Redskins cap off return to glory Smart-money moves help 7-1 team shake off sting of free agency's hard hit

November 01, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In 1993, when the NFL embraced true free agency, Charley Casserly knew what was coming next for the Washington Redskins.

Fiscal madness. An exodus of front-line players. And, worst of all, a precipitous slip from perennial contender to annually down and out.

What the Redskins general manager couldn't see and didn't know was how quickly they could be restored to power in the bold new era of salary cap methodology.

The answer: A lot quicker than anyone thought.

Somewhere short of full circle, the reborn Redskins take the NFL's longest winning streak to Buffalo on Sunday. At 7-1, they haven't lost since the season opener two months ago against the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the process, they have transformed themselves from the ugly-duck team that immediately followed former coach Joe Gibbs' hasty departure to the NASCAR circuit into something almost swan-like under Norv Turner.

Halfway through the season, they are tied for the best record in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos, and, apparently, still pinching themselves over it.

"You never want to say you're over the hump," Casserly said. "The Yankees win the world championship and don't know who's back next year. In this system, you have to play every year for what it is and then evaluate next year.

"We feel good about this team now and into the future. [But] I won't be quoted as saying we're back. Let's get back to the playoffs first."

Where Casserly refused to venture, former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was only too happy to jump in. How far could these Redskins go, Joe?

"It wouldn't surprise me if the Redskins win the Super Bowl," said Theismann, as outspoken now in his role as ESPN analyst as he was in his glory days with Washington.

In a 20-minute discourse, Theismann declared Turner as Coach of the Year, compared running back Terry Allen favorably with Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, called the Sean Gilbert trade "the move of the draft," said quarterback Gus Frerotte has shown big-game prowess, and targeted the Redskins-Cowboys matchup on Thanksgiving as Game of the Year.

Among other complimentary things. Theismann is bullish on the modern-day Redskins.

"I thought they could be 10-6, maybe 11-5 this season," he said. "That's based on a couple different things. That 6-10 record last year was very misleading. They lost three games on the last play. They lost three other games in the last minute. That's six games this team is in for 59 minutes and change.

"I saw a very good team with a lot of misfortune last year. Now I see a team with great chemistry, youth and experience."

It is a team that wins much like Theismann's teams won in the early 1980s -- with a strong running game and timely defense.

The soul of the offense, if not the team, is Allen, the veteran running back discarded by the Minnesota Vikings two years ago and signed by the Redskins for a mere pittance last year.

Playing for $450,000, Allen rushed for 1,309 yards in 1995. Playing for a one-year contract worth $2 million this season, he leads the NFL in touchdowns (13) and the NFC in rushing (803 yards). With six in the last two weeks, he is on pace to break the NFL's single-season touchdown record of 25, held by the Dallas Cowboys' Smith. Barring injury, he should shatter the Redskins' single-season rushing record of 1,347 yards, held by John Riggins, as well.

When the Redskins are not running over people, Frerotte, the seventh-round quarterback from Tulsa, is throwing to Henry Ellard and Leslie Shepherd and sometimes even the oft-injured Michael Westbrook.

This is a blue-collar team operating deftly in the nation's seat of power. That it was built from scratch -- at bargain-basement prices -- after the salary cap slapped the Redskins to the bottom of the NFC East is a tribute to Casserly, who had been GM the past eight years.

For the Redskins, the cap could not have come at a worse time. They had a high payroll distributed fairly evenly over the roster. When the cap and free agency clicked in, Casserly was at a loss to make upgrades or even keep his existing talent.

"The off-season of '93 was the most frustrating off-season that I've had here because I couldn't compete for any players," he said.

It didn't help that the Redskins' first free-agent haul produced busts in linebacker Carl Banks, wide receiver Tim McGee and defensive end Al Noga. They had to drop out of the bidding for Reggie White, who went to Green Bay for $17 million.

"No question, we knew it [was coming]," Casserly said of the team's fall from grace. "We had a couple things happen. One, Joe Gibbs, one of the great coaches in history, retires in March [1992]. Richie [Petitbon] was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then we lost [quarterback Mark] Rypien and [Pro Bowl tackle Jim] Lachey."

It was no wonder that Petitbon, Gibbs' successor, fell with a 4-12 thud in 1993. After one year, Petitbon was out, Turner was in.

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