October 28, 1991: To Clark, First-Half Foul-Up Was No Drop In Bucket

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The best thing for all concerned was to stay away from Gary Clark. The Redskins trailed 10-0 and appeared on the verge of being blown out. They looked beaten, psyched out, as if they simply had forgotten the significance of the game. No single play reflected the Redskins’ early frustrations more than The Drop.

”I took my eyes off the ball and looked at the end zone. I was thinking ‘End zone’ all the way. It was a childish play on my part. The first thing you’re taught as a receiver is to look the ball into your hands. I got greedy and started thinking end zone before I caught the ball. I was thinking, ‘You messed up. You drop balls like that you’ll be pushing a broom somewhere.’ I was down on myself. I gave myself a tongue-lashing. I just didn’t want to go out this way.”

It was soul-searching time, not just for Clark, but for the entire team of Washington Redskins Sunday night. And Clark’s evening -- from disastrous beginning to glorious end -- typified that of the Redskins.

”We had the jitters,” Clark said. “I don’t think I’ve had that many butterflies since the Super Bowl.”

Monte Coleman found it equally strange. “I don’t know why,” he said, “but I could never get into this game.”

Certainly for the first 30 minutes, the Redskins looked as if they’d take gas against the Giants, for the seventh straight time. They couldn’t catch. They couldn’t run (Earnest Byner had eight carries for nine yards). They couldn’t tackle Rodney Hampton or cover Stephen Baker.

”The first half we just weren’t with it,” Coach Joe Gibbs said, sounding a familiar refrain.

Just as Clark’s drop captured the essence of the Redskins’ first half, so did his two touchdown receptions depict the stunning turnaround that carried the Redskins to a 17-13 victory. The defense slowed Hampton. Tackle Jim Lachey tied LT in knots, making him as ineffective the second half as he’s ever been in a Redskins game. Maybe any game. Rookie Ricky Ervins not only ripped off chunks of yards but held on to the ball for dear life. Rip threw perfect passes, the Redskins sustained drives so long they could have been measured with a sun dial, and Clark -- fittingly -- landed the killing blows.

On third and goal, with 42 seconds left in the third quarter, Clark made a leaping, turning, cradling touchdown reception that got the Redskins to 13-7. The very next series, Rip found Clark open deep again, having beaten longtime Redskins-nemesis Everson Walls. Rip put it out there again, and Clark knew he had been granted an athlete’s dream: a second chance.

He had dropped one here in 1986 in the NFC championship game against the Giants, and he had dropped the deep one in the first half. Most players will tell you how they “put it behind me.” A still-steaming Clark said no. “You can’t. You messed up. Plus, the Giants fans kept reminding me.”

But the best attribute Clark has, perhaps, is his resilience. He plays when he’s too hurt to play. He runs routes over the middle many receivers wouldn’t. Gary Clark is a tough S.O.B. But he’s also realistic.

”Yeah, I thought of the ‘86 title game,” he said. “It was a similiar pattern too, only that one was sort of a fade. But the wind was blowing and I was hurt. This time, the one in the first half, I had no excuse. The one in the second half, if I’d dropped that one, it would have been hard to go back to D.C. I would have had to file a change of address and everything.”

With Walls on his hip, and just less than 13 minutes to play, Clark caught it. In stride. He didn’t get greedy. He clutched it and kept going into the end zone. “The thing about big plays is they usually start with making the average play,” he said. “Like catching the ball.”

It was 14-13, Redskins. Nearly 13 minutes remained but the Giants were dead. You could see it. They’d blown it the first half, really, when they had a chance to be up 21-0. It shouldn’t have been less than 17-0. Jeff Hostetler overthrew Rodney Hampton in the end zone. Maurice Carthon shoved Matt Millen in the back for a senseless, costly penalty that meant field goal instead of touchdown for the Giants on another possession.

The Giants, these Giants, are only good. These Redskins are building something great. The Redskins weren’t going to lose to ghosts, not tonight. Too many guys like Clark have left these Giants games nauseated.

”There were times in the past,” he said, “when the offense tucked our tails between our legs and didn’t get it done. We just decided that tonight, we just weren’t going to let it end this way.”