The Washington Redskins have been to San Francisco and to Phoenix and have broken the jinx of the Dallas Cowboys at RFK Stadium. They've lost one quarterback, Mark Rypien, and watched another, Stan Humphries, have an impressive debut.
They're still looking for their offensive legs, still figuring how to balance all the parts, the Art Monks, Gary Clarks, Kelvin Bryants and Earnest Byners. But until rolling up 436 yards against the Cardinals last week, that offense hadn't done much.
Forget it was the Cardinals. Until getting their short passes and running game established, the Redskins had had as much trouble moving the ball against the Cowboys as the 49ers.
Linebacker Wilber Marshall (three sacks) is off to a monster start, having been given blitz freedom when end Charles Mann is double-teamed. The cornerbacks have played better than expected.
And after four games, after running 235 plays and losing once, what have the Redskins learned?
"Check with me next week," wide receiver Ricky Sanders said. "Right now, we still don't know a lot. We'll know more in a week and a lot more in about a month."
Twenty-five percent of the way through the season, the Redskins know this much: They haven't screwed up. They didn't get clocked by Dallas or Phoenix, and when the NFL released its schedule last May, the Redskins looked at it and said something like, "Hmmm, 3-1 after four games."
No one has been disappointed. They've beaten the Cardinals twice and the Cowboys once, which they were supposed to do. They lost to the 49ers at Candlestick Park, which they also were supposed to do.
Now, beginning next Sunday when the New York Giants come to RFK, the Redskins will begin to find out what it all means. They play the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles four times in five weeks, and by the time the New Orleans Saints march into RFK Nov. 18, the Redskins should know whether they are going to the playoffs.
"Everybody knew before the season that this would be the critical part of our schedule," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Nothing has changed."
Actually, a few things have. The Redskins are 3-1 for only the fifth time under Gibbs. The previous four times they went to three Super Bowls and lost one NFC championship game. They are 3-0 in the NFC East after going 4-4 last season.
As Clark said: "It's a real good sign that we're playing this way at this time of the year. We know we're going to play well late in the season."
Clearly, early victories mean something, especially if the Redskins can come of out this five-game stretch at, say, 6-3. After that, they get the Saints, Dolphins, Bears and Bills at RFK, the Cowboys, Patriots and Colts on the road. They could be favored in all those games, and a 6-3 start could mean a 12-4 or an 11-5 finish.
That would get them in the playoffs, but to win the NFC East they probably have to beat the Giants at least once.
Ahh, the Giants.
"They've made the plays on us," Mann said. "You have to give them credit. They always seemed to do it when they had to. When we made the plays, we went to the Super Bowl."
The Giants . . .
Gibbs had staffers patrolling the fences at Redskin Park this week. He slipped tight end Terry Orr into a blue jersey with No. 56 on it and had him sprint into the backfield on every snap, getting the Redskins ready for the real No. 56 -- Lawrence Taylor.
"I wish I had his contract," Orr said.
Gibbs said his staff began watching films of the Giants over the summer. He has won 68 percent of his games since coming to Washington 10 years ago, but the Giants have won four in a row against him and nine of 12. Overall, Gibbs is 9-10 against the Giants -- the only NFC East opponent with a winning record against him.
What must bother the Redskins most is that they've lost close games. They've lost when they've led -- usually in the second half. The last time the teams met, the Redskins lost, 20-17, after leading by 10-6 late in the third quarter.
Phil Simms then threw a 12-yard scoring pass to Mark Bavaro and a 25-yarder to Odessa Turner. The Giants made three straight fourth-down conversions and were nine of 18 on third down.
Six weeks earlier, on opening Monday night, Raul Allegre kicked a 52-yard field goal as time expired for a 27-24 victory. In 1988 the Redskins lost twice by a total of eight points.
"That's what happens with winning teams," Gibbs said. "I felt like they were a better football team than us once or twice. Last year I felt we were much closer. Both games were fairly close. We just couldn't make the plays we had to make. They always seem to make the last play."
The Redskins insist that beating the Giants isn't as much a psychological problem as a physical one.
This has been a season of feel-good football for the Redskins. Through almost two months, they've been perhaps the most boring team in the NFL. After seemingly bumping from crisis to crisis the last couple of years, this year's team has had a quiet season.
One criticism has been that the Redskins lack leaders, but privately they say that's as it's always been and that some of the loudest players aren't leaders anyway.
"What we have is a quiet team that has been to the Super Bowl and knows what it takes to win," a team executive said.
He says the symbols of these Redskins are their leaders -- guard Russ Grimm on offense and tackle Darryl Grant on defense.
"I think we've learned a lot about this team," Gibbs said. "We're capable of winning three out of four games. We couldn't beat the 49ers. Now we're coming to the point of our season where we'll find out if we're a playoff-type team. I don't know how we'll do, but this team has a good spirit, a good work ethic. They've got a good attitude."
All of that doesn't mean they'll be able to beat the Giants. "The one thing you like about the Giants is that you line up and play hard-nosed football," Grant said. "If you do a better job of putting your man on his backside, you win the game. That's what it'll come down to."