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The night before the undefeated Washington Redskins were to play the 7-1 Houston Oilers, Washington linebacker Monte Coleman looked at his teammates as they drifted onto the practice field for their final tune-up. Two portable light towers, powered by chugging generators, gave about as much illumination to the turf as a full moon. "Looks like Field of Dreams, doesn't it?" said Coleman, a 13-year veteran, wistfully. "When the players came walking out of the cornfield?"
Just a little bit—if you could picture 5'7", 200-pound rookie running back Ricky Ervins as Shoeless Joe Jackson, and 6'7", 310-pound veteran tackle Joe Jacoby as Buck Weaver, and an industrial park in northern Virginia as Iowa farmland. But Coleman, just a sentimental old fool who flourishes in Washington's nickel defense, wasn't far off in his reverie, because these Redskins are becoming the stuff of legend.
On Sunday they moved another step closer by beating the Oilers 16-13 in overtime to raise their record to 9-0, the Skins' best start in their 55-year history. This is a classic Washington team, with a fine blend of old players, young players, overachievers, gifted athletes and retreads. The Skins have a stone-wall defense, a solid offense, good special teams, the same coach they have had for 11 years, Hogs, backup Hogs and a piglet in Ervins. And, most assuredly, they have luck, perhaps the truest hallmark of a great team.
With the score 13-13 and :04 left in regulation time on Sunday, Houston lined up for a 33-yard field goal, only 13 yards longer than for an extra point, a certain game-winner. Just 1:38 before, the Oilers had tied the game on Lorenzo White's one-yard touchdown blast, which completed a 79-yard, 10-play drive. Then Houston had recovered ace Washington returner Brian Mitchell's fumble on the ensuing kickoff. What a lift this would be for the Oilers, for their much-debated run-and-shoot offense—which is not supposed to work on grass, on the road, in noisy stadiums, inside the 20, below the equator, in months with an r in them—and for their coach, Jack Pardee, who had not been to RFK Stadium since the Redskins fired him after the 1980 season.
However, Houston rookie kicker Ian Howfield hooked the ball wide to the left, Skins cornerback Darrell Green intercepted a Warren Moon pass in overtime, and Washington's Chip Lohmiller kicked a 41-yard field goal to end the game and dash the Oilers' bid for an upset. "I feel we lost a game we shouldn't have lost, to a team we're better than," said Houston defensive end Sean Jones in the locker room afterward. A lot of his teammates felt the same way.
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was happy just to have escaped with his 122nd victory since succeeding Pardee in 1981. "I saw it all pass before my eyes today," he said. "We had a chance to win, then lose, then win it again, and then lose it before finally winning."
But that pendulum keeps ending up in the W column for the Skins. One of the reasons is the way backups, castoffs and free agents seem to blossom in Washington. When Pro Bowl tackles Jacoby and Jim Lachey went down with sprained knees midway through Sunday's game, backup Hogs Russ Grimm and Mark Adickes filled in for them without missing a grunt; they helped spring running back Earnest Byner on a fourth-quarter TD run of 23 yards and did not allow a sack. Defensive backs Danny Copeland, Brad Edwards and Martin Mayhew, all Plan B free-agent pickups, had big games too, with Edwards, the free safety, intercepting a Moon pass and returning it 27 yards in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Alvoid Mays, who made two tackles, was packing orange juice in Florida last year when the Redskins invited him to camp.
"The character of our team has to stand out more than anything," said Byner, who stood out himself with 21 carries for 112 yards. A 10th-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1984, Byner went to Washington in '89 in an even-up trade for running back Mike Oliphant. Byner has rushed for 714 yards this year and is in line for his second straight Pro Bowl appearance.
On the other hand, it wasn't necessarily out of character for Howfield to misfire on a field goal try. Entering the game, he had been off target on five of nine attempts from beyond the 30, and the week before he had missed two extra points against the Cincinnati Bengals, giving him four errant PATs for the season. His holder, wide receiver Frank Miotke, was released last Friday, so punter Greg Montgomery handled the placements against Washington.
On the potential game-winner, Montgomery did not spin the ball so that the laces pointed downfield. Instead, he left them facing to the left side, which may have contributed to Howfield's hook. "He doesn't want me to spin it," said Montgomery later. "If you hit it pure, it shouldn't matter. He feels really terrible."