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Well, consider that the crowded house at RFK Stadium gave Frerotte a semi-standing O just for throwing his first bomb of the Eagles game, even though it slipped through Tydus Winans’ hands and fell incomplete. Not since Cyrano has a forsaken pass been accorded such respect.
Only those stuck in a B.G. (Before Gus) mind-set would want it noted here that the Redskins remain winless at home, or that the first two Eagles touchdowns came off Frerotte’s turnovers, including a post-blindside fumble that was hauntingly Rypienlike.
Scrap the negativity, man!
It can’t be said enough: RFK was the place to be Sunday. The weather was Malibuesque. The now 2-7 Redskins, fittingly for a Halloween weekend tilt, wore the guise of a decent football team for three quarters. And best of all, the burgeoning Gustapo roared all day long for the Over Their Heads Gang and, especially, its endearing new field general. If you closed your mind, it was as if the game really mattered….
Frerotte didn’t break John Friesz’s record for longest winning streak by a current Redskins quarterback (one game), but he did nothing to hurt his standing as the best QB on the team. Nobody but Gus could have launched the perfectly placed bullet to Ethan Horton that gave Washington a short-lived 14-0 lead in the second quarter. Quarterback controversy? What quarterback controversy? Before the stadium had even emptied, Coach Norv Turner announced that the job was now Frerotte’s to lose.
It’s not too early to proclaim that Heath Shuler will never enjoy the unbridled affection shown for Gus on Sunday; overdogs never do. (For anybody who’s forgotten, Shuler, who wears jersey No. 5, is a rookie from Tennessee who…oh, why dwell on the past?) Doug Williams is the only Redskins QB in recent memory to be so unabashedly embraced by local fans.
As the daylong GusFest played itself out, Shuler stood alone on the sidelines, just Frerottin’ in the unseasonably warm sun. Unlike Frerotte, whose anonymity prior to the Colts game allowed him to crash into the public consciousness without any baggage, Shuler is saddled with a slew of descriptive nicknames—First-Round-Draft-Pick-Holdout, $19.25-Million Bonus Baby—that presaged fan enmity even before he’d put on a Redskins uniform, let alone thrown an interception. (Bionic Steve Austin was the only guy with a seven-figure handle that anybody ever rooted for. And he’s fictional.) Though the locals really weren’t too verbally abusive during Shuler’s bleak three-game stint as a starting quarterback, callers to sports talk shows have been crunching Heath ever since Frerotte’s successful debut in Indianapolis.
Shuler didn’t get on the field until after the Eagles game, at which point Randall Cunningham pulled a Pele and asked the rookie benchwarmer if he wanted to exchange jerseys. That’s an odd request on a whole bunch of levels, but in sports memorabilia terms the swap seems as one-sided as a Mickey Mantle rookie card for, well, a Heath Shuler jersey. Shuler seemed shocked by Cunningham’s suggestion, but he nonetheless handed over his dirt-free garment. For all his millions, standing at midfield in a lily-white T-shirt and exposed shoulder pads, Shuler looked downright pitiful. Maybe he’s got some underdog in him after all….
The Redskins aren’t just more likable with the Tulsa rookie in there, they also play better with Frerotte. The Crime Bill Offense—three downs and you’re out—Washington showcased under Shuler became obsolete with Frerotte’s first snaps in Indianapolis.
Philadelphia coaches, like the rest of America, must’ve caught the video of the Colts game, because Washington’s air attack was shown more reverence. Until the Redskins find a fullback that can block or a tailback that can break a tackle, first-down dive plays still won’t get squat, but the holes in the Eagles defensive front were a lot bigger at RFK than they were at the Vet. Why? Because the same Eagle linebackers that blitzed Shuler silly three weeks ago were quickly dropping into pass coverage on second and third downs with Frerotte in the lineup.
On a very related note, Washington got three times as many yards on the ground at RFK as in Philly. And for the first time since Week 2 in New Orleans, the Redskins held the ball longer than the opposition. Turner’s system, where the passing game sets up the run, is the antithesis of the Riggo-triggered Redskins offense under Joe Gibbs. At home against Philadelphia, the first-year head coach’s proclivity for calling draw plays on third and long all of a sudden appeared ingenious, not cowardly; the drastic improvement in third-down conversions (6-12 on Sunday, 5-32 in Shuler’s three games) has enhanced every Redskins coach’s position along the bell curve.
Make no mistake, the defense also plays better for Gus. Given time to rest between assignments, Ron Lynn’s bunch had its best game of the year. Charlie Garner, who picked up 122 yards last time against the Redskins, was limited to just 38 yards on 12 carries before reinjuring a rib late in the third quarter on Sunday. Cunningham didn’t do much more than throw screen passes and dump-offs all game long. Until the fourth quarter, the Eagles offense had mounted just one scoring drive—for just 18 yards at that.
But once again, with the game on the line, the Washington defense failed to stop an opponent. Time and again, Herschel Walker or another Philly back blew away defenders after catching a Cunningham screen.
In seven of their nine games, the Redskins have enjoyed second-half leads (the Dallas and Seattle blowouts are the exceptions) and gone on to squander all but two of them. For all the improvement shown in the Eagles game, Washington still has far and away the worst defense in the NFL, giving up a league-high 242 points, or at least 31 points more than any other team in the league. The home team has won only seven of its last 29 games, a worse record than either the Colts or Tampa Bay Buccaneers (but not the Cincinnati Bengals).
Now come the San Francisco 49ers. The opposition has an absolute monopoly on the postseason possibilities and marquis names: career TD leader Jerry Rice, Stormin’ Mormon Steve Young, and Prime Time Deion Sanders. An interesting sideshow will be the first D.C. appearance of former local icon Charles Mann since he declined Charley Casserly’s take-it-or-leave offer and then signed for relative peanuts with the 49ers.
The ascension of Frerotte put ticket scalpers back in business for the Philadelphia game. If Mother Nature cooperates the least bit, San Francisco will be an even harder ticket. This will be the last game with any allure on the Redskins home schedule. After the 49ers game, the tailspinning New York Giants and the tailspun Buccaneers will be the only other visitors to RFK.