News & Politics

Gimme Some D

The Redskins defense under Norv Turner has been terrible. Will new arrivals Deion Sanders, Lavar Arrington, and Bruce Smith get the team back to the winning ways of Joe Gibbs and George Allen?

The last time the Washington Redskins went to the Super Bowl–at the end of the 1991 season–they beat the Buffalo Bills with a high-scoring offense. They put up 17 quick points in the second quarter and went on to a 37-24 win that gave Coach Joe Gibbs and Jack Kent Cooke, the team's owner, their third league championship in 11 years. Quarterback Mark Rypien, who completed 18 of 33 passes, was the game's most valuable player; wide receivers Art Monk and Gary Clark each had receptions for more than 100 yards; and running backs Earnest Byner and Ricky Ervins rushed for 121 yards.

But the efficient offense obscured the fact that the Redskins, who lost just two games all year, also possessed one of the stingiest defenses in the National Football League. It was not in a class with Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" of the 1970s; cornerback Darrell Green is the only starter likely to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it was plenty tough–loaded with solid performers and coached by Richie Petitbon, long recognized as one of the league's best defensive coordinators. It gave up just 290 yards a game: 84 on the ground, 206 in the air.

The defensive unit also provided a lesson in how much maneuvering is required to assemble just the right personnel for success in the NFL–maneuvers that were the joint product of general manager Charley Casserly and his predecessor, Bobby Beathard. A few of the main contributors on defense came out of the college draft. Darrell Green, Monte Coleman, Kurt Gouveia, and Charles Mann, a Pro Bowl end, were Beathard choices, while linebacker Andre Collins was a Casserly pick. The two starting tackles were acquired by Casserly in trades: Eric Williams from the Detroit Lions and Tim Johnson from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The rest of the defense had been pieced together through free agency. Beathard had given up two first-round draft choices as compensation for signing Wilber Marshall, a dominating linebacker from the Chicago Bears, in 1988, and Casserly had picked up several key players as Plan B free agents. Plan B allowed a team to protect 37 of its top players, turning the rest loose to shop for deals–and Casserly had worked that system to acquire strong safety Danny Copeland, free safety Brad Edwards, cornerback Martin Mayhew, linebacker Matt Millen, and ends Fred Stokes and Jumpy Geathers.

The victory over the Bills was followed by a celebration on the Mall that attested to the status of the Redskins in the nation's capital. "The Redskins are the only thing in Washington that the people think of as ours," Richard Nixon had once said. "Nobody in Washington gives a tinker's damn about the Kennedy Center or the Washington Symphony."

An overstatement, perhaps, but it didn't stop Mstislav Rostropovich from marking the Super Bowl win by opening an NSO performance with "Hail to the Redskins." The championship trophy went into a case at Duke Zeibert's, the power-lunch emporium where Jack Kent Cooke held court–and there was anticipation of more soon to come.

But it turned out to be a last hurrah. Joe Gibbs quit football a year later and turned his attention to stock-car racing. Richie Petitbon, fired after one miserable year as the Redskins' head coach, left football for good. Bobby Beathard, the native Californian who quit the Redskins in 1989 and became general manager of the San Diego Chargers, has now given up that job to devote time to surfing and his grandchildren. And Charley Casserly, fired last year as general manager, is in Houston putting together an expansion franchise. With the exception of Darrell Green, who is entering his 18th season this fall at the age of 40, all the players from that Super Bowl defense are long gone.

Though that Super Bowl wasn't so long ago, everything surrounding the Redskins has been transformed. Jack Kent Cooke–the man with the alluring Bolivian wife named Marlena and the faithful cocker spaniel named Coco–died in 1997, leaving behind a will that allowed ownership of the team to slip from the hands of his son, John Kent Cooke, into those of Daniel Snyder, the young marketing man from Bethesda. Duke Zeibert's, with its trademark kosher pickles, has passed into history, and Duke himself, with his white mustache and glad-handing style, died the same year as Cooke. At Robert F. Kennedy stadium, once the raucous temple of Redskins glory, the game of choice is now soccer, and the Redskins play in a place honoring an overnight-delivery service.

