The home team's locker room at Washington's RFK Stadium on Sunday was filled with hoots, hollers, hugs and high fives. It was the kind of reaction to be expected from any NFL team after its sixth consecutive victory. One of the league's youngest teams—and certainly its most improbable division leader—the Washington Redskins had just completed an emotional 31-21 win over the New York Giants. There was bubbly joy, then abrupt silence. Coach Norv Turner, who had watched his Skins almost squander a four-touchdown halftime lead, entered and prepared to deliver a postgame speech. In such a scenario a coach might be expected to act as a human cold shower, and the Redskins braced themselves. "This was a learning experience," Turner began, "and we have a lot to work on. For starters, we have to learn how to take a 28-0 lead at the half and protect it." Players stared at Turner blankly, and then he started laughing. "I think we'll enjoy learning about that," he added. There were smiles all around, and the celebration resumed.
Though it's premature to anoint Washington as one of the NFL's elite teams, the Redskins have emerged as pro football's feel-good story of 1996. Devoid of big names and large egos, the young Skins are growing up together—and growing on their audience. Watching them at this stage is like viewing a well-wrought sitcom in its early episodes: The scenes are superbly written and the actors talented, but the timing hasn't been perfected. Inevitably Washington has had some awkward moments, but, helped along by a weak schedule, it nonetheless sits atop the NFC East with a 6-1 record, a game better than the mark of the Philadelphia Eagles and two games better than that of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. Along with the Denver Broncos and the Green Bay Packers, the Redskins, who were 13-35 over the previous three seasons, have the NFL's best record.
Remember that Washington's victories have come against teams with a combined record of 10-26. The opposition gets much tougher beginning this Sunday, when the Skins host the Indianapolis Colts. Thereafter come tests against the Buffalo Bills, Dallas (twice), Philadelphia and the San Francisco 49ers. "There's no story here," insists 14th-year cornerback Darrell Green, whose 68-yard interception return for a touchdown was the highlight of Washington's victory over the Giants. "We're nowhere. We're nobody. We're just a young team trying to get to where the great teams are."
Having played for two of the Redskins' three Super Bowl champions, Green can be forgiven for his restraint. One good reason for his caution: Only three other current Skins—third-string tight end James Jenkins, backup halfback Brian Mitchell and tackle Ed Simmons—played on the last Washington team to win the Super Bowl, in 1991. All but seven Redskins players have been brought in since Turner took over as coach in 1994.
In addition to upgrading the talent, Turner and Skins general manager Charley Casserly have made it a point to acquire quality individuals. "We don't have a lot of partyers," says quarterback Gus Frerotte, "and it seems like when our guys do party, we do it together." For instance, each Monday night after a Washington victory Frerotte hosts a gathering for offensive players at a restaurant near the team's Ashburn, Va., training facility. Says fullback Marc Logan, "This is like the biggest fraternity around."
No fraternity would be complete without some roughhousing, and four days before the game against the Giants, the Redskins acted like Phi Kappa Slappa. In the early stages of a full-pads practice, linebacker Marvcus Patton got carried away during a pass rush and slammed into backup quarterback Heath Shuler, Washington's No. 1 draft choice in 1994, whose chin strap was unfastened. Shuler's helmet flew off, and he barked at Patton, who promptly punched the Redskins' $19.25 million benchwarmer in the face. After some shoving between other players, order was restored and practice resumed at a higher level of intensity. Still, Turner was worried that the Skins would be flat for their rematch with New York, a team they had beaten 31-10 on Sept. 15. "Obviously," he said late Sunday afternoon, "I didn't have a very good read on the mood."
Otherwise, Turner was reading as expertly as Ted Koppel off a teleprompter. He had the Giants thoroughly game-planned. Of course, it takes a proficient quarterback to execute a game plan. From 1991 to '93, when Turner was the Cowboys' offensive coordinator and was forging his reputation as a mastermind, he had Troy Aikman doing the slinging. Now he has Frerotte, a 1994 seventh-round draft choice out of Tulsa who lacks Aikman's pedigree but is a tough, instinctive player. And Frerotte's learning curve is shooting upward. On Sunday, in a first-half performance (10 of 14, for 180 yards) that was marred only by his fourth interception of the season, he smoothly directed three scoring drives. Then, after the Giants cut Washington's lead to 28-21 with 6:35 left, he engineered an 11-play, four-minute drive that ended in Scott Blanton's 45-yard field goal. Frerotte's most important test came early in that sequence, on third-and-six from the Redskins' 29, and he connected with tight end Jamie Asher on a brisk sideline pass for 14 yards. "The biggest play of the game," Turner said.
In choosing Frerotte over Shuler as the starting quarterback after a preseason competition, Turner showed his players that personnel decisions would be based on performance rather than on salary or draft position. Late on the night of Aug. 18, Turner broke the news to Frerotte and Shuler in separate meetings at the Redskins' Ashburn facility. Shuler got the word first. Then Frerotte entered Turner's office, sat down and, as he recalls it, was asked, "What do you think I should do?" Frerotte replied, "What the hell kind of question is that? Coach, I would not want to be in your shoes." Finally Turner told Frerotte of his decision. "I nearly fainted," Frerotte says.
Normally Frerotte is an ice man under pressure. The latest in a long line of standout quarterbacks from western Pennsylvania, he seems to possess the signature traits of at least two of his predecessors from the region: the fiery brashness of Dan Marino and the insouciant wit of Joe Montana. "He has a knack for knowing when he can relax and joke around and when he has to get in people's faces, and that's odd for a young guy," says 35-year-old wide receiver Henry Ellard, Frerotte's favorite target.
You want anger? Frerotte is still steamed over an incident that happened when he tried to attend his first Super Bowl, last January in Tempe, Ariz. Still a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Frerotte purchased a pair of game tickets and flew west with his wife, Annie, and their infant daughter, Abby. When the Frerottes walked up to a gate at Sun Devil Stadium shortly before kickoff, a ticket taker told Gus he needed a ticket for Abby, who was five months old. "I couldn't believe it," Gus recalls. "I had to go over to the security window, and the guy there was standoffish. I told him, 'I'm Gus Frerotte. I play quarterback for the Redskins. My daughter's going to sit on my lap.' The guy finally said, 'I don't care how old she is. She can't get in without a ticket.' "