The bizarre and the unexpected have become the norm in recent games between the Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals. The Redskins can only hope the lone twist when the teams meet tonight at Sun Devil Stadium is that their defense finally will find a way to control an opposing offense.
The Redskins (3-1) have been one of the NFL's better success stories this season, while the Cardinals (2-3) have been one of the bigger disappointments. The Redskins would like more of the same as they return from their bye week tied with the Dallas Cowboys for first place in the NFC East. However, the story lines for Redskins-Cardinals games rarely have been so tidy; seven of the teams' past 10 meetings have been decided by four points or fewer.
"I expect the same kind of game," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said. "We have to be ready to play our best. . . . We've had some weird things happen. That's why both teams feel they have a chance to win."
The Redskins enter with a three-game winning streak and numerous subplots worth following tonight. It's their first game since Bill Arnsparger was hired to assist defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, and it is fullback Larry Centers's first game against Arizona since the Cardinals released him during the offseason. But their most important issue is this: A victory tonight will guarantee that they'll be playing for sole possession of first place in the division next Sunday at Dallas. The Cowboys (3-1) play the New York Giants on Monday night in East Rutherford, N.J.
"We've won three in a row," Turner said. "We know how we've done it, and we know if we don't get better, we'll have a tough time. We worked on some things during this bye week."
The Cardinals have beaten the Redskins in nine of the teams' past 12 meetings. They swept the Redskins last season, with the two wins coming by a total of five points. In their first meeting last season, in Week 9 at Arizona, the Redskins got a go-ahead, 54-yard field goal by Cary Blanchard with 35 seconds left, but quarterback Jake Plummer drove the Cardinals to a 29-27 victory on Joe Nedney's 47-yard field goal with two seconds to go. Two weeks later in Washington, the Cardinals sprinted to a 31-0 lead in the second quarter but had to hold on to win, 45-42.
"The unexpected is the expected when the Cardinals and Redskins play," Arizona Coach Vince Tobin said.
Those narrow victories over the Redskins were part of a magical 1998 season for the Cardinals, who went on to their first postseason victory since 1947. Plummer resembled the NFL's next great quarterback, particularly when he began the second half of the first game against the Redskins with a franchise-record 15 consecutive completions. And the Cardinals seemed to establish themselves as one the league's emerging teams entering this season.
This season has been a struggle for them, though. They lost three consecutive games after opening with a one-point victory at Philadelphia in which they overcame a 21-0, first-quarter deficit. Plummer, bothered by a thumb injury suffered during the preseason, threw 12 interceptions in the first four games of this season.
But the Cardinals defeated the Giants, 14-3, at home last Sunday, as Tobin took a low-risk offensive approach and Plummer completed 13 of 19 passes without an interception. Still, Plummer's struggles continued. He was sidelined for most of the second half of that game after hurting his left hip and some ribs on his right side, and he missed practice time last week. He is scheduled to play tonight, but it is unclear how healthy he will be. The Cardinals need him, for their running game has been one of the NFL's worst this season.
"I just have to get healthy and continue doing the things I did in the first half against the Giants," Plummer said. " . . . I think everything will go our way if we just get over our injuries and keep pushing."
The Redskins will be playing for the first time since they rallied from a three-touchdown deficit to beat the Carolina Panthers, 38-36, two weeks ago at Redskins Stadium. The Redskins admit that, because they have the league's last-ranked defense, they have been living dangerously. They hope that adding defensive guru Arnsparger and his 39 years of coaching experience will spur some improvement. Arnsparger is scheduled to be in the press box tonight, connected via a headset to Nolan as Nolan calls the defensive plays from the sideline.
"We definitely need to be more detailed in our assignments," Nolan said. "It hasn't been one area. It's a detail thing. We have a great group of defensive guys from a unity standpoint, which I don't feel we necessarily had in previous years. That's a big reason we're winning these close games. We have been able to make some plays. We've just been too inconsistent, and we've given up too many big plays."
On offense, the Redskins hope to continue what they've been doing. Led by quarterback Brad Johnson, they have the league's second-ranked offense. Tight end Stephen Alexander suffered a bruised lower back in the game against Carolina but is scheduled to start tonight. If he can't play for very long or with his usual effectiveness, the Redskins may go to three-wide-receiver formations with veteran Irving Fryar alongside starters Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell.
Centers, meanwhile, likely will be reminding Turner and Johnson to get him the ball often. He was a major pass-catching nemesis to the Redskins during his nine seasons with the Cardinals, and his return to Arizona will be emotional for him. "I think a lot of the success the Redskins are having now is a direct reflection of the work ethic he has," Plummer said. "I'm happy he's with a team that's winning. It'll be good to see him, but it'll be tough to see him in a different uniform."
Said Turner: "I hope he makes it as personal as he can. This is personal. . . . He'll be ready to play."