November 4, 1991: We’re Talking About ‘U’

The firing squad missed from point-blank range yesterday. Now, the Washington Redskins are really dangerous.

After Washington’s escape from Houston -- 16-13 in overtime -- the unthinkable has suddenly become the unavoidable. What was recently far-fetched is now a reasonable possibility. Can the Redskins become the second team in NFL history to go undefeated? Should the “No Name” Dolphins start worrying?

Probably not. But, for the first time, maybe. Just maybe. The Redskins are the eighth team since 1970 to reach 9-0 and only Miami in 1972-73 finished the job. Being 9-0 doesn’t even ensure a great year. One of those teams that started 9-0 lost its first playoff game. Another lost its conference championship game. And of the five that reached the Super Bowl, two lost there.

Still, there’s one stunning fact that makes you take the Redskins especially seriously. In this season of injured Montanas and Cunninghams, the Redskins don’t have a game left on their schedule as tough as the ones they’ve already won. From here to the wire, the Redskins probably will be at least a touchdown favorite in every game. They’ll have to be upset not to go undefeated. Remember that name -- Ian Howfield. Don Shula will.

”Undefeated” is a funny word in football. It makes big men run and coaches cry. It is the dream of dreams and the fantasy that is almost, but not quite, beyond imagining. Yet it’s also a snare, a delusion, a Halloween prank.

Even being 9-0 is “a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Joe Gibbs. On the other hand, he added that being undefeated in November also brings “distractions, praise and a big chance to think you’re better than you are.”

While it’s better to be lucky than good, it’s best to be lucky and good. So far, that’s the Redskins, the team with an angel on its shoulder and a devil hidden on the other guys’ bus.

”You’d figure we’d lose a game, if you base it on the odds,” said linebacker Matt Millen. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to win ‘em all.”

The Redskins hate, loathe and despise talking about the “U” word. You expected the locker room door to open and find the whole team chanting, “One at a time.” However, as center Jeff Bostic said, “The fans can think about it all they want.”

Rest assured, they will. And should.

The teams left on the Redskins’ schedule with the best records -- the Falcons, Cowboys and Giants -- are also the teams they get to play at home. The teams left with losing records are, by luck, the teams Washington plays on the road -- the Steelers, Rams, Cardinals and Eagles. A neutral handicapper probably would say that Washington’s four toughest games of ‘91 are already past: at Dallas, at Chicago, at New York and against the now 7-2 Oilers.

The Redskins’ victory proved two contradictory things.

On one hand, the Redskins can certainly lose. Against the Oilers, they did everything it took to beat themselves. Mark Rypien fumbled a snap at the Houston 12-yard line with 10:52 to play just as the Redskins were about to add to a 13-6 lead and perhaps win easily.

Far worse, Brian Mitchell, who needs to learn when to be heroic and when to be smart, fumbled a kickoff at his 23-yard line with 1:33 to play in a 13-13 tie.

”Brian’s put it on the ground a number of times,” said Gibbs, bluntly. “To be honest, you can’t continue to do that.” Memo to Brian: No kick returner keeps a job if he’s a fumbler.

The Redskins also proved, however, that they could beat one of the NFL’s half-dozen best teams on a day when both of their tackles -- Joe Jacoby and Jim Lachey -- left with injuries.

To motivate themselves and deke their foes, the Redskins love to say that they aren’t that talented. By which they mean that Rypien isn’t Johnny Unitas and only about three defenders are of Pro Bowl caliber. But you never hear the Redskins say they aren’t deep.

What other team could lose so many players in almost any area and still function at a high level? Without Jacoby and Lachey, both conceivable Hall of Famers, and with Ed Simmons injured too, the Redskins still had Russ Grimm and Mark Adickes in reserve. They opened a hole for a 23-yard touchdown run and helped create a 154-yard rushing day.

This is a team that has Ricky Ervins and Gerald Riggs behind Earnest Byner and classy Stephen Hobbs rusting behind The Posse. Some in the NFL think that Stan Humphries or Cary Conklin might be indistinguishable from Rypien. There are waves of linebackers.

When you win despite four turnovers, when you win despite a generally flat performance after a World War III effort the previous week against the Giants, you are an extremely good team.

That’s why the Redskins were not very apologetic about the way they won No. 9. They even had a nice little cocky edge in the face of such inquiries.

” ‘Lucky’ depends on how you look at it,” said Gibbs, pointing out that a touchdown pass to Ervins that was nullified by a questionable penalty.

The Redskins don’t want to hear about how Darrell Green’s interception to set up Chip Lohmiller’s game-winning field goal may have been a blown interference call.

”Lucky? Yeah,” said Rypien. “But the teams that run off consecutive game streaks -- good things happen to those teams. They get the breaks.”

After the Redskins’ doings against the Giants and Oilers, the feeling here is that two things are now obvious. First, any Redskin who doesn’t take ‘em one at a time is crazy. Second, any Redskins fan who doesn’t dream, night and day, of a perfect season should have his pulse checked.