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Theismann called a team meeting on Monday, Sept. 23 in an effort to clear the air by fouling it. "I've never heard a quarterback cuss and swear like he did," said one Redskin player. "But somebody had to step forward. The loss to the Eagles scared us. Everyone thought we'd breeze these first three games."
"Theismann seemed the same as ever physically," Mike Stensrud, the Houston nosetackle, said of the controversial Sept. 15 game. "But he had trouble reading defenses against us. His concentration was lacking."
Theismann has always had other interests during the football season—television commercials, appearances, and recently his high-profile romance with fiancée Cathy Lee Crosby. He opened his second restaurant in the Washington area the Thursday before the Eagles game. When things are going well, people say, "That's our Joe—businessman, actor and lovesick QB." But when the Skins are losing.... Says one opposing coach: "Playing quarterback takes complete dedication. I think his mind is in a lot of different places." (Thump!)
Redskin G.M. Bobby Beathard says, "We've gone through these off-field distractions since he's been here. No one does more off the field than he does, but he can handle it. He's the only guy I've ever seen who can. That isn't the problem, and neither is his age. When we win, he gets more than his share of the credit, and when we lose, it's the same [with the blame]. What we have to do is get our receiving group on track. We know from the films that they have not put forth a coordinated effort."
In the days leading up to the Bears game there was a special urgency around the Redskins' camp. Gibbs decided to talk about the fact that Muhammad has diabetes—an affliction he has played with his entire pro career—and allowed that the Redskins had tested the insulin level in his blood, searching for any possible clue that might explain the strange pass patterns he had been running. Theismann, for his part, assumed Muhammad had just been mishearing the plays. Before practice Theismann and the Redskin receivers often go over films to see what, if anything, they had all been thinking about out there. "Art Monk doesn't say much, Malcolm Barnwell is quiet, and Calvin Muhammad is a little mouse," Theismann said of the gatherings. "When I'm alone in a room with them, that's when people can really accuse me of talking too much."
For a while on Sunday, the tête-à-têtes seemed to have paid off. On their first possession, the Redskins—looking like the team that has led the NFL in total scoring over the last two seasons with 967 points, an average of 30.2 points a game—took the ball and marched 59 yards in 13 plays, with the final seven yards by John Riggins. Seven-zip. Theismann, throwing confidently, kept the drive alive with three third-down completions. The Skins went ahead 10-0 in the second quarter on a Mark Moseley field goal. Then the Bears struck.
Chicago's Willie Gault took the following kickoff and raced 99 yards for a TD, a doubly catastrophic blow for the Redskins because Hayes—who also kicks off—had torn a muscle on the play. When the Skins were bottled up at their own 13-yard line during the next possession, Gibbs asked his two quarterbacks, Theismann and Jay Schroeder, which one of them would like to punt. "You decide," Theismann told him. Gibbs chose wrong. Theismann hit his shank, and one play later Chicago led 14-10.
The Bears were just getting started. On the next series Theismann was stripped of the ball on his own 22, and three downs later it was 21-10. On the Redskins' next possession it was three plays, then punt—this one a 22-yarder by Schroeder, who had last kicked as a junior in high school—and just like that it was 28-10, the Bears scoring on a dazzling pass from Walter Payton to quarterback Jim McMahon after a Statue of Liberty handoff. "I don't know what happened," said Chicago coach Mike Ditka after the blowout. "We really didn't do anything but capitalize on what they gave us. It was a very unusual game."
And it has been a very unusual season for the once-proud Redskins. Is Theismann burned out, suffering from the fabled Bert Jones syndrome? "You can't generalize," Theismann insists. "Jim Plunkett won a world championship when he was 36. I want it just as bad as I ever did." He adds, "You know what happens when a bear tastes honey? He doesn't walk away from it. He tears the damn tree down."
Says Thielemann, summing up: "Where Joe Theismann goes, we go."