At the same time the boos started at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium on Sunday, the spunky blonde in an end-zone luxury suite went ballistic. Annie Frerotte's husband, Gus, the frappuccino-cool quarterback of the Washington Redskins, had just thrown an interception to Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Dave Thomas on the final play of the first quarter of a game the home team seemed determined to lose. Tired, cranky and nine months pregnant, Annie was as mad at Gus as any one of the 74,421 fans was, and she found herself talking trash like a playground hoopster. "We're gonna buy him a big-screen TV," she blurted to no one in particular, "so he can watch some film and figure out what's going on."
Annie's hormones had been dancing around like Michael Flatley all weekend. Her purse had been stolen as she dined at a Tysons Corner, Va., restaurant on Saturday night, meaning someone had the keys to the plush, three-story house the Frerottes recently purchased in nearby Great Falls. With Gus and the other Redskins holed up in a hotel near the stadium, Annie was left to oversee the changing of the locks, a process that kept her up until after 3 a.m.
But in light of what was happening on the field, it was Gus's sleep-deprived weekend that really irked Annie. On Friday night he stayed up until 2:30 shooting pool and throwing back shots of Amaretto with Rob Bindeman, his business manager. The next night he was up past midnight playing cards with several teammates. Guess who was the big loser? The rude awakening came on Sunday's first play from scrimmage, when Jaguars defensive end Don Davey nailed Frerotte with a blindside hit and forced a fumble that set up a Jacksonville field goal. It continued on Thomas's interception, which came after Frerotte's intended receiver, veteran wideout Henry Ellard, slipped on the wet grass.
At that point some quarterbacks would have thrown a tantrum. Frerotte approached his high-strung coach, Norv Turner, and sarcastically suggested running a flea-flicker. But then, after Washington fumbled the ball away again on its next possession, Frerotte took control of this interconference showdown between young, physical teams. He muscled up and threw three assertive touchdown passes—two before halftime and one in the fourth quarter—to lead the Redskins to a 24-12 victory that stamped them as bona fide NFC contenders.
If Sunday's outcome didn't signal a shift in the NFL landscape, it definitely altered some perceptions. Washington (3-1) out-hit the much-hyped Jaguars (3-1) on both sides of the ball. The Redskins defense, spurred by the hawkish play of cornerbacks Darrell Green and Cris Dishman, neutralized Jacksonville halfback Natrone Means and kept the Jaguars out of the end zone. "We know it's a long season," Turner said later, "but we're holding up physically better than a lot of people thought we would. We feel we can go toe-to-toe with anyone."
Last year the Skins collapsed after a 7-1 start and missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Their defense is much improved, but what gives Washington a chance to be special is the temperament of its 26-year-old quarterback. Leadership comes in many forms, some more obvious to the naked eye than others. While the football universe is hip to the gifts of Jacksonville's Mark Brunell, who struggled in this, his second game back from a scary preseason knee injury, Frerotte's assets are far more subtle. He comes from the Joe Montana school of unpretentious authority, and although the comparison is incomplete and premature, Frerotte has much in common with the certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. Each emerged from a small town in western Pennsylvania armed with a homespun simplicity to counterbalance a defiant bravado. Like Montana, Frerotte doesn't take himself too seriously, and he achieves his greatest clarity in tense situations.
Frerotte's coolness comes in handy around Turner, who is far more volatile on the sidelines than those on the outside would imagine. "Players know the truth," fullback Marc Logan says. "Little things set him off. Norv gets so hyped up during a game, it's almost like he's playing." Yet Turner stayed relatively calm on Sunday, even after the Redskins committed three turnovers in the game's first 19 minutes and fell behind 9-0.
From that point on the afternoon belonged to Frerotte. His stats (16 completions in 24 attempts for 244 yards) were impressive, but they hardly told the story. There's no number that measures the toughness he displays on a regular basis. Consider the 13-yard pass to wideout Leslie Shepherd he delivered while being flattened by the blitzing Thomas. The completion extended a drive that ended with Scott Blanton's 41-yard field goal and a 17-12 lead with 11:55 left. Was Frerotte hurt by the blow? "Nah," he said later, "I was too busy swearing to notice. I never really stop to think about any pain."
His touchdown passes were even more impressive:
•Six minutes before halftime, with the Redskins looking at third-and-three at the Jaguars' 10, Frerotte faked a handoff and rolled right, behind halfback Terry Allen. He threw a ball on the run that sailed just beyond the right sideline, as if he expected Shepherd to make a leaning, highlight-tape catch. Shepherd did, and Washington cut the Jacksonville lead to 9-7.