picket line in front of Redskin Park, their nonunion replacements used their lockers, practiced in their jerseys and became Redskins-for-a-month. The real players taunted the replacements over a fence. The replacements won three games that helped the union players clinch the NFC East title earlier than anyone can remember Washington winning a division. The union players said they didn't want the replacements on their team when they returned.
It was a good month for irony and a bad one for the striking players. They never got their way. When they returned, they found 18 replacement players sharing their locker room, more than one-third of the replacement team and more nonunion players than any other NFL team kept. Twelve still are on the payroll: four on the active roster, eight on injured reserve.
The first week or so back, many of the union players were in a funk. They had not received any of their strike demands, and had lost one-fourth of their season salaries. Milot called the season "a sham." He said what many others were thinking. Some wondered how they could get excited about a season in which another set of players won three of their games. Others grumbled about replacement players moving ahead of veterans on the depth chart.
Most of the hurt feelings were repaired in time. "Our minds focused on the strike before it and during it," Bostic said yesterday, "but I don't think it was in our minds after it was over. When we came back, we came back to play football."
The Redskins played their best game less than two weeks after the final replacement game, in a 27-7 win at Buffalo. Yet how quickly the glow of victory burned out and a completely unexpected quarterback controversy flared up.
The Redskins almost traded Williams to the Los Angeles Raiders for a second-round draft choice before the season began. One wonders where they would be today had they made that trade.
"I don't think about that," Gibbs said yesterday. "I don't think we were that close to having that be a reality."
Williams was called upon four minutes into the season when Schroeder sprained his right shoulder. Nine weeks later, he was back again when Schroeder was benched for overthrowing receivers. Williams lost his starting job when he hurt his lower back on Thanksgiving Day, but returned a month later when Schroeder, unable to lead the offense anywhere, was benched again at Minnesota.
The quarterback changes, so unlike Gibbs, brought a measure of excitement and intrigue to a season that lacked both.
There was no focal point to the regular season for the Redskins. When the strike ended, the Super Bowl champion New York Giants already were four games behind Washington. The Redskins had so looked forward to playing the Giants this season; rarely had one team been so obsessed by another in its offseason and training camp. Yet when they played, the Redskins were one game from winning the NFC East and the Giants were one loss from playoff elimination. Suspense was suspended.
"Certainly, the last four or five weeks, there was no one big motivational thing to play for," Bostic said. "It was not like it was in the past, when we were winning to keep pace with whoever it was in the division. I thought we played hard, but it's not the same as it is now that every game means everything and it's a one-game season in the playoffs."
Monk said he doesn't know why the team played well for one half of a game, then poorly for another, or vice versa. The Redskins played complete games in the victory at Buffalo and a loss at Miami. The rest were partial wins.
Defensive tackle Dave Butz said he doesn't know either. But he knows what one reason should not be.
"The strike's been over for quite a while," he said. "I don't think we can use that excuse anymore."
The Redskins are looking into the possibility of practicing at a warm-weather site or under a dome next week. Gibbs said the team will wait to see who it's playing and will keep an eye on the weather forecast before deciding.