December 9, 1991: Nice Spot To Take A Half Off

TEMPE, ARIZ. -- Nobody can go through every moment of a 16-game season without a lull. Nobody. To expect the Washington Redskins to be sky-high for the lowly Rams and Cardinals, especially once home field throughout the playoffs was wrapped up, would be absolutely unreasonable.

For the second straight week, the Redskins catnapped through the first half. Big deal. We’re not talking about an arrogant, swaggering team so full of itself that players simply take off a half. The Redskins were facing a division opponent, the second time around, whose coach knows their every waking thought. In fact, 14-0 was rather predictable.

The Cardinals, Mark Rypien said, came out in totally different formations than the Redskins had studied all week. That forced Rip to to start calling most of the offensive plays from the line of scrimmage. Rypien says it’s not unreasonable to expect the team to come out and play fabulously from the opening kickoff every single week. “It’s a concern now,” he said, “not having played well the last three weeks, early on. We’ve been able to rally late. But it’s imperative the next two weeks for us to get going from the get-go.”

Asked about the lull the last three weeks, Wilber Marshall said, “Of course, you’d rather not have them. But I’d rather be in a lull now than during the playoffs and get eliminated. Is it a reasonable expectation to play every single game at that level for the entire season? Not really. Hopefully, it’s over now, though. We’ve had two straight. It’s time to turn it back up.”

The realization apparently hit the team during halftime. Joe (The Toe) Gibbs reportedly didn’t kick anything this week. Matt Millen popped off, which is a big reason he was brought here in the first place, to assert himself at such moments. Marshall, as another grizzled vet, had a few unkind words. “We just said, ‘Hey, it’s time to play. We ain’t kickin’ like we should be,’ “ Marshall recalled.

The Cardinals didn’t know what hit them in the second half. Four straight series were three-and-punt, and a fifth ended in an interception. For the Redskins offense it was a matter not of when they would score, but who would catch Rip’s beautiful passes.

The people who watch the Cardinals every week expected Bugel to explode into a mini-tantrum about how his team had been shut out during the third quarter (155-0 in total yards) and steamrolled when it mattered.

Bugel knows better. He knows his team was simply swept away by the best team in the league. “They just played good,” he said when someone asked what happened in the second half. “They’re probably the best football team that we’ve played and the best football team we will play.”

Bugel, of course, was Boss Hog in ‘82 and ‘83 when the Redskins were bound for Super Bowls. Asked to compare this team with those two, he stared at the ceiling for several long moments and said, “That’s a tough comparison to make because the ‘83 team, with Theismann and Riggins, was kind of exceptional. They had all the parts.

”But so does this team. This team is on the right course. They made tremendous pickups in Eric Williams and Tim Johnson at defensive tackle. Fred Stokes has really come on and Charles Mann is right up there with the Reggie Whites.

”But the thing is their quarterback is really working at a high level. I felt, and I know {Gibbs and his staff} felt that if Rip kept on maturing, they’d have a good shot at the Super Bowl. See, the support people are great. They’re power- packed. They’ve got so many quick-strike people and once they get the running game going, they keep you so off balance.

”But the quarterback,” Bugel said, “that’s the secret really. To have a triggerman that’s hot, especially if you have the people to get the ball to, is really a big, big thing.”

Rypien’s play makes a 3-0 deficit in Anaheim a week ago insignificant, and Sunday’s 14-0 deficit nothing to panic about. The Cardinals and Rams cannot beat the Redskins, plain and simple. “Rip is playing great,” Ricky Sanders said. “I can see it in his eyes when we’re in the huddle. He has the look like he’s going to make a play.”

This is the primary challenge for the Redskins over the next month, since the next truly meaningful game they’ll play is Jan. 5 at RFK. They’ll have to challenge themselves, almost as much as their opponents, even though it won’t be hard to work up a good hate for the Giants and Eagles in the regular season finales. There’s nothing tangible to shoot for, not with an undefeated season out and home field for the playoffs already in pocket. The thing about being the best is you usually have only yourself to measure up to. Such is the small price the Redskins may have to pay over the next few weeks until the real action resumes.