September 16, 1991: Three Aces to Open
“This doesn’t mean anything,” said Wilber Marshall, the linebacker who likes to run the option play in the open field on his interception returns.
”We’ll take ‘em one week at a time,” said Mark Rypien after another turnover-free, 15-for-23 Bart Starr imitation.
Don’t let the Redskins fool you. In any sport, a fast start to a season is a daydream and a cushion, a confidence-builder and a stay against confusion.
Teams in first place are almost always unselfish, confident and harder to beat than if they were recovering from hard times. Of course, they don’t deserve too much credit for this. It’s mostly human nature. When everybody loves you, both the carrot and the stick are in place. You’re eating the carrot. But you haven’t forgotten the stick.
The Redskins feel all warm and cuddly about themselves these days after pulling the wings off the Cardinals, 34-0. Yes, they’re the same Redskins who were all in a grump last fall when they wondered if they were too old and too hung up on potential, not performance.
In sports, games are connected by invisible threads. Winning helps create more victories and losing sure enough helps you lose again. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud to hear old war-weary behemoths such as Joe Jacoby get starry-eyed talking about team unity. But that’s what happens when your dice get hot. You think it’s all you. And that helps you become as good, in reality, as you already think that you are.
Six weeks ago, Marshall was on a pace to set the NFL record for whining about a position change -- from weak- to strong-side linebacker. “Don’t expect me to make as many big plays,” he warned.
Yesterday, Marshall killed one Phoenix drive with an interception at the goal line to protect a 14-0 lead. Then, he finished the kill with a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown on which he faked Johnny Johnson off his feet with a one-hand, left-handed pump-fake of a lateral to Alvoid Mays.
Gibbs then cited Marshall’s acceptance of his new role as typical of his team’s fine attitude. Yes, Wilber even bought lunch for the whole team last week.
Synergy is a mysterious, ironic character in sports. He’s often mistaken for “character.” But it’s fun when he’s in your corner, as the Redskins can attest.
The Redskins caught Detroit without Barry Sanders and with half of Rodney Peete. They beat the Cowboys by a whisker thanks to a supreme effort and a half-dozen bonehead Dallas mistakes. And they stunned Phoenix yesterday when the Cards came out in a hurry-up offense for which the Redskins were utterly unprepared -- heh, heh, heh. The Redskins only spent the entire summer cooking up plots for the first folks who tried to spring the no-huddle on ‘em. What, you thought Gibbs spent June barbecueing?
The Cards thought they were laying the ambush. You should’ve seem them fall apart when the Redskins answered the no-huddle by clamping 10 defenders within one yard of the line of scrimmage.
The Redskins knew somebody would throw the no-huddle at them sooner or later. And were they ever ready. “The idea of the no-huddle is to force you into a one-dimensional, predictable defense,” said Gibbs with just a hint of that genius-in- headphones grin. “We spent a lot of time over the offseason figuring out ways to prevent that.”
The Redskins have been lucky as well as prepared. Now, if history is any predictor, they’ll reap more rewards.
When Gibbs, the Mr. December of the NFL, assembles a team that can motivate itself to win in September, he ends up in the NFC championship game.
Yes, every time. For 10 years in a row, what Gibbs’s Redskins have done in the early season has been a perfect prediction of their entire year.
Gibbs has had four fast starts -- 4-0 in ‘82, 5-1 in ‘83, 5-0 in ‘86 and 6-1 in ‘87. The result: three Super Bowl visits and an NFC title game loss. (Postseason record: 11-2.)
Five times, Gibbs’ teams have had trouble early -- 0-5, 0-2, 1-3 and 2-3. The result: an 0-1 playoff record. Last year, the Redskins started off tepidly -- 1-1, then 4-3 -- and ended up so-so too, winning a wild-card game.
So what does that tell you about these Redskins? No Washington team in history had ever scored more than 100 points in its first three games. This one has 112. No Redskins team had ever won its first three games by a combined 60 points. This one has a margin of 81 points.
As for defense, the Redskins have 21 shutouts since World War II and never more than two in a season. This year, they have two in three games.
Yes, this is the fastest start in Redskins history. And two games have ended with the Redskins falling on the ball to keep from running up scores that reached 45-0 and 34-0.
It would make a nice counterbalance to say the Redskins are pounding awful teams. But Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix, as a group, are close to average for the NFL. The Lions and Cards are 4-0 in their other games and the Cowboys are considered a contender.
Sure, if the Redskins lose to the 0-3 Bengals next week in Cincinnati, throw the pretty stats out the window. But that’s next week. The fun is now. Fans can follow a team for a lifetime and not watch a club get jump-started the way the Redskins have by these three wins.
If one Redskin stood for all yesterday, it was Earnest Byner, who arrived in the locker room on his 29th birthday in an outfit that strongly resembled a hip, open-collar version of a stud-front tuxedo.
”Usually, I dress down,” said Byner, who rushed for 109 yards, received for 51 and generally looked as special in his own slashing, cut-back way as Larry Brown or John Riggins did in the years they led the Redskins to Super Bowls. “This time, I dressed up.”
For the Redskins, this already has the feel of a tuxedo season.