That Super Bowl year of 1991 also marked the end of a Redskins tradition of superior defense that had stretched across two decades. George Allen, who made a name for himself as a defensive innovator with the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams, began the tradition when he was hired as head coach in 1971. Allen's teams–featuring such Pro Bowlers as linebacker Chris Hanburger and safety Ken Houston–gave up fewer yards per game than the league average in five of his seven seasons.

The teams coached later by Joe Gibbs were better known for their offense–the 541 points scored by the Redskins in the 1983 regular season (an average of 34 a game) remains the second highest in league history–but they were always solid too on the defensive side of the ball. In 12 years under Gibbs, with Petitbon as the defensive whiz, they were worse than the league average just four times.

In the years since Gibbs left–most of them with Norv Turner as head coach–the Redskins defense has been terrible, especially in stopping the run. Last year, despite playing better in the second half of the season, the Redskins gave up more yards per game than any team except the expansion Cleveland Browns. The previous few years hadn't been much better. If it's true that defense wins championships, it's little wonder that the Redskins' appearance in the playoffs last season was the first since Norv Turner arrived.


This fall the winds are blowing in a different direction. Suddenly the Redskins are a glamour team–slotted for three games on ABC's Monday Night Football. Some Las Vegas bookmakers have them down as the team with the best shot (2 to 1) at winning the Super Bowl next January in Tampa.

Certainty that is the expectation of Dan Snyder, rare among NFL owners in having grown up as a wide-eyed fan and then become rich enough to buy the hometown team. Snyder–raised in a middle-class family in Silver Spring where he sat on a blanket in the living room eating chili and watching the Redskins on television each Sunday–was just out of diapers when the evolution of the modern Redskins began. But it's clear that he lives by two attitudes infused into Redskins tradition when he was just a boy.

One is that the single-minded pursuit of victory is sport's noblest aim–a bit of philosophy often attributed to Vince Lombardi, who coached the Redskins for a single season in 1969 before dying of cancer, and embodied in his aphorism that "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." The other idea is that patience is for chumps, something that George Allen stressed with his notion that "the future is now."

With the Redskins offense already on track last year–it ranked second in the NFL in yardage–the past few months were spent accumulating the athletes the team hopes will transform a shaky defense into a force to be feared. The signing of three big-name, high-priced free agents–cornerback Deion Sanders from the Dallas Cowboys, defensive end Bruce Smith from the Buffalo Bills, and free safety Mark Carrier from the Detroit Lions–added 21 years of Pro Bowl talent to the defense. The selection of linebacker LaVar Arrington from Penn State as the second pick in the draft has coaches and fans drawing comparisons with Lawrence Taylor, the Hall of Famer who spearheaded the Giants defense for years–a point underscored by assigning the rookie Taylor's old number (56). Not to mention the addition of Ray Rhodes as the new defensive coordinator–a former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers who was defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers when they won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1994 season.

The test of these moves begins with the Redskins' opener at home on September 3 against the Carolina Panthers, but they are really just the latest chapter in nearly a decade of struggle to solve the team's defensive problems. It is a tale that reveals much about how pro football teams are constructed in an era when free agency has quickened the pace of rising and falling fortunes. It involves many of the most famous figures in Redskins history and has many twists and turns–with deals gone sour and others turned sweet, with careers made and careers destroyed, with moments of touching loyalty and raw callousness, even with acts of God.



When Joe Gibbs unexpectedly resigned as head coach of the Redskins after the 1992 season, there was much speculation about why he was quitting the game that had made him famous. He cited personal reasons–some health problems and a desire to spend more time with his wife and sons–and no one doubted that he was quitting at the top of his profession. With a record of 124-60 in 12 seasons, he'd taken the Redskins to four Super Bowls, winning three with three different quarterbacks (Mark Rypien, Doug Williams, and Joe Theismann). In the 1992 season, despite lots of injuries, the team had managed to get into the playoffs as a wild card, though it lost in the second round to the 49ers. But some people also suspected that Gibbs knew that the impending era of free agency would so alter the game that many of the veteran Redskins he'd relied on would soon be gone.

