The Bengals were in a tough spot. Not only had Wilkinson been an underachiever on the field, but personnel directors around the league knew that he hated Cincinnati; he had even called the city racist. What's more, he had pleaded no contest to a domestic violence charge after being accused of striking his pregnant girlfriend. He had also feuded with Bengals coaches about his playing weight. When Casserly offered first-and third-round picks for Wilkinson, Brown accepted conditionally, with the deal contingent on the Arizona Cardinals' declining to match an offer the Bengals had made to defensive end Michael Bankston.
Meanwhile, Stubblefield flew to Washington on Sunday afternoon, and by that night he had signed a six-year, $36 million contract. Four days later, Wilkinson signed a five-year, $21.4 million deal. "I knew they were talking to Dan, but I didn't know how serious they were," Stubblefield recalls. "A couple of days later I'm home, sleeping, and I wake up with the TV on and there's a story about the Redskins signing Dan Wilkinson. Well, that woke me up. I said, 'Whoa! Now we can turn something good into something great.' "
Stubblefield chafes when talk turns to the Niners because he believes they didn't try hard enough to re-sign him after a season in which he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Year. He knows that some in the organization wonder why he performed so well only when a contract was on the line. "I'll just have to show 'em," he says. "I'm bringing an attitude here that I learned from the 49ers—nothing's acceptable unless it's the Super Bowl."
The Redskins trust Wilkinson will get the message. He left Ohio State after his redshirt sophomore season to take NFL millions. In his second pro season he reported to a spring minicamp carrying 345 pounds and munching on french fries. One year later, he stormed out of an off-season practice after getting ripped by then coach Dave Shula for his lackadaisical attitude. In '97, playing for his third defensive line coach and second coordinator in four years, he was moved to end in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 zone-blitz scheme. "This is the best position for me, because it gives me a lot more freedom to get to the passer," Wilkinson, who had primarily been a 4-3 tackle, said at the time. He had such freedom that he finished 69th in the league in sacks and 14th on his own team in tackles.
Wilkinson calls his time in Cincinnati "a learning experience. If I had some things to do over again, I'm sure I would. But I have no regrets. As far as football goes, I've played the 4-3 all my life, and now I'm back in it. I'm happy. The Bengals didn't have the personnel to run the 3-4 with me at end. But in this defense, at tackle, my job will be to be stout against the run, get up the field, penetrate and let my talent show."
Washington also expects Wilkinson will be more at ease on and off the field as a mere spoke in the wheel rather than the focal point of a defense. "He's going to have guys like Harvey, Stubblefield, Darrell Green, Marvcus Patton and Cris Dishman—leader types—on him all the time," says Casserly. "It's a lot different being Number 6 or 7 than being Number 1."
Despite his 26-37-1 record in four years as Redskins coach, Turner, similarly, is operating without the pressure he might have felt elsewhere, or even in Washington five years ago. (Turner's predecessor, Richie Petitbon, was fired after going 4-12 in '93, his first season on the job.) Longtime owner Jack Kent Cooke, who died in April 1997, was a big Turner fan, and son John may be an even bigger one. Turner has a contract through the 2001 season, and John Kent Cooke says Turner's job won't be in jeopardy even if the Redskins miss the 12-team postseason party again this year. "If we're not in the playoffs," Cooke says, "it will not be because of Norv Turner. It will be because of injuries, or god knows what. Norv has proved to me that he is a fine coach. Now he's got the players to prove that to the rest of the NFL."
Maybe that's why Turner seems particularly focused and placid, shrugging off any suggestion that this could be a make-or-break year for him. "If you go around with an air that there's pressure on you to win, it'll rub off on others," he said recently, as he drove by Petitbon's American Grill. "If you sit around talking about it and worrying about it, how can that help you win? So I ignore it." Or does he? Later that night, as Turner watched his son Scott's Babe Ruth League game, one fan after another stopped by to wish him well. He knows what the expectations are. "We've got the best team we've had since I've been here, hands down," Turner said between innings. "We've got to play well. We just have to."