Across the front of the office complex at Redskin Park are two enormous signs, each 80 feet long and seven feet high. The first says, "1999 NFC Eastern Division Champions." The second, just in case you missed the first, also says, "1999 NFC Eastern Division Champions."
All in all, those signs constitute 1,000 square feet of pride, relief and happiness. There may be better teams in the NFL, but none have wider smiles or larger loads off their backs. "Those signs kind of get your attention," grinned assistant GM Bobby Mitchell. "Looking at 'em ought to fire the guys up even more."
The Redskins, from top to bottom, have every right to swell up. After six seasons without a playoff visit and four years of extraordinary frustration, tension and internal self-doubt, the Redskins are back in the money. As recently as a month ago, some doubted a Turner team would have a significant banner to raise. (Oh, me of little faith.) Now, there it is--all 1,000 feet of it.
The NFC East may be a humble division in a modest conference. The Redskins have not beaten a team with a winning record this season. Six NFL teams may have more wins and four others have just as many. But those two signs have the last word.
When Joe Gibbs left after the 1992 season, the Redskins were a 9-7 wild-card team that had finished third in the NFC East and was getting very old, very fast. The team's records the next two years--4-12 and 3-13. Some thought Gibbs left just in time.
Now, with a 31-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback (Brad Johnson), a 25-year-old (Stephen Davis) who just set the Redskin season rushing record and two 1,000-yard wide receivers, the Redskins are second in the NFC in points scored. With three No. 1 picks in the next draft and a demanding, energized owner, few NFC teams are more ready for the millennium.
Fired up about the future actually may be an understatement to describe the Redskins. Though one last (perhaps meaningless) regular season game remains Sunday, old Redskins playoff memories already are stirring. "I'm telling the other guys who've never been to the playoffs that this is when the real business starts," said Brian Mitchell, who along with Darrell Green and James Jenkins are the only Redskins remaining from the '92 playoff team.
Rather than gloating about their division title and the certainty of a home playoff game, the Redskins seem to grasp just how small the difference can be between glory and failure in their sports. A list of names was mentioned to Turner yesterday, a dozen men quite similar to him--all competent coaches who were also viewed as first-rate people. Not a jerk in the group. Bryan Murray, Terry Murray, Jim Schoenfeld, Wes Unseld, Jimmy Lynam, Bernie Bickerstaff, Frank Robinson, Johnny Oates, Phil Regan, Davey Johnson, Ray Miller and Richie Pettitbon. Yet, in the '90s in this area, all lost their jobs.
Once things start going bad, once the snake-bit tag or the not-quite-good-enough reputation attaches itself, it's rare for a head coach to survive, much less see championship banners spanning the whole building when he gets to work.
"It's such a fine line. As hard as it is to believe, sometimes it all comes down to one play," said Turner yesterday. "On Sunday in San Francisco, Shawn Barber made that one play."
With time, many Redskins fans will forget the fumble Barber caused at the Redskins 21-yard line with 1 minute 38 seconds to play in a 20-20 game with the 49ers driving for a potential game-winning field goal. Turner never will. Ever.
If rookie Tracy Jackson, in because of a fluke injury to Charlie Garner (129 rushing yards), had just held on to the ball, the Niners probably would have run another clock-killing play, then kicked a field goal. And the Redskins might well have lost.
Would there by 1,000-foot banners for the 8-7 wild-card Redskins? No way. Would Turner's job now be secure? Or would everybody, including Snyder, still be looking hard at how the Redskins finished this season, wild card or no wild card?
But Garner's rib did hurt. Barber did make the strip. And a rookie only had one hand on the ball in heavy traffic. Sometimes, one small detail really does change everything that follows. Think of what so many Cap coaches would have given--April after April--for a Washington slap shot in overtime in a playoff game to hit net, not pipe. Does Jeff Maier ever cross Davey Johnson's mind?
In sports, it's almost comical how fast reputations shift. In a blink, someone like Turner can go from a coach who couldn't get in the playoffs for five seasons to a veteran with successful playoff experience as an offensive coordinator for Dallas and assistant in Los Angeles. You doubt it?
Yesterday, Turner was asked if all his postseason experience with the Cowboys would help him handle the Redskins in the playoffs next month. "No, not really. We were usually favorites," he said. "But the five times in seven years that I made the playoffs with the Rams may help. We [twice] won road games when we came in as wild-card underdogs.
"Preparing for college bowls games gives you good experience, too." How many of them were you in? "Seven or eight," said Turner, not able to remember.
Suddenly, we see before us a Turner, who, when he arrived here, was the co-architect of champions, the life-long winner, the coach with extensive postseason experience as an assistant. To Turner, it's the last five seasons that have been the career aberration.
"The NFL is washed out in terms of head coaches," said Bobby Mitchell yesterday. "For years, there were proven head coaches who were looking for jobs. Now, it's the opposite. Who's out there? As soon as a guy is named an offensive or defensive coordinator, the next story you read about him is that he's the next great head coach.
"Norv has been fortunate to stay in one place long enough until his team matured for him," added Mitchell. "It takes a while to get the key people who can do exactly the things that you want to get done."
Patience is the rarest virtue in pro sports ownership. In a sense, it's pure luck that Turner has stayed in his job long enough for the breaks to even out, for Brad Johnson to become available to run his offense. If Jack Kent Cooke hadn't died, if John Cooke hadn't lost the team after just two years, if Snyder hadn't basically been stuck with the team and coaching staff he bought for one more year, then--like those dozen other local pro coaches--Turner might be history.
Now, instead, he and his team get a chance to make it.