The restaurant was packed, the party was in full swing, and the majority of Daniel M. Snyder's guests were more interested in stuffing their faces than in talking shop. But Snyder, the amped-up owner of the Washington Redskins, couldn't contain his enthusiasm as he hovered near the entrance to the posh D.C. eatery. Each time another Redskins player arrived at the party, Snyder would veer toward him, give a cursory greeting to his companion, then blurt out, "So, are you ready for the season?" Though the question seemed rhetorical, each player felt compelled to answer in the affirmative—as insincere as that response might have been.
After all, it was only April.
Five months later, as he peered down from his luxury suite at FedExField on Sunday, Snyder finally got to judge for himself. Washington's 20-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers simultaneously validated the owner's off-season spending spree and confirmed the sobering fact that there are some things—love, eternal life, adequate special teams play—that money can't buy. While the Skins' fortunes were bolstered by an influx of talented newcomers, sloppy play and a lack of discipline nearly cost Washington in its opener. "It's going to take a little time to get to where we want to be," said cornerback Deion Sanders, the team's most conspicuous import, as he buttoned the top half of a see-through purple suit following the game. "I'm not a fool, even though I might look it, and I know that nothing happens instantly. Even the Lord took six days to create mankind."
Then Sanders, as is his custom, paused for dramatic effect. "Come on, man, this ain't college," he said. "You don't have to win by a certain amount to preserve your ranking. You've just got to win."
Never has that been more true than it is this season in the nation's capital, where Snyder, since purchasing the Redskins and their stadium for $800 million in July 1999, has thrown his heart and wallet into an all-out quest for instant gridiron gratification. Among the free agents he signed during the off-season were two future Hall of Famers, Sanders and defensive end Bruce Smith; a former All-Pro, free safety Mark Carrier; and two prominent backups, golden-armed quarterback Jeff George and halfback Adrian Murrell. Throw in new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes and the second and third picks in the draft ( linebacker LaVar Arrington and tackle Chris Samuels, respectively), and Washington has undergone the most striking makeover since Courtney Love.
The changes were accompanied by generous portions of hype, and much of America bought into it. One Las Vegas sports book had the Skins, at 5 to 2, as the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl, followed by the defending champion St. Louis Rams at 5 to 1. But it wasn't only gamblers and media prognosticators getting hot and bothered over the Team That Lil' Danny Bought. "I remember a few years ago when a team loaded up like this," says Panthers cornerback Eric Davis, who along with Sanders was a member of the San Francisco 49crs' mercenary-fueled Super Bowl championship ensemble in '94. "It's a different time, but that's a talented group over there."
Adds Carolina offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, a former Niners quarterback, "On paper, I'd say the Redskins are just as talented as that team. They're pretty scary."
Washington did plenty on Sunday to strike fear into future opponents, beginning with the game's opening possession, a 12-play, 79-yard display of coach Norv Turner's scripted brilliance that produced a 7-0 lead. Crisp passing by Brad Johnson (who completed 25 of 36 throws for 234 yards) and hard running by Stephen Davis (23 carries, 133 yards, one touchdown) powered the Skins. The defense, buoyed by Sanders's tight coverage, had six sacks, including two by the 37-year-old Smith, who also forced a pivotal fumble by Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein early in the third quarter.
Yet if this was the Redskins' first chance to make a statement, it was striking how often they became tongue-tied. The celebratory din following Washington's game-opening touchdown came to an abrupt end when Carolina's Michael Bates raced 92 yards for a score with the ensuing kickoff, provoking a chorus of boos from Washington's exacting fans. The special teams continued to sputter—Tommy Barnhardt's first punt was partially blocked, and Bates had another long return, this one inside the Washington 10, called back because of a dubious illegal-block penalty. That misfortune, along with a shanked 27-yard field goal attempt by Richie Cunningham late in the first half, might well have cost the Panthers an upset. "We weren't intimidated," Carolina fullback William Floyd said. "I'm sure they'll get better, but right now I don't feel like they're a dominant team."
For all the Redskins' talent, projecting them as a juggernaut seems premature given their potential flaws. Even last year, when they won the NFC East and made the playoffs for the first time in Turner's six seasons, there was a whiff of dysfunction in the air. Snyder embarrassed Turner last October by meeting with him for about 30 minutes immediately after a 38-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Players had little respect for since-fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, whose unit ranked as the league's second-worst. At times they had no respect for one another, either. Early last season, after a group of defensive starters decided to have Thursday-night team parties, those players who didn't attend were ostracized to the point of not being told play calls in practice. "There's a ton of jealousy in that locker room," one team insider says even now, "and there's definitely a leadership void."