The future of the Redskins would be shaped by a new collective-bargaining agreement between the NFL Players Association and the owners–a document ratified in 1993 after nearly two decades of organizing, strikes, lawsuits, and negotiations. In more than 200 pages of legalese, the agreement dealt with issues both large and small, revealing much about the anxieties and beefs of both owners and players. Owners got the right to impose fines on players who were overweight, threw footballs into the stands, lost their playbooks, missed the team plane, or misbehaved in other ways. Players won the right to a second medical opinion if they were injured, a ban on psychological testing after signing their first NFL contract, no restrictions on gloves or footwear, no disciplinary action because of hair length, and a free trip home if they were released.

But the agreement's cataclysmic feature was free agency, which gave players the right, after a certain number of years in the league, to offer their services to the highest bidder. The roots of this new system could be traced to the early 1970s, when outfielder Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals challenged the ancient right of baseball owners to prevent players whose contracts had expired from negotiating with other teams–a challenge that Flood lost in court but that eventually led to free agency in baseball and then in the National Basketball Association.

The history of pro football already included a few opportunities for a small number of free agents to move from one team to another, and the Redskins had exploited those to make several deals, including Bobby Beathard's signing of Wilber Marshall and Casserly's rounding up of that crop of Plan B free agents. Even as far back as the George Allen era, something akin to free agency had allowed the Redskins to acquire cornerback Pat Fischer, tight end Jean Fugett, and running backs Calvin Hill and John Riggins. But all of that was small stuff compared with the free-agency system that was coming into play with the 1993 season.

Along with free agency, the new labor agreement had another important feature. There would be an annual salary cap, which limited the amount of money teams could spend on their player payroll. Free agency, which became effective heading into the 1993 season, would have an immediate impact both on player movement and salaries. About 120 veterans signed with new clubs, and their salaries nearly doubled.


The salary cap would not go into effect until the 1994 season, but it created a problem for the Redskins as they looked ahead in the early months of 1993. The team roster was loaded with well-paid veterans–backups and role players as well as starters–who had given Gibbs the kind of experience he preferred and had established Jack Kent Cooke's reputation as an owner willing to spend money. Nobody in the league had a higher payroll than the Redskins, and few had as many worries about trying to downsize enough to get under the cap.

The man who was to bear the brunt of the roster shakeup was Richie Petitbon, the assistant head coach for defense who was named successor to Gibbs in early 1993. Although the New Orleans-born Petitbon had been an all-conference quarterback at Tulane, he'd become a defensive specialist in the NFL. He had made four Pro Bowls during a 14-year career as a defensive back with the Bears, the Rams, and the Redskins–much of the time under George Allen. His coaching career included a four-year stint with the Houston Oilers working with defensive backs before becoming the Redskins' top defensive coach in Gibbs's first year. His reputation was rock solid: Nobody, it was said, was cooler under game-day pressure than Richie Petitbon, and nobody had such a knack for making effective halftime adjustments.

But Petitbon had the misfortune to take the head coach's job just as the salary cap hastened the dismantling of the team's cluster of veterans. On offense the most prominent departure was Pro Bowler Gary Clark, a talented but temperamental wide receiver who signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. When Wilber Marshall demanded a salary increase and a long-term contract, the team decided that his career had peaked, and he was traded to the Oilers. Several others from that Super Bowl defense were allowed to sign elsewhere–cornerback Martin Mayhew with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, end Fred Stokes with the Los Angeles Rams, and pass-rushing specialist Jumpy Geathers with the Atlanta Falcons.

"We all understood the problem," Casserly remembers. "We made a conscious decision to tear the team apart in anticipation of the salary cap. Every team has to go through this sort of period. Look at the 49ers now. If it hadn't been then, it would have been in a year or two. And it was not pretty."

The biggest prize in the free-agent market that year was Reggie White, the defensive end of the Philadelphia Eagles, who had established himself as one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history. He already was the league's all-time leader in sacks and at the age of 31 had productive years left. White was given the red-carpet treatment by several teams, including the Cleveland Browns (a coat for his wife), the Atlanta Falcons (meetings with Georgia's top politicians), and the Detroit Lions (a private flight over the city).

