November 18, 1991: Monk Has His Guys Going

PITTSBURGH -- The 1991 Washington Redskins are Art Monk’s team. What a wonderful, yet odd, man to have as symbol and exemplar.

Back then, the Redskins were loaded with talent -- and a stream of excuses for lack of consistent intensity. Nobody knew who would show up to play which week. After ruining their 1989 season with a loss to the 1-15 Cowboys, the Redskins were floundering again in 1990 and seemed likely to miss the playoffs for the third straight season.

After another loss to the Cowboys, Monk called a players-only meeting. No transcripts are available of that night. Monk probably didn’t raise his voice. He probably said something like “I care. Do you care?”

In a way, he may have shamed the team into its 4-1 finish last season and its stunning 11-0 start now. Now, everybody is on the same unselfish, understated, highly focused page. But it was Monk who first opened the book.

The Redskins’ core, especially about a dozen rather gentlemanly veterans, decided to take charge of a team that probably should have belonged to them all along. Monk, the quietest, most respected and accomplished of them all, simply had to point out the task.

Coach Joe Gibbs was exaggerating less than might be expected Sunday when he said of the players, “I just told them that I appreciated them taking the coaches along for the ride. They’re letting us fly along with them.”

Now, Monte Coleman runs the pregame meetings. Monk can go back to catching passes. And not talking about it.

Last week, in a 56-17 torching of the Falcons, Monk caught seven passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. Sunday, in a 41-14 scorched-turf victory over the Steelers, which could’ve been worse, Monk caught eight passes for 130 yards, including a touchdown and a tone-setting 63-yarder.

After three slow starts in a row, the Redskins’ aim was to score quickly against the Steelers. So, on the third play of the game, Monk split the safeties for that 63-yarder to the one-inch line. Gerald Riggs got his eighth score, almost all of them gifts from Monk and Gary Clark when they get dragged down just before the goal line.

Before the half, Monk had made two third-down conversion catches and a tippy-toe masterpiece of an 11-yard touchdown. On the score, he may, or may not, have gotten each of his feet down in bounds by a molecule.

When the Redskins tried to jeopardize a 27-0 lead, Monk was back to calm them. On third down and 15 from the Redskins 3-yard line with the score 27-14 and nearly a quarter to play, Monk shagged a 22-yarder from Mark Rypien for a first down.

”The big play {of the game} was getting off the goal line,” said Gibbs. “Art is miraculous. If we have to punt there from the back of the end zone, we’re in trouble.”

Concerning all this, Monk, of course, said nothing.

He almost never does. You’d think that moving into fifth place on the all-time receiving yardage list might be worth a comment. What about those 10,726 yards, Art? But Monk is partly shy, partly modest, partly superstitious and, by now, perhaps partly vain about his implacable mystique of tough, selfless professionalism.

Young cornerbacks look at him and know nothing. Except that he can read any defense, spot any tipoff quirks, run any route with precision and take any lick they can deliver. He’s sneaky fast and a lethal blocker who’s been known to wait years to settle accounts. Facing him is like being given a kind of ultimate NFL examination.

Just as the Redskins have risen above what they dreamed for themselves this season, so has Monk. The days of 106 catches or 1,372 yards in a season were supposed to be gone, subsumed under the Redskins’ ground-first attack and the teamwork of The Posse. Yet Monk, less than a month shy of 34, is on a pace for 75 catches, 1,150 yards and a dozen touchdowns. His eighth touchdown of the season Sunday matched his career high. He’s never gotten open deep more often.

The degree to which Monk is revered among the Redskins is almost eerie. Over the past seven years, Clark’s stats are better than Monk’s -- more yards, more scores. But Clark volunteers: “We all want to be the best receiver on the team, but we know that Monk is the best. . . . He’s playing like he’s 22 years old again. Someday I want to be as good as he is.”

When Clark caught a 37-yard bomb in the third quarter, Monk was 50 yards away, playing decoy. The split second Clark made the catch, Monk leaped in the air and pumped his fist. An instant later, by the time a camera might find him, he was showing nothing again.

”It’s really going to be a kick for me to be the guy who throws the pass to Art Monk {next season} when he breaks Steve Largent’s {all-time receiving} record,” said Rypien, whose whole demeanor has changed during this streak as the first glimmerings of quarterback arrogance have appeared. “Because of the person he is -- the true Redskin -- that will make me proud.”

For years, as he amassed those 781 catches, Monk was an island of serenity and precision in a sport of collisions. Yet he almost seemed to be set apart by his stylish elegance from the rest of the team. Now, he’s the Captain of the Old Guys and, upon occasion, will spike the ball after a touchdown or, forsooth, actually yell during battle.

”He’s noisier on the field now,” said Clark. “Today, I heard him say, ‘Let’s go,’ a couple of times. Once, he came out on third down and, on the sideline, he said, ‘Come on, get the first down.’ Of course, he said it just about like I’m saying it now -- in a normal voice.”

After they beat someone 45-0, 34-0, 23-0, 42-17, 56-17 or 41-14, the Redskins are always very careful to say that they are not terribly good. That’s the always fretting, always conscientious Monk talking. Or, rather, not talking. Instead, he -- and now all the Redskins -- stay focused on the next job, the next game, the next quiet, inexorable glory.

Seldom has leadership by example produced better results.