One plus for Shuler was that he wasn't playing in a stadium as big as the one in Knoxville, which has nearly twice as many scats as RFK. "First time I walked out here," Shuler says, "I kept looking around and thinking, Where's the upper deck?"
Shuler fared better against the Falcons. He received a rousing ovation when he entered the game, with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, but that might have been because folks were simply tired of sniping at John Friesz, the starter who had thrown three interceptions.
Shuler's popularity is on the upswing, but that could change this Sunday against the Cowboys if he doesn't produce. Washington has no patience with failures. Just look at what happened with Petitbon last year: "Richie," as everybody in the city affectionately called him, was given 10 months to prove his mettle as coach before Cooke canned him. "Sometimes," Cooke said of the '93 season, "I almost wished that I could be sick and have justification for not going to the games."
An invitation to sit in the owner's box at RFK has long been one of the most-prized invitations in town—even more prized, it has been argued, than an invitation to a White House dinner. Washington is a self-important town filled with self-important people, and what's more important on an autumn Sunday afternoon than watching the Redskins alongside the ancient tycoon who owns them? A celebrity football team deserves a celebrity audience, and, boy, does Cooke deliver.
His list of guests generally includes government and media hotshots. Larry L. King, the playwright, is on the A-list, as are political commentators Carl Rowan and George Will, Utah senator Orrin Hatch and former presidential candidates George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes fame used to go with her husband, author Aaron Latham, but they moved to New York a while back. Before each game Cooke and his former wife and current companion, Marlena, a Bolivian beauty some 45 years younger than he, entertain the troops with food and cocktails. Everyone has a blast, unless, of course, you happen to work for the team.
Says Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins' assistant general manager, "I used to sit up there when [former general manager] Bobby Beathard was here. It was tough. I feel sorry for [current G.M.] Charley Casserly because he's got to catch all that nasty stuff. He doesn't know everything that's going on on the field, but he's got to try to answer for it to the boss. The boss says, 'Why would you do that? That's stupid!' And Charley says, 'Urn, uh, um....' And the boss says, 'Spit it out, Charley!' "
Cooke professes to feeling a large sense of responsibility to the city and to its football fans. He wants to give them another winner, and at 81 he doesn't have much time to waste. Washington has professional basketball and hockey teams, but of late both have done nothing but disappoint. Who can recall the last time the Bullets were any good? And while the Capitals do tend to bully their way into the playoffs each year, they always self-destruct in the clutch. Major league baseball fled a long time ago. That makes the Redskins "the only game in town," as Washingtonians are fond of saying. On the day after the Redskins win a Monday night game, the Post sells about 7,000 extra papers. And gobs more people report to work wearing burgundy and gold than they would otherwise.
"There actually are two Washingtons," says Will. "There's the real Washington, made up of people who've lived there for generations and generations. And then there's the conspicuous Washington, the population of transients who go there to work and who turn to the Redskins as a way of attaching themselves to the city. To the extent that a sports franchise can express the hopes of a city, the Redskins are it."
"What makes it so unique around here," says the Post's Solomon, "is that the Redskins are one of the few unifying factors, so there's a lot of intensity directed at them."
Cooke has been negotiating to win approval for a new stadium for several years now, but political opposition has compelled him to move the proposed site for the facility from one area of metropolitan D.C. to another. His latest target is Laurel, Md., some 20 miles north of the city. The 78,600-seat structure would cost about $200 million. But zoning, environmental, traffic and various other hurdles must first be cleared. "It'll happen," Cooke has promised. But the day after Marion Barry won the Democratic primary for mayor on Sept. 13, he called Cooke to say that he believes the Redskins should remain in the District.