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So what if the Redskins are about as likely to make the playoffs as Mark Fuhrman is to be selected as grand marshal of the Million Man March? And so what if the team picked up another L in the rarefied, daunting confines of Mile High Stadium? There was plenty to like in the Skins’ hair’s-breadth loss to the Denver Elways; in defeat, there was a measure of honor, and enough signs of life to hearten longtime Skinheads.
During more prosperous times, the manner in which the team garnered its latest loss would have had coffee klatches all over town ringing with bitter banter along the lines of “the freakin’ officials cost the freakin’ Skins the freakin’ game!” That was true last Sunday, but since a Super Bowl doesn’t exactly hang in the balance, it was no big deal. The dearth of postseason possibilities means the hangover caused by that 38-31 squeaker loss in Denver will be mercifully short. Unless you’re already concerned about the Redskins’ placement in next year’s draft (in which case counseling might be in order), the big picture doesn’t matter. With that enlightened attitude in hand, the game is the thing, and pro football doesn’t get much better than Washington vs. Denver.
Never before had Norv Turner’s Over Their Heads Gang played an entire game at such a lofty level. And we’re not just talking altitude. Among the burgundy-and-gold bright spots: underutilized utility man Brian Mitchell blowing by Broncos whenever the opportunity arose (290 all-purpose yards!); safeties James Washington and Stanley Richards running through and over receivers; uncharacteristically daring play-calling, including flea-flickers and bombs (from Norv Turner!); rookie whine-meister Michael Westbrook polishing his Jerry Rice routine; an offensive line creating a hermetically sealed pocket; and, best of all, quarterback Gus Frerotte further pissing off his bosses by playing like GusForReal all day long.
Heath Shuler, who separated his shoulder while being sacked in the first half of the season opener against Arizona, healed enough to dress for the Denver game. But even though the convalescing period originally announced by team doctors will end this week, Redskins coaches weren’t talking before, or more notably after, the Broncos loss about returning Shuler to the starting lineup. Off the field, Frerotte, like Shuler, may still wear a glazed-over gaze befitting an NFL sophomore, but the Denver game provided another two halves of proof that the Tulsa alum’s grip of Turner’s multifarious passing scheme is light-years ahead of his more financially endowed counterpart. Two of Frerotte’s three TD passes went to nonprimary receivers, on plays in which Gus looked left, looked right, then looked left again and threw perfectly to an open man for a score. Turner wouldn’t even have thought of calling the flea-flickers if the conveniently injured Err Apparent—who didn’t throw a single TD pass the entire preseason—was lining up behind center.
Should the Redskins and Frerotte outplay Tampa Bay and fellow second-year QB Trent Dilfer in the upcoming game, Heath will have to buy the team to get his job back. Rather than comparing Shuler with Gus, link him with Wally Pipp (whom Lou Gehrig replaced to begin his streak). If the Redskins’ current quarterback competition were a horse race, it would be the 1973 Belmont, with Gus as Secretariat.
The winning quarterback of Sunday’s game, the equine-mouthed John Elway, knows more about losing than either Gus or Heath. Elway is basically the Fran Tarkenton of his generation: For all of his Hall of Fame stats—he is among the leaders in virtually every career-passing category—Elway’s epitaph will be that he failed to win or even play well in any of the three Super Bowls he appeared in. (That the Redskins almost took the Broncos to overtime Sunday is but one more indication that Denver won’t be revisiting the NFL championship in Elway’s remaining years as a starter.)
The most crushing of Elway’s big game chokes, of course, came against the Redskins in Super Bowl XXII, following the 1987 season. The second quarter of that game stands as the most memorable 15 minutes in Redskins history, in which the Redskins scored 35 points during five possessions on the way to a 42-10 blowout. Doug Williams threw for 228 yards and completed four touchdown passes in the second period alone, allowing him to begin practicing his “I’m going to Disneyland/ Disney World!” routine long before the half ended.
Redskins fans weren’t the only ones reveling in Elway’s misery that day. Vengeful Baltimoreans haven’t forgotten his part in rendering the town Colts-less. When he was a Stanford senior and the most sought-after college player in the land, Elway publicly belittled Charm City and its already reeling Colts as unworthy of his services. In a press conference, he ordered team management not to bother using their top pick to draft him. If he was selected by Baltimore, Elway declared, he’d hang up his pads and opt for a professional baseball career instead. Rather than call the supertalented schoolboy’s bluff, the Colts—though not too many years removed from being one of the era’s NFL glamour teams—caved in to his demands. Fans started staying away from Memorial Stadium, and the franchise’s image has never really recovered, despite the Midwestern migration. To many, only the Irsays played a more satanic role than Elway in the team’s midnight ride.
But even if he lacks a seasonal finishing game, Elway has always been the king of the comeback in regular-season and playoff games. He’s directed game-winning drives in the fourth quarter 43 times in his career. When Denver got the ball on their own 20-yard line with the scoreboard registering a tie and 1:07 left in the game, who didn’t know the Skins were toast? Had anybody else but Elway been at quarterback, the 80-yard, eight-play drive for the victory would have seemed far more transcendent. As it is, Rod Smith’s TD catch of an Elway bullet as time expired might fall to the cutting room floor when the quarterback’s career highlight reel is put together. In the big picture, this was a regular-season game, and Elway was just being Elway. As they’d say in Paris, “We’ve seen this before.”