Let the record show that the beginning of the end of the 1999 Redskins came when the team went after one of its own.
Remember how peachy things were just a month ago? The Skins had just crushed Arizona on the road, even on a night when Brad Johnson, the straw that stirs the drink, played his first nonsuperb game of the season. The blowout left Washington alone in first place. With the Cowboys’ Michael Irvin in traction and the rest of the division only slightly less infirm, it appeared that only a meltdown of Turneresque proportions could keep the team out of the playoffs. And that wouldn’t happen, not with an austere new regime overseeing everything.
Well…Welcome to the meltdown, Chapter VI. And this time around, it looks as though Coach Norv has gotten a hand from the overseers.
Just as local sports radio began buzzing with fans’ forecasts that happy days were here again, Redskins management suddenly cooked up a bizarre controversy involving punter Matt Turk. Seems Turk showed up at Redskin Park three days after the Arizona win with a broken left middle finger. He said he’d hurt the digit at some point either before or during the game. He wasn’t certain on which play or snap, though.
Turk’s story never did wash with the front office. They thought he was lying. And rather than handle the situation internally—or “keep it within the family,” as the mantra went after Michael Westbrook beat the crap out of Stephen Davis—somebody upstairs set out to nail Turk. A management source leaked the team’s skepticism to the Washington Post, saying that there was unspecified evidence that he’d actually gotten hurt playing pickup basketball a night after the Cardinals game. Along with questioning Turk’s honesty, the source indicated that if hoops was indeed the cause of the injury, the player could be fined for any games missed.
From the start, the pursuit of Turk was crazy: Redskin Park has a basketball court for the players, after all. But the Turk controversy immediately became the dominant story coming out of Ashburn, taking a lot of sheen off the team’s ascent to first place, and diverting attention away from the upcoming rematch with Dallas. Though nobody within the organization had the guts to attach his name to the stories about the punter, word that team officials were looking at films of the Cardinals game to determine if Turk was telling the truth created a small furor.
So who was planting the dirt? Well, the Associated Press’ Oct. 22 pickup of the Post’s Fingergate story left little doubt as to who the wire service reporter thought the leaker to be: “Meanwhile, no one [at Redskin Park] wanted to say much about a report in The Washington Post that cast suspicion on Turk’s injury. The report, which appeared beside a lengthy interview with owner Dan Snyder…”
Snyder? Would the little owner really go Big Brother on his own employee, breaking down videotape to bust a guy for…playing basketball?
Hmmm…Maybe Snyder, or his alter ego, SuperFan, hasn’t forgiven Turk for bungling that snap and costing the Skins the season opener against Dallas. Lord knows a lot of folks in the grandstands haven’t. Or maybe the owner saw the controversy as a way to recoup some of the $800 million he put out to buy the team and Raljon. As the only Pro Bowler on the squad last year, Turk was getting a pretty penny. If the basketball accusations stuck, then Snyder could withhold the player’s salary as he convalesced from the surgery to repair the wound, and the recovered funds could earn interest alongside all those FedEx millions the owner had just procured.
Turk never caved under the pressure that Snyder—er, the unnamed source—put on him. Instead, he got his brother, beleaguered long-snapper Dan Turk, and even trainer Bubba Tyer to confirm that he had indeed been complaining about the finger before the break was discovered.
Incredibly, the smear job continued.
In fact, the treatment of the player grew even more shabby when Brian Hansen, the replacement punter, underwhelmed management in his debut, a 38-20 loss to Dallas. Hansen’s biggest sin came when he kicked a low line drive right to Deion Sanders late in the game, which was promptly returned 70 yards for the Cowboys’ final score.
A week and a half after the smearing started, Vinny Cerrato, director of player personnel, stepped forward to confirm publicly that the team was indeed investigating Turk.
“We’re evaluating the situation,” Cerrato said. “When you get people calling in and saying they were playing [basketball] with him, that’s what you got to do.”
When the broken finger had healed sufficiently to allow Turk’s return, the unnamed sources struck again, however, leaking reports that the team wanted him gone, and that Hansen’s ineptitude was the only thing that kept him on the roster. Turk punted only twice in his return game against Buffalo, posting a meager average of just 30.5 yards per kick. High winds were at least partially to blame: Working under the same conditions, Bills punter Chris Mohr averaged only 28.5.
Nevertheless, the home crowd, obviously swayed by the smear campaign, booed Turk as if he were a war criminal after each kick. As he walked toward the bench after his second dose of jeers, Turk slammed his helmet to the ground. No teammate came over to console him on the sideline or offer any support. The Bills, as we know, trounced the Skins. The way Mike Nolan’s defense played, maybe management should let the coaches use the film rooms to come up with better schemes, and not tie them up trying to catch the punter in a lie. Last week, the team gave up trying to replace Turk this season.
Turk rebounded in the loss to Philadelphia, averaging 46.5 yards per kick. The same can’t be said for many of his mates. Ever since the 35-28 debacle—the Skins’ third loss in the four games since the middle-finger scandal broke—the disintegration of the team seems to be advancing at a good clip.
Finger-pointing is again in vogue, for instance. Norv Turner, in responding to questions about special teams at his Monday press conference, announced that Brian Mitchell wouldn’t be his top kick-return man from now on, apparently without telling the player first. So that night, Mitchell used his weekly radio show, broadcast from the Shark Club in Centreville, to mock the head coach.
“I’m getting sick and tired of this, ‘Well, we did some great things,’” Mitchell sneered into the microphone. “Fans get tired of hearing it. Players get tired of hearing it. I trust and believe in the 58 players in the locker room. That’s it.”
Placards announcing Mitchell’s weekly gig were spread all over the bar. Matt Turk, according to the same paperwork, would also be on hand each Monday night to greet fans and sign autographs. He never showed up on this night, however. Shark Club staffers said Turk stopped coming by about a month ago. They didn’t know why.—Dave McKenna