It's football of the absurd for Bugel on opening day

MIKE LITTWIN

September 10, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

WASHINGTON -- Another NFL season opened yesterday without a team in Baltimore (that's seven and counting, for those of you keeping score at home). I hope you didn't let the day get you down. I didn't.

No, sir. I went to see the Phoenix Cardinals instead.

To watch the Cardinals is to celebrate football-less Sundays. They are the team that parity (if not parody) forgot. I've been told the Cardinals are the principal reason the NFL finally decided games were lasting too long. And now people are suggesting there should be a two-minute warning before any Cardinals game begins.

Yes, those Cardinals, the same franchise of which it is often asked: How can one club be a league charter member and a perennial expansion team simultaneously?

It was 31-0 yesterday in a game that sped by in 2 hours, 53 minutes but that seemed much longer. If the Redskins didn't play as well as the score might suggest -- and they didn't -- it must also be said that they probably knew didn't have to. Before the game (this is true), the Redskins band was heard playing "Send in the Clowns." OK. It was 31-0, and it could have been worse. And the new coach -- there is often a new Cardinals coach -- must have wondered what he'd gotten himself into.

Joe Bugel is that coach, whom you may remember from his many years as a Redskins assistant. He was the man responsible for the Hogs, the affectionate nickname given the Redskins' offensive line. He was not responsible, however, for those fans who come to each game dressed like hogs, who probably aren't responsible for themselves, either.

Certainly, the Redskins were happy to see Bugel return, so long as he brought his team with him. That's just how far sentiment takes you in a game where players usually celebrate their friendship by crashing one another's helmets, with heads attached.

For his part, Bugel said the homecoming meant little to him. He was all football. In fact, he was so much football that you couldn't help think that if his team played its role half as well as he did that it might have been a pretty good game.

Listen in on a how a coach discusses his first game when it's a 31-0 defeat:

"We're not going to surrender. We're not going to panic.... We're not panicking. We're nowhere near that stage. We hung in there. We fought all game. I thought our team played its guts out.

"We're a young team. We're going to be patient, and we're not going to surrender.... We're not going to panic. We'll just play hard until we win a football game."

This is the football coach as company commander about to lead his boys into action. He loves his boys. He roots for his boys. He cares about his boys. Then his boys get knocked around worse than Andre Agassi, although they did manage to dress better.

Bugel is not going to panic. But history says the Cardinals, who haven't won as many as 10 games in a season since 1976, aren't going to get better, either. Right now, though, the team that rivals the Colts as the most mismanaged in the NFL can't get any worse.

The Cardinals don't have a running game, the one area in which they most closely resemble the Redskins. And in Timm (he can't spell, either) Rosenbach, they have a quarterback starting his second game whose offensive line (hoping to win a game before being pinned with a nickname) gave him almost no protection. And, while on the run, he threw four passes that were intercepted and a few more that might have been picked off.

"He was so cool on the sidelines," Bugel said of his quarterback. You can provide your own punch line here.

The Redskins felt sorry for Bugel, sort of. After the game, a bunch of Hogs came over to say some words of encouragement. Joe Gibbs, for whom Bugel used to work, would say he wished his former assistant were coaching a team in another division. Maybe he meant it.

When the game was over, the Redskins weren't sure what it all meant. They knew they had won, and that was probably enough. But when a team opens a game with 13 passes in 15 plays, that indicates either a lack of faith in the running game or that somebody lost a couple of pages out of the playbook. The Redskins made only four first downs rushing, and in what might have been an important fourth-and-one play in the second quarter, Earnest Byner was thrown for a loss of a yard.

Byner ended up with 63 yards and Gerald Riggs added 51. If the Redskins want to make a serious play this season, they must find a running game to take the heat off the long-ball passing attack. Quarterback Mark Rypien's well-being may depend on it.

Against the Cardinals, the Redskins obviously didn't need much of an offense. Not when you pitch a shutout. It doesn't get any easier for the Cardinals, who play Philadelphia next week, when the Eagles will take a shot at dampening Bugel's spirits.

Bugel didn't crack in Game 1. Instead, he stood on the sidelines holding a yellow pad, furiously scribbling away as his team fell further and further behind. Maybe he was taking notes. Maybe he was writing his memoirs. Either way, I didn't see anything happen yesterday that he wouldn't want to forget.

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