SAN DIEGO -- The Washington Redskins have arrived at the doorstep of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium for Super Bowl XXII today by coping with the events of the past five months better than any other team in the National Football Conference.
A team with controversies and uncertainty at quarterback, running back, kicker, middle linebacker, center and tight end, the Redskins certainly had little reason to believe they would be taking on the AFC champion Denver Broncos.
Not so long ago, the Redskins were known as a quiet group of over-achievers who simply went about their work as well or better than most teams in the league. But, in this season of the strike and more Washington football success, the Redskins changed. And how.
They were led here by quarterback Doug Williams, a man they almost traded in September, and by center Jeff Bostic, who was demoted in training camp because he was too small but became just the right size when Russ Grimm was injured. They got here in spite of running back George Rogers' sprained left big toe and assorted other injuries, and in spite of kicker Jess Atkinson's dislocated left ankle, suffered on the first extra point of the season.
They made it by confusing everyone with the Neal Olkewicz-Rich Milot tag-team effort at middle linebacker and by hardly using H-back Clint Didier, one of the stars of the 1986 season.
And they got here because the scouts and coaches molded a rag-tag collection of football talent into one pretty good football team for three weeks in October, allowing the real Redskins to take a commanding lead in the NFC East when they returned from the strike.
Who should get the credit for this 13-4 season? Where do you start to trace the Redskins' road to the Super Bowl, the organization's third appearance in six seasons? Perhaps Nov. 15, the day Coach Joe Gibbs made a drastic move and benched Jay Schroeder in favor of Williams for the first time.
Perhaps Oct. 19, the day the replacements upset a veteran-laden Dallas Cowboys team and put the union team in the catbird seat.
Or perhaps July 27, the day the Redskins opened camp in Carlisle, Pa., with Gibbs saying: "Around here, fans expect great things, and we better do them."
About the only thing the Redskins did with any regularity during preseason was get hurt. By opening day, Sept. 13, five starters were out with injuries, and three more -- Schroeder, Rogers and Atkinson -- were hurt that day.
For this reason, the month-long players strike might have helped the Redskins more than any other NFL team. They got a chance to heal after starting with a 1-1 record and they were staked to a four-game lead over the defending champion New York Giants.
"If you left 1-1 and came back 1-4, you would have to feel down as a team," said wide receiver Anthony Allen, a replacement player now on the active roster. "You'd be a lot more angry than if you came back 4-1. Anytime you're winning, that's got to put you in a positive state of mind. I'm sure that had to help the team a lot."
Gibbs has received quite a bit of credit for keeping the two Washington teams separate but happy during the strike. He called not one, but two, team meetings when the striking players returned, only to be told they could not play in that week's game because they had not met the league's deadline.
The Redskins were the only team that did not have even one player cross the picket line. At the time, they said this would be a factor in their success.
"I think it was important," said middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz. "But I don't think it was the only reason why we're here."
It took the real Redskins about a week after the strike to show they were back. They returned angry. Linebacker Rich Milot said what others felt when he called the season "a sham." There was grumbling when replacement tight ends Joe Caravello and Craig McEwen jumped ahead of some veterans who walked the picket line. But it all seemed to be forgotten when the Redskins beat Buffalo, 27-7, Nov. 1, in a game Gibbs described as the team's best of the regular season.
But there were troubled times ahead. The following week, in a loss at Philadelphia, quarterback Schroeder overthrew open receivers nine times and completed only 16 of 46 passes. He stayed in that game, but was pulled from the next one at RFK Stadium against Detroit.
Williams entered with seven minutes left in the first half and threw two touchdown passes before halftime. He kept the starting job for just one week before injuring his lower back in practice on Thanksgiving Day and losing the starting job to Schroeder -- for four weeks.
What was happening at quarterback was being reflected at other positions. At center, Grimm suffered a partial tear to his medial collateral (knee) ligament, one of five players to have that injury this season. But Bostic, a former Pro Bowl center, did not get the starting assignment until the Redskins experimented with rookie Ed Simmons and replacement Darrick Brilz for two games.
The same thing happened at middle linebacker. Olkewicz said he thought he was being "phased out," then got to play when Milot sprained his left ankle and never gave back the job. Milot, who used to start at right linebacker, also lost his reserve role at that position, and was so little of a factor on the team that he was not activated for the NFC championship game.
"I probably should have had a shrink during all of this," Milot said. "The coaches have been fair, more than fair. Once a team makes a decision, they stick by that. I can't complain about what they've done."
Olkewicz said many players didn't know if they were in or out this season.
"I think everybody was getting phased out, except for one or two positions," he said. "I think it's been the most change, position-wise, especially on a winning team. But the game is so specialized now. I think it's definitely been a change for us. It just shows Gibbs knows how to win."
But rather than cause disruptions, the Redskins seemed to take the changes in stride.
"We've won for a lot of years here," Olkewicz said. "I think guys defer to that. I think most guys would rather be second-team on a winning team than first-team on a perennial loser."
As they made all these changes, the Redskins squeezed by the Lions, Giants, Cowboys and Vikings. They were winning "ugly," Olkewicz said.
"During the season, Gibbs sees nobody gets a big head. Of course, we didn't win by much, so we really shouldn't have had big heads," he said.
At running back, Rogers didn't lose his job, but he did lose playing time. He accepted that Kelvin Bryant and Timmy Smith were stealing his football and running with it. Gibbs said the constant rotation didn't hurt -- and in fact helped.
"We've had our best production when we did it," Gibbs said. "Running back is different than quarterback because you're always getting beaten up and sometimes need a rest."
Gibbs acknowledges all these injuries and changes -- more than in any other of his seven seasons with the Redskins -- could have doomed his team. Instead, it won the NFC East earlier than ever before, then defeated Chicago and Minnesota in the playoffs.
Late in the season, Gibbs said he noticed the players "kind of lost themselves for the team. That personal thing was gone."
All that was left was the winning.