December 23, 1991: No Risk of Equals No Gain

PHILADELPHIA -- Matt Millen, more than anybody in the Redskins locker room, was perfectly suited to analyze the team’s dilemma at The Vet. With the Raiders and 49ers, he’d played games like this one, where his team had home-field advantage all locked up, but nonetheless had to finish the regular season in what we now call a meaningless game.

The Redskins were faced with a dilemma, from opening kickoff right through the final seconds when Joe Gibbs elected to keep starters on the bench rather than risk them getting injured against the ornery Eagles.

Mark Rypien didn’t play the fourth quarter. Charles Mann didn’t play the second half, except goal-line situations. Jim Lachey didn’t play much the second half. Neither did Jeff Bostic. You take away those players, among others, and what you’ve got really isn’t the Redskins, not the team that was 14-1 coming in. It’s a calculated risk.

”We had the same thing last year,” Millen said, alluding to the 49ers trying to sneak through the final game or two to the playoffs. “And last year, I think it hurt us. In ‘83 when I was with the Raiders, same thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice thing to complain about. But teams fighting at the end of the year, who come into the playoffs on a roll, come in in better position, psychologically. And so much of the game is mental.”

(Those 49ers lost in the NFC championship game, but those Raiders won the Super Bowl.)

The only thing we know, for certain, right now is the Redskins survived Philly, which if you recall last year’s Body Bag wincer, was no guarantee. They might not be rolling into the playoffs with momentum, but they’ve at least got all their arms and legs.

Gibbs saw Rip take a few shots from the carnivorous Eagles defense and decided to get him out of there in the third quarter. As it was, Seth Joyner hit Jeff Rutledge hard enough to mangle his face mask. While the teams were at equal strength, so to speak, the Redskins were on top. By a lot. If your glass is half full, you figure that’s the only part of the game worth evaluating. If it’s half empty and you’re looking for ominous signs, there was the blocked punt and an Eagles comeback with numerous starters on the bench.

As Wilber Marshall succintly put it, “You see what’s out there and take it for what it is.”

The subeject of whether he wanted to keep playing was a sore one for Rip. He wouldn’t second-guess Gibbs but he didn’t have to; you could see all over his face he wanted to play. “There are decisions we have to live with,” he said, “and you go about your business.”

Asked if it were impossible to evaluate this game, under the circumstances, Rip said, “Yes, I think it is.”

Let’s say this for the Redskins: Their testiness in defeat is as good a sign as Gibbs could hope for. While the first-stringers were in there, the Redskins kicked the Eagles’ butts. Millen asked Gibbs before the game not to go through the motions here just to protect the team’s health.

Maybe Millen should have called Marv Levy up in Buffalo, where the Bills coach sent his team out to play Detroit without Jim Kelly, without Thurman Thomas, etc. That’s disgraceful.

NBA Commissioner David Stern has ordered all-stars to play at the end of his regular season, and it may be incumbent upon Paul Tagliabue to do the same in the NFL. He sent a letter to teams during the week, but obviously the one to Buffalo got lost in the Christmas mail.

Yes, some of the Redskins threw helmets and cursed afterward. But the feeling here is that when the raw postgame emotions have subsided, the Redskins can get past this loss more easily than most.

Gibbs will have plenty to fret over, especially the special teams play and the two-minute defense. Jeff Kemp isn’t supposed to look like Jack Kemp, even if the Redskins backups are out there.

Nothing that happened Sunday would suggest Gibbs has anything to say to his first-stringers other than, “Merry Christmas.” The offense put up 22 points against the best defense in the league. And the Redskins’ defense was better than Philly’s through three quarters.

And maybe nobody in a Redskins uniform was better than Marshall, whose peers ridiculously overlooked him for Pro Bowl honors last week.

You know how many linebackers had better seasons than Marshall (136 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks, 5 interceptions)? The Saints’ Pat Swilling (17 sacks)? Okay. The Eagles’ Seth Joyner? Maybe. We can argue. Nobody else. Charles Haley had a better year than Wilber Marshall? No way. And few teams ask their linebackers to do as much as the Redskins ask of Marshall.

Against Philly, Marshall had two sacks and was his usual disruptive self in every way imaginable. “Because {the players} don’t like me doesn’t mean I’m not all-pro,” he said. “All I did today was make a lot of people look foolish.”

If the rest of the Redskins remain as stubbornly prideful in their performance, despite Sunday’s loss, as Marshall is, the defeat will truly be as meaningless as it seems.