Washington -- Listening to Joe Bugel, it's easy to figure out he worked a long time for Joe Gibbs.
Bugel, in just his second year as Phoenix Cardinals coach, has his team off to a 2-0 start, but he seemed to be tearing a page from the Gibbs book of poor-mouthing as he prepared to bring his team into RFK Stadium today to play Gibbs' 2-0 Washington Redskins.
The winner will take sole possession of first place in the NFC East, but Bugel sounded as if his team didn't even deserve to be 9 1/2 -point underdogs against the Redskins.
"Being [9 1/2 -point] underdogs is very generous," he said. "I thought we'd be about 14-point underdogs. We're the ultimate underdogs. We shouldn't get carried away with ourselves, because we haven't done anything yet.
"All of a sudden when you're 2-0, people start patting you on the back. And, all of a sudden, you start believing you're really good. I think we're keeping everything in the right perspective. When ,, you get into the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, that's when you become great and you can start strutting around a little bit."
L When writers praise his team, Bugel calls them "communists."
"You've got to be careful. The communists start patting you on the back and telling you how good you are," he said, jokingly.
He also knows how to praise the opposition.
"I know Joe Gibbs doesn't like to hear it," Bugel said, "but they're truly a great football team right now. They're working on all cylinders."
OK, Bugel is saying all the right things. He was an assistant coach for Gibbs for nine seasons before getting the Cardinals job a year ago. He knows how to play the underdog role.
But Bugel's heart doesn't seem to be in it. He's a much more enthusiastic type than Gibbs, and he sometimes slips and let his feelings show.
"The only way you get respectability in the NFL is to win," he said. "You can play good and lose, and nobody cares. Right now, we're not looking for moral victories. We want to play our dead-level best, and if we don't make a mistake and turn the ball over, we've got a chance, because we're not a bad football team. We're a pretty good football team, believe me."
So how good are the Cardinals? They may find out today.
It's easy to be skeptical about the Cardinals. They started off 2-0 in 1985 and 1989 and finished 5-11 both years and fired the coach. They haven't won a playoff game since 1947.
They're also a strange 2-0 team. They rank 25th in the league in offense and 22nd in defense.
What they're good at is getting turnovers. In upsetting the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles in the first two games, they've recovered 10 fumbles and intercepted three passes.
Meanwhile, they've lost only one fumble and have thrown just one interception for a plus-11 mark in take-aways/giveaways. No other team is better than plus-four.
They play a hustling style of defense under new coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who was sacked last year by the Rams. The defense features the outside of rush of linebackers Ken Harvey (six tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble) and Freddie Joe Nunn (nine tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles).
"We're an opportunistic team," Bugel said. "We're going to cause a lot of wrecks because of the nature of the defense."
Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien said of the turnovers: "They're not a freak of nature. What they're preaching is hustle. They've got six or seven hats on the ball most of the time."
Bugel overhauled the team in the off-season.
"We had some players who played a long time and had never experienced success, and it was time for them to graduate," he said.
Among the veterans he shipped out were Roy Green, J.T. Smith, Lonnie Young, David Galloway, Anthony Bell and Vai Sikahema.
"We have a bunch of no-names," Bugel said. But he has them hustling.
The biggest problem is that he also has a no-name quarterback -- Tom Tupa, who didn't take a snap last season, but was thrust into the starting lineup when Timm Rosenbach tore up his knee in a practice session before the final exhibition game.
Tupa's stats fit the team profile. He's completed only 16 passes in two games (the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman, by contrast, has completed 51), but he hasn't made mistakes.
"That position doesn't have to be a Rolls-Royce for us," Bugel said.
Tupa, who punted for four seasons at Ohio State and played quarterback for just one, wants to prove he can be an NFL quarterback.
"I always thought I had the ability to play the quarterback," Tupa said. "Now that I have the opportunity, I have to make the most of it. It feels pretty good being back there right now."
If the Cardinals really have improved, this is the time to show it. They're 2-16 in their past 18 games against the Redskins and haven't won at RFK Stadium since 1978.
Bugel said he's preached to the players they have to learn how to win in the NFC East.
"All we talk about is the NFC East," Bugel said. "If you can win your share, you're battle-tested. We told them the two stadiums [that are the toughest to play in] are Giants Stadium and RFK. If you learn how to play in those kinds of places, then you have a chance."
Today, the Cardinals should find out if they've finally learned how to play in RFK.