"The mix just seems to be perfect. At the heart of the team you've got that nucleus of older guys, every one a leader, guys who have been here as long or almost as long as the 11 years I've been here—Art Monk, Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic, Monte Coleman, Darrell Green, Charles Mann, Donny Warren—tremendous people. These aren't loud guys who talk a lot on the field, but when things were tough last season, when we were struggling, they took it on themselves to turn it around. They got together, held meetings, and we won four of our last five and got in the playoffs. They've kept it going this year."
There's also just enough young talent: linebacker Andre Collins, the star of last season's playoff win over the Eagles; Brian Mitchell, who's leading the league in punt returns; and rookie tailback Ricky Ervins, who's still on spot duty. "He doesn't have the scheme down yet," says Gibbs of Ervins, "but when he's ready, he's going to make a lot of yards, and I'm going to get criticized for not having used him sooner."
Recent trades and Plan B signings have paid off for the Skins, too, bringing them four defensive linemen plus middle linebacker Matt Millen and tailback Earnest Byner, who ranks third among NFC rushers and fits perfectly into Gibbs's basic plan for a punishing ground game to serve as a launching pad for his imaginative offense. The most intriguing deal, though, was the one that brought Marshall from the Bears in 1988. In Chicago he had been a two-time Pro Bowl player, a havoc linebacker who was gifted playing in space (rushing the quarterback or dropping into deep coverage). But Marshall played out his option, and Washington got him for two first-round draft choices. The Skins gave him $6 million over five years and plugged him into defensive coach Richie Petitbon's rather complicated scheme, in which he became a cog but hardly the impact player he'd been for the Bears. "Disappointing" was the word you heard.
This year Marshall was switched from the right side, generally the side without the tight end, to the left, into the heavy traffic. Gibbs made the move because Marshall is sturdier against the run than Collins. "What people don't understand is that we originally got him to play the run," says Gibbs. "The fans tend to measure everything in sacks, and that's unfair to him. We needed a run-stopper."
Marshall has again blossomed into the monster he was in Chicago. On Sunday, besides making one interception and forcing another, he had 10 solo tackles and one assist, and deflected two passes. Marshall is on a pace to become Washington's first Pro Bowl linebacker since Chris Hanburger of the George Allen teams.
Marshall and Green, a veteran cornerback who's having his best season, are the most visible members of a defense that is the ultimate in situation substitution. Any of the four linemen can switch from end to tackle or vice versa. Millen is the middle linebacker on first-down plays, Kurt Gouveia replaces him on second down and a defensive back comes in for the third-down nickel package, but you also can see wild-card linebacker Ravin Caldwell in there at unexpected times.
Millen, who was acquired in the off-season, was at first a bit upset at his lack of playing time, but he found there are compensations. "The way they're using me," he says, "I can play till I'm 60. One thing, though, is that I'm stronger than I've ever been. Less playing means more lifting, and strength has always been a trademark of the Redskins. They've always been the strongest team in the league."
Indeed, Washington's hog-style ground game has gotten new oomph, now that the 6'7", 314-pound Jacoby has settled in at tackle on the right, or power, side. But the effectiveness of the Skins' running has overshadowed the sophistication of their passing attack. Gibbs has taken the three-wideout set, which is part of his basic offense, to new heights. He can line up the three receivers to spread the defense or he can line them up tight, designing the plays so that one receiver always breaks free. But most of all, he has a feel for attacking the defense at its weakest moment. Of course, having the best trio of wide-outs around—Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders and Monk-helps, but the concepts are always subtle.
The one question mark was Mark Rypien, the 29-year-old quarterback. He was known to be courageous—he came back early from a knee injury last year to lead the final push—but he had a history of getting hurt. He also went through one tough season, in 1989, of coughing up the ball on sacks. "That's behind me," says Rypien. "They used to have drills in camp where they had four linemen chase me, all trying to knock the ball loose. That cured me. My main goal now is to complete a 16-game season without injury."
So the elements are all in place for a big year. Perhaps Charley Casserly, Washington's general manager, puts it best. "In 1983, when we were 14-2, we had unbelievable intensity," he says. "We went out and played every game like it was a playoff. I see the same thing this year."