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The Skins are the only NFL squad I’ve ever rooted for and never bet against. But after watching the team tank in the season opener against the Eagles, I dropped ’em like third-period French. In this very space, I spewed much venom at all things burgundy-and-gold. I tagged Norv Turner “the Nude Emperor,” questioned Michael Westbrook’s testosterone level, and savaged Tom Carter and the rest of the defense. I even speculated that the team would win no more than seven games. I meant over the entire season, not in a row.
The abuse was nothing if not heartfelt. I had accumulated a hefty helping of disregard for Norv for the way he’d conspired with the local media during that two-year propaganda campaign aimed at persuading us fans that Heath Shuler really deserved to be in the league. But even after he named Gus the rightful starter, I still had problems with Norv as a coach. He was cornered into making a good decision by Shuler’s overwhelming mediocrity; that didn’t mean his football IQ had gone up. I honestly didn’t think the team could win with Turner on the sidelines. And I really, really believed in the Skins’ fundamental suckage.
Then came that winning streak. All of a sudden, Norv, heretofore an offensive genius in reputation only, was calling reverses and double-reverses and fake punts and flea flickers. And they worked! An offensive line that couldn’t give Gus the time of day in the season opener started opening holes big enough for Joe Waldholtz to canter through. The defense, stocked with the very same players that stunk up the joint as it had the previous two years, somehow stopped giving up points.
Off the field, the team seemed more lovable, too. Well, not totally; for all his kung-fu training, Westbrook couldn’t keep from putting his foot in his own mouth. But the once eminently resentable Shuler grew hard to hate by accepting the belated transition from high-profile goat to goateed bench-warmer in silence and with grace. And then he even picked up a shiner from teammate Marvelous Marvcus Patton during a feisty practice session.
For several weeks, D.C. was a Skins town again! Just like in the good ol’ days, beautiful people came to see and be seen at home games. Colin Powell saluted the team from Jack Kent Cooke’s box against the Giants; even big-time movie star Matthew McConaughey killed time roaming the sidelines at RFK.
I took some pleasure from the Skins’ successful skein, but only because I was still placing the same running bet on the team I’ve placed every week for the last decade. And since Vegas hasn’t forgotten the sins of recent Redskins teams, a wager on Washington was suddenly as sure as a bet against Boston College. But I didn’t feel comfortable just joining in the chorus that sang the Skins’ praises during the streak. All the mean things I’d said at the beginning of the year left me feeling like a cheating spouse.
Just one more win would make the Skins better than I predicted at the beginning of the season and clinch my wrongness. I bought into the spin that the Buffalo blowout was one of those on-any-given-Sunday aberrations. So before the game against heavy underdog Arizona, I thought about how maybe it was time for me to admit how wrong I’d been about the Redskins, to make peace with my team.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the confessional. The Skins lose to the lousy Cardinals, who are a pro sports franchise by virtue of their custody of an NFL logo and little else. After falling down in front of the Cards, the bad vibes are right back in the forefront. It’s all clear again! Norv does suck! How do you blow a 17-point second-half lead? With the worst clock management this side of Wisconsin, that’s how! How could I have been blinded to the truth? Turns out that the latest loss, like the Bills romp, was no fluke: Under Norv, the Redskins have never won a game in November. Never! Look it up!
Streak, shmeak! It was all smoke and mirrors! I’d overlooked the fact that of all the teams the Skins beat, only one (New England) even had a winning record! And that while the Skins’ defense wasn’t giving up all that many points, it’s been one of the most generous in yards allowed all season long. Of all the Skins coaches, Ron Lynn, and not Norv, is really the guy who should get credit for turning an average offensive unit into a spectacular one, and for transforming a has-been backup into Johnny Unitas. Five hundred and twenty-two yards passing? From Boomer Esiason?
As the overtime period in the Cardinals game began, it occurred to me that there are no more gimmes on the 1996 schedule. Philly already kicked the Skins’ butt. San Francisco and Dallas surely will. That leaves Tampa Bay and a rematch with Arizona in Tempe next month as the only opportunities the Skins will have to register any more wins. Norv has already gone up against the Buccaneers three times as the Redskins coach, and has yet to win even once. Don’t forget that he is the only Redskins coach ever to lose to Tampa Bay. And knowing what we do now, who would be surprised by a Cardinals sweep of the season series?
When Kevin Butler’s third kick of the overtime split the uprights to end the marathon, most of Washington might have groaned, but not me. I’m not chucking my seven-wins prediction just yet, I thought to myself. I’m still a Redskins fan, but I’m also a small, small person, and I’d rather be right than happy.Dave McKenna