The Washington Redskins worried about this opener, not because it was the New York Giants or Philadelphia Eagles, but because it was an old and too familiar friend. Phoenix Coach Joe Bugel wasn't just there when Joe Gibbs wrote his offensive manual, he helped coauthor it during nine years as a Washington assistant.
That led to some interesting emotions, and some even more interesting games of cat-and-mouse. It made for good theater if uneven football, especially the coaching lines and shadows: tight ends lining up as wide receivers, linebackers lining up as defensive ends, a young quarterback running for his life.
What the games inside the bigger game didn't do was change what likely was an inevitable outcome. The Redskins forced the jittery young Cardinals into five turnovers, got three touchdown passes from a hot-and-cold Mark Rypien and rolled to a 31-0 victory in front of 52,649 at RFK Stadium.
"A good start," Gibbs said, seemingly more relieved than happy. "Any win in an opener is good for us. There was a lot going on out there and the Cardinals made it tough. We were hit and miss on some things, but we played hard and won."
It was a thorough victory, especially sweet for a team that had lost six of its last nine season openers and a defense that scored its first season-opening shutout in 17 years.
The Redskins got all sorts of big plays, including a pair of interceptions from cornerback Martin Mayhew, one by Darrell Green and a 57-yard game-breaking interception return by safety Alvin Walton.
Those were the byproducts of a defensive front that had a tremendous day, sacking quarterback Timm Rosenbach three times and spending much of the afternoon in his face.
Meanwhile, Rypien, who was far from perfect, was good enough, throwing a 37-yard scoring pass to Ricky Sanders, a four-yarder to Earnest Byner and a 43-yarder to Gary Clark.
The sobering news is that the Redskins will find out how impressive this opener really was next week when they're at Candlestick Park to play the San Francisco 49ers.
This game was sobering enough for Bugel. His Cardinals threw dozens of different formations at the Redskins, but still ended up with only 88 rushing yards and 228 in the air.
Rosenbach completed 20 of 39 passes for 228 yards in his second career start, and Redskins defensive end Charles Mann saluted him as "a young guy who's going to be good. He's a tough customer. He comes right at you and when he's scrambling there're no hook slides."
But kids are kids. Rosenbach's fourth pass of the day ended up in Green's hands, his sixth in Mayhew's. After that, about midway through the second quarter, the only question was how lopsided the final score would be.
"We had to stay in his face," Mann said. "We just weren't going to let him sit back there and dictate what he wanted to do. We showed him a lot of different looks and he didn't check off as much as he had in preseason. I think maybe we confused him a little bit."
The Redskins also had some early problems. Gibbs -- using Sanders, Clark and Art Monk together almost the entire first half -- called passing plays on 16 of the first 20 snaps "because we wanted to get a read on how they were working against things."
Gibbs said he figured that, since Bugel knew the Redskins so well, he might have to try a little of everything and he ended up pretty much doing that.
After Green's interception, the Redskins took a 7-0 lead by driving 80 yards in seven plays and scoring on a 37-yard pass to Sanders. Rypien finished with a decent day, completing 17 of 31 passes for 240 yards and no interceptions.
"I had a lot of trouble early," Rypien said. "It was real hit or miss. I made some third-down plays, but missed a lot of others. I don't know. I like to think we have the kind of offense where we need to be in synch. Once we got there, we got rolling."
He missed seven of his first 10 passes before hitting Sanders for eight yards, Monk for seven and Sanders for 19 on the second possession. Earnest Byner, who rushed 17 times for 63 yards, carried the ball three yards to the Phoenix 37.
From there, on second and seven, Gibbs sent in his three tight end package. Don Warren, Ron Middleton and Jimmie Johnson trotted onto the field, signaling to Bugel the "heavy" formation.
Only heavy isn't always heavy. Warren, Johnson and Middleton all lined up as wide receivers. Sanders set up in the slot and linebacker Ken Harvey lined up across from him.
"I think they were confused," Sanders said. "I heard them yelling and pointing at me."
Rypien heard, too, and his eyes met Sanders's, who cut outside, caught a short pass, outraced Harvey, got a final block from Johnson and trotted into the end zone.
"I like having linebackers on me," Sanders said. "I hope they do that again. Really, that's one of those things you don't get away with that often."
That three-tight end formation was one of the surprises Gibbs had for his old friend Bugel and as the week wound down, what Bugel knew of the Redskins and what difference it would make, occupied a lot of Redskins.
Gibbs said at one point last week, he looked up and had given the defense "three blackboards full of stuff. That's when I started worrying that we were throwing too much at them. There is such a thing as overcoaching."
The Cardinals got the ball back, and on second and seven from the Phoenix 20, Mann hit Rosenbach as he released the ball. Tracy Rocker and Wilber Marshall also were around him and the ball floated into Mayhew's hands at the 38.
The Redskins needed seven plays to make it 14-0. Rypien hit Sanders for 12 yards. Byner picked up 11, 5, and 3. Rypien hit Sanders for two. Byner ran for one.
On second and goal at the 4, Rypien flipped to Byner in the right flat. Linebacker Eric Hill lunged, but Byner pulled away from him and tumbled into the end zone.
It remained 14-0 until the Cardinals opened the second half by driving from their 20 to the Redskins 27, where on first and 10 Rosenbach threw for the end zone -- right to Mayhew.
The Redskins then put together another nice drive, going 80 yards in seven plays and 4:48. Byner picked up 19 in four carries and Rypien hit Kelvin Bryant with an 11-yard pass on third and seven. On first and 15 at the Phoenix 43, the Redskins caught the Cardinals with a quick count and in a blitz.
Clark sprinted down the middle of the field and Rypien laid it in front of him. Cornerback Marcus Turner and safety Tim McDonald were six yards out of the play.
"I'm just glad these old legs could catch up with it," Clark said.
Then it was Walton's turn. On third and one at the Redskins 42, a Rosenbach pass bounced off teammate Johnny Johnson's right shoulder pad and into Walton's hands. He juggled the ball and then caught it on the left sideline and had 57 clear yards in front of him. With 38 seconds left in the third quarter, it was 28-0 and over.
"It was right there for me," Walton said. "All I had to worry about was catching it. I knew there was no one in front of me."
The Redskins finished last season with a shutout of the Seattle Seahawks and now have two in a row for the first time since 1955. More impressive is that this defense began to play well late last season when Mayhew, Rocker and other kids began playing regularly.
"They stepped right in and did a nice job," Marshall said. "The longer they play together, the better they're going to get. Or at least the more confidence they're going to get. We know next week is going to be a tougher test, but this is a place to start. You get out of the first one, enjoy it, then think about the next one."
TURNING IT AROUND
REDSKINS' SCORING ON CARDINALS' TURNOVERS
FIRST QUARTER: Rosenbach pass on second and four is deflected, and intercepted by Green. Redskins take possession on their 20 and Rypien completes a 37-yard touchdown pass to Sanders seven plays later (Redskins 7, Cardinals 0).
FIRST QUARTER: Under pressure from Mann, Rosenbach scrambles on second and 10, pass intercepted by Mayhew. Redskins move 38 yards in seven plays and Byner dives for a touchdown at start of the second quarter (Redskins 14, Cardinals 0).
THIRD QUARTER: On first and 10 from the Washington 27, Rosenbach goes for Jones in the end zone. Mayhew intercepts. Seven plays later, Rypien throws 43-yard pass to Clark in end zone (Redskins 21, Cardinals 0).
THIRD QUARTER: Rosenbach pass on third and one bounces off Johnny Johnson and intercepted by Walton, who runs it 57 yards down the left sideline and into the end zone (Washington 28, Cardinals 0).