At a June minicamp with their new team, Washington Redskins defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson lined up next to each other in three-point stances. Side-by-side, the two looked imposing—dangerous, almost. "Oh, yeah!" a player standing behind them said in an our-prayers-have-been-answered tone of voice. "We got these wide butts! Look out!"
Packing a combined 628 pounds and plowing forward on tree-trunk legs, the Stubblefield-Wilkinson tandem should be staunch against the run and murder on passing downs. "With guards in the NFL in decline," says one offensive line coach whose team will play Washington this year, "Stubblefield and Wilkinson ought to make the Redskins two or three wins better."
In the six-year history of unrestricted free agency, no other team in the league has spent so lavishly in one off-season to strengthen one position. Then again, no other team has been as needy along the defensive line the past two seasons as Washington, which allowed an NFL-high 140 rushing yards a game in that span. The Redskins not only committed $57.4 million over the next six years to two players who don't touch the ball, but also sent first-and third-round draft picks to the Cincinnati Bengals as compensation for signing Wilkinson, whom Cincinnati had made its franchise player.
As NFL training camps get into full swing, it's no wonder Washington feels a sense of urgency to kick off the season. "We've got the talent," says linebacker Ken Harvey, a 10-year veteran who has spent the last four seasons with the Skins. "There are no excuses anymore. This is the year that we have to win."
Washington was one of the league's oldest teams when it capped the 1991 season by beating the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI. After returning to the playoffs as a wild card the following year, the Redskins suffered three consecutive losing seasons for the first time in 31 years and were still just 8-7-1 last season. One has to look only at the poor first-round selections Washington made in the drafts following mat Super Bowl to see a big reason for the team's decline: In succession, beginning in '92, the Skins picked wideout Desmond Howard, who caught 66 passes in three years before going to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the expansion draft; cornerback Tom Carter, who played four seasons before going to the Chicago Bears in '97 as a restricted free agent; quarterback Heath Shuler, who started 13 games in three forgettable seasons before moving on to the New Orleans Saints; wideout Michael Westbrook, who has made more news by punching out a teammate in practice than by anything he has done in a game; tackle Andre Johnson, who did not play a down during his rookie year and was released during training camp last season; and defensive end Kenard Lang, a projected starter in '98 who had 1½ sacks as a rookie.
But such is life in the NFL today that even though the Redskins struggled in '97, they would have made the playoffs if the New York Jets had beaten the Detroit Lions on the season's final Sunday. This fall Washington is pinning its playoff hopes largely on Stubblefield and Wilkinson. The 6'2", 315-pound Stubblefield, 27, had a classic salary-drive season for the San Francisco 49ers in '97, sacking the quarterback 15 times—14 more than he had the previous year and only 9½ fewer than he had in his first four NFL seasons combined. At his best he is an imposing force against the run who in a game last year against the Philadelphia Eagles had five tackles and 3½ sacks. On the other hand, the 6'5", 313-pound Wilkinson had all of 34 tackles and five sacks last season. In four years with the Bengals, he was surrounded by virtually no talent, leading to repeated double teams. Nevertheless much more was expected of a player who was the first selection in the '94 draft. Scouts still see Wilkinson, 25, as a player who is strong enough to tie up two blockers and quick enough to shoot gaps. How these two players wound up with the Redskins is a story in itself.
Two years ago Washington got solid play at defensive tackle from Sean Gilbert, whom it had acquired from the St. Louis Rams for the sixth pick in the '96 draft. But Gilbert sat out last year in a contract dispute, and when he became a free agent after the season, the Redskins held out slim hope of re-signing him. For the second consecutive year they slapped their franchise tag on Gilbert, meaning another team couldn't sign him unless it gave Washington two first-round draft picks or some other agreed-upon compensation. Then Redskins general manager Charley Casserly looked at other free-agent defensive tackles on the market. He told Redskins president John Kent Cooke, "If we're really going to do this right, we've got to get two of them. But it's going to be really expensive." Cooke gave Casserly the go-ahead.
On consecutive days in mid-February, Washington met with, in order, Wilkinson, Gilbert, Stubblefield and Chester McGlockton, late of the Oakland Raiders. Afterward Casserly, Cooke and coach Norv Turner agreed that signing Stubblefield should be their top priority. Before those negotiations got serious, the Redskins had talked with Gilbert about a five-year, $26 million contract. However, Gilbert balked at, among other things, a clause that would have made $200,000 a year contingent upon an off-season workout program. (Gilbert later signed with the Carolina Panthers, who compensated the Redskins with two first-round draft picks.)
The Washington brass then turned its attention to Stubblefield, and talks heated up on a Saturday in late February. That day Stubblefield and his agent, Neil Cornrich, were in Philadelphia, where they were being wined and dined by the Eagles. Redskins director of player development Joe Mendes was also in Philly, and he told Casserly that he felt he was close to a deal averaging almost $6 million a year.
The following morning, Casserly updated Cooke on the negotiations, and the two agreed to proceed toward signing Stubblefield and Wilkinson. At the same time Wilkinson's agent, Jim Gould, was getting antsy. The Raiders and the Lions were pushing for a meeting with Wilkinson, but Wilkinson badly wanted only two things—to leave Cincinnati and to play for the Redskins. Casserly thought he could meet Wilkinson's price, but could he satisfy Cincinnati president Mike Brown's compensation demands? The two had already held preliminary discussions when Casserly called on Sunday afternoon.