The Redskins made a play for White, inviting him to town for a brief recruiting visit. They moved their three Super Bowl trophies from Duke Zeibert's to Redskins Park, talked about their winning tradition, and showed White their Super Bowl rings. Jack Kent Cooke shook his hand, and he was chauffeured back to the airport by Darrell Green, who shared with White a commitment to born-again Christianity. The Redskins made White an offer of $14 million over four years, but Cooke would go no higher. White ended up getting a four-year, $17-million deal with the Green Bay Packers, where he proceeded to help win a Super Bowl three years later.

Having missed out on White, the Redskins sought to fill their hole at defensive end by making an offer to Wayne Martin of the New Orleans Saints, but the Saints matched it, forcing Martin to stay put. So the Redskins settled for Al Noga, who'd registered nine sacks the year before with the Vikings. To replace Wilber Marshall at outside linebacker, they signed Carl Banks of the Giants, and they also picked up defensive lineman Leonard Marshall from the Giants. But all of them were major disappointments–gone after one season.

These three free agents were hardly the Redskins' whole problem, but they were symptomatic of the weaknesses that were exposed throughout the 1993 season. Things had fallen apart quickly. Just two years after winning a Super Bowl, the Redskins' offense and defense both ranked 26th in the league. There was one magic game when they dominated the Cowboys, but the season record of 4-12 was the worst in 30 years. At the end of the season, Petitbon was fired.

Norv Arrives

Since specialized teams on offense and defense became the NFL norm in the 1950s, most coaches have come up through the ranks concentrating on one side of the ball or the other. Defensive specialists account for many of the league's head coaches this year–Tony Dungy of Tampa Bay is cited often as the most accomplished of the lot–and pro football's past is loaded with men who made their reputations for greatness on defense.

Tom Landry, longtime head coach of the Cowboys, started out as an assistant building a fearsome Giants defense around linebacker Sam Huff. Bud Grant developed a stellar defense known as the Purple People Eaters with the Vikings; Bill Arnsparger was a coordinator who put together the No-Name Defense of the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972; Buddy Ryan introduced the intimidating 46 Defense as an assistant with the Bears; Bud Carson was a defensive coordinator who created the Steel Curtain of the Pittsburgh Steelers; and few coaches built a better defense than George Allen.

In choosing head coaches after Allen, the Redskins had gone back and forth between defensive and offensive specialists. Jack Pardee, who had the job for three years after Allen, had been a Redskins linebacker and defensive assistant. Joe Gibbs was an offensive coach, having been coordinator of the pass-happy offense of Don Coryell with the Chargers. Petitbon was a defensive guy to the core. And Petitbon's successor, Norv Turner, was a former college quarterback at Oregon who came from the offensive coordinator's job with the Cowboys.

Turner, who took over the Redskins job before the 1994 season, had a reputation for a golden touch with the passing game. During six seasons as receivers coach with the Rams, he had helped quarterback Jim Everett and receivers Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson achieve their best years. In Dallas he was credited with the emergence of Troy Aikman as a star and with transforming the Cowboys' offense into a unit that won back-to-back Super Bowls. Among his first moves in Washington was to fire Petitbon's top defensive coach, Larry Peccatiello, and give the job to Ron Lynn, defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Turner and his staff set to work on a top-to-bottom assessment of the Redskins roster. They watched game film from the previous two seasons and made a point not to get personally acquainted with players they might later decide should be cut. Pro football is a Darwinian enterprise where only the fittest survive–with fittest measured by size and speed, age, freedom from injury, skill, and whether a player and his salary match an organization's needs. Turner's assessment confirmed what Charley Casserly had concluded the year before–that the Redskins had grown old and slow. They also were expensive, which was a concern because the salary cap was to go into effect for the 1994 season.

The upheaval was enormous. Many players whom Redskins fans admired were released, signed elsewhere after being asked to take salary cuts, or were otherwise shown the door. On the defense, end Charles Mann left for a one-year deal with the 49ers, and safety Brad Edward went to Atlanta. The departures were even greater on the offense, which got rid of Mark Rypien, Joe Jacoby, Jeff Bostic, Earnest Byner, Ricky Sanders, and Art Monk.

The unceremonious treatment of Monk –a much-admired Pro Bowl receiver who'd been drafted by the Redskins 14 years earlier, was known as a solid citizen, and held many receiving records–especially burned Redskins fans, who saw it as evidence that loyalty and decency were disappearing from professional sports. Monk, who was slowing down at the age of 36, was asked to take a 50-percent pay cut to $600,000 a year; his pride injured, he signed for about the same money with the New York Jets for a year. He ended his career the next season with the Eagles.

When the dust settled, only a handful of starters from the Super Bowl defense of three years earlier got much playing time in Turner's first year–Andre Collins, Monte Coleman, Kurt Gouveia, and Darrell Green.

That left lots of holes in the lineup, and the team went into the free-agent market to plug them. On offense, Casserly and Turner picked up quarterback John Friesze from the Chargers, center John Gesek from the Cowboys, wide receiver Henry Ellard from the Rams, and tight end Ethan Horton from the Raiders. On defense the additions included end Tony Woods and tackle Marc Boutte, both from the Rams, and linebacker Ken Harvey from the Cardinals. Only Harvey turned out to be a star.


In the college draft, The Redskins had a history filled with success and failure as well as considerable indifference. They had made such solid first-round picks as Pat Richter and Charley Taylor. But George Allen had traded away most of his picks for veterans–being the sort of man, as Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams once observed, who would trade a six-week-old puppy for two 12-year-old cats. Bobby Beathard liked to wheel and deal too, saving only three first-round choices in 11 years as general manager–making each one count by picking Art Monk, Darrell Green, and offensive tackle Mark May.

One of the biggest disasters, engineered by Casserly and Gibbs, was Desmond Howard, the Heismann Trophy-winning receiver from Michigan. They used two first-round picks in moving up to get Howard fourth overall in 1992, but he turned out to be undersized and otherwise inadequate. He was eventually let go, ending up as a return man for the Packers, and Gibbs is said to have offered Jack Kent Cooke a personal apology for the misjudgment.

Other memorable disappointments during Casserly's early years as general manager included defensive tackle Bobby Wilson of Michigan State (17th overall in 1991), who sustained a career-ending injury; defensive back Tom Carter of Notre Dame (17th in 1993), who started for four lackluster years and was then let go; offensive tackle Andre Johnson of Penn State (30th in 1996), who never played a down; and quarterback Health Shuler.

During the latter half of the 1990s, the record was much better. Among the picks on offense were several of today's starters–guard Tré Johnson, center Cory Raymer, tackle Jon Jansen, tight end Stephen Alexander, tailback Stephen Davis, and wide receivers Albert Connell and Michael Westbrook. On defense, the choices included today's starting linebackers–Derek Smith, Shawn Barber, and Greg Jones–as well as cornerback Champ Bailey and defensive end Kenard Lang. Another pick, defensive end Rich Owens, whom the Redskins let sign as a free agent with the Dolphins, last year recorded more sacks (8.5) than Bruce Smith (7).

Good draft choices are very important to a franchise's success–every wasted choice, especially in the higher rounds, leaves a need that must be plugged by other costly means. That's why teams go to such lengths in evaluating players–scouting them in games and practices; reviewing their every step on film; clocking their speed in the 40-yard dash; charting their strength with the weights; sizing up their height, weight, hand size, and vertical leap; running them through intelligence tests, psychological workups, and background checks on their character. On average the evaluations lead to fairly sound judgments, according to M.J. Duberstein of the NFL Players Association: About 47 percent of NFL players in the 1990s were drafted in the first four rounds. Another 29 percent were picked in lower rounds.

Much was at stake when the Redskins went into the 1994 draft holding the third overall pick. It was the team's first choice under Turner, and he wanted a quarterback who could be molded in the image of Troy Aikman to lead a high-powered offense. Casserly wanted to pick Trent Dilfer of Fresno State, but Turner preferred Heath Shuler, coming out of Tennessee after his junior year.

Turner got his way and has taken heat for that judgment ever since. After a holdout, Shuler signed an eight-year contract worth $19 million, but that turned out to be the high-water mark of his career. He got to training camp late, was plagued by injuries, lacked the seasoning that comes from a senior year in college, never seemed able to read defenses, endured boos from fans and jokes about his intelligence, and finally lost his job to Gus Frerotte (taken the same year in the seventh round out of Tulsa). After three years, the Redskins gave up on Shuler and traded him for third- and fifth-round picks to the New Orleans Saints, where he suffered a career-ending injury.

In the 1995 draft the Redskins again used their top pick on offense, this time to fulfill Turner's desire for a big-play wide receiver along the lines of Michael Irvin, whom he'd coached in Dallas. Again Casserly and Turner disagreed on the best choice–Casserly preferring Joey Galloway of Ohio State and Turner wanting Michael Westbrook of Colorado, who was bigger and more physical than Galloway. Turner again got his wish–Westbrook was the fourth pick overall–but it took a while for him to pay off. Galloway went to the Seattle Seahawks and caught 261 passes for 4,122 yards and 36 touchdowns in his first four years, while Westbrook struggled with injuries and immaturity and caught 149 throws for 2,322 yards and 12 touchdowns over the same period. Not until last season, when Westbrook had a breakout year, did he finally seem to merit the confidence Turner had in him and the Lamborghini he sometimes drove to Redskins Park.


Hits AND Misses

A high rate of turnover–where players are here today and gone tomorrow–is a way of life in the NFL. About 25 to 30 percent of the players on a team's roster are new each year. Last year 57 percent of all players had been in the league just four years or less, an additional third were in their fifth through ninth years, and just one in ten had played for a decade or more.

Injuries are one factor. It's not for nothing that the Redskins have an x-ray unit at the stadium, that they have their own orthopedic surgeon on call, and that as many as a couple of dozen players may undergo some sort of surgery each year.

But a lot of the turnover also has to do with the proclivity of coaches and general managers–both under great pressure to win–to constantly bring in new athletes in the hope they will somehow be better than those from the year before. It sounds simple–"get more good football players" is Norv Turner's way of putting it–but in reality it is a cut-and-paste process that is not always easy. Free agency for veterans has made it even more complicated–about 140 players now change teams each year, many with big-money deals–and the churning of personnel has increased both opportunities and risks. For every shrewd acquisition there is the possibility of an error in judgment that becomes an embarrassing disappointment.

Anyone who has followed the Redskins will remember the fits and starts that accompanied the effort to construct a defense during Norv Turner's first five seasons (1994 through 1998). While the team had just the right people at some positions–Darrell Green at cornerback being the best example–other parts were often substandard, broken, or worn out. The Redskins ran through players like Jack Kent Cooke ran through women. Here, position by position, is a stroll down memory lane:

Cornerbacks: While Green held down one corner, the other spot was filled first by Tom Carter and then by Chris Dishman, signed as a free agent from the Oilers. Dishman had a Pro Bowl season in 1997, but age began to show, and the Redskins let him depart as a free agent at the end of 1998.

Safeties: Darryl Morrison was the free safety during Turner's first season, but he was dumped in favor of Stanley Richard, who signed as a free agent and played erratically the next four seasons. At strong safety, the team went with a succession of inadequate free agents–Martin Bayless, James Washington, and Jesse Campbell–followed by fifth-round draft choice Leomont Evans.

Linebackers: On the right side Turner initially started Andre Collins, a second-round choice from Penn State in 1990, but replaced him after a year with free agent Marvcus Patton of the Bills. After a couple of years there, Patton was switched to the middle slot and the right side was turned over to Derek Smith, a third-round pick out of Arizona State. Before Patton, the middle slot had been a chronic problem, first with Tyronne Stowe, then with Rod Stephens. Ken Harvey, signed as a free agent and installed as the left-side linebacker, made the Pro Bowl four times.

Ends: Tony Woods, a free agent from the Rams, lasted three seasons before he was replaced by Kenard Lang, a first-round choice out of Miami. At right end, the Redskins went with Sterling Palmer, a