WASHINGTON -- The book on the Washington Redskins says September is traditionally a tough time. It says they usually start the season slowly and finish fast.
This year the book lies.
The Redskins closed out their finest September ever last night, throttling the Philadelphia Eagles 23-0 before 55,198 RFK Stadium patrons and a national television audience.
Five weeks into the season, the Redskins are unbeaten, unscored on at home, and playing unreal football.
"I don't remember being in this situation in my nine years here," Redskins defensive end Charles Mann marveled. "I remember we chased Dallas all of 1983."
The Redskins are hard-pressed to come up with comparisons for 1991 because there has been nothing like this before.
Already this season they have opened a two-game lead in the NFC East, and a three-game lead over their archnemesis, the New York Giants.
In one month, the defense has rung up three shutouts -- all in the rowdy bowl that is RFK.
That's one more shutout than the Orioles have rung up in 79 home dates at Memorial Stadium this season.
It's also more shutouts than the Redskins have had in the last six seasons combined. The last time the team blanked three opponents, the coach was Dudley DeGroot and the year was 1945.
It is pretty heady stuff for a team that usually struggles out of the gate. Cornerback Darrell Green was among those Redskins reaching for a dose of perspective last night.
"I don't expect us to go 16-0 and I certainly don't expect to shut out everybody we play," said Green, who intercepted two more passes and is playing like the NFL's best cornerback.
"The worse thing we can start thinking is, 'We've got five wins.' It feels good [to start 5-0], but we've got to take it one at a time."
That's what the Eagles were doing last night. Taking their quarterbacks one at a time. When Jim McMahon limped untouched out of bounds with a sprained right knee late in the first quarter, the Eagles' offense went as lame as the 32-year- old quarterback.
McMahon, who took over for injured Randall Cunningham on opening day, lasted just one month as the Eagles' starter.
Next up was 35-year-old Pat Ryan, who hadn't thrown a pass since 1989 but was signed when Cunningham went down. Ryan was woefully ineffective, completing four of 14 passes for 24 yards and three interceptions before coach Rich Kotite mercifully yanked him with seven minutes left.
"It's got to affect you to lose your second quarterback in a season," said Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. "We lost two or three up there last year ourselves.
"Our defense tonight was spectacular."
If there is a common denominator in the Redskins' shutouts this ZTC year, it is that the opposing teams have been operating at less than full strength.
In Washington's 45-0 rout of Detroit, the Lions played without quarterback Rodney Peete and running back Barry Sanders.
In a 34-0 drubbing of Phoenix, the Cardinals played without quarterback Timm Rosenbach, out for the season with a knee injury.
And last night the Redskins caught the Eagles without Cunningham and then without McMahon after the first quarter. The Redskins may be a deceptive 5-0, but there doesn't appear to be a threatening team on the NFC horizon.
Philadelphia came in 3-1, but wound up with a meager 89 total yards and only four first downs. The Eagles crossed midfield only once on their own momentum, and twice through the courtesy of Redskins' turnovers.
The Redskins' defense rose to new heights on a night when quarterback Mark Rypien sank to new lows. He was responsible for four turnovers himself, losing two fumbles and throwing two interceptions. He had three fumbles altogether, two on fumbled snaps after starting center Jeff Bostic (strained Achilles' heel) was replaced by Russ Grimm. Rypien was 13-for-23 passing for 204 yards and a 19-yard touchdown pass to Art Monk.
"I don't feel I played awfully well," he said. "We did some good things [on offense], but we had some breakdowns. I'm thankful for our defense."
The Redskins owned a 354-89 edge in total yards and controlled the ball for 38:40, thanks to Earnest Byner's 95 rushing yards (and one TD) on a heavy load of 29 carries.
"I've heard people say that we haven't been tested yet," said Mann, who ran around rookie offensive tackle Antone Davis for two sacks.
"But I think they're starting to realize we're a pretty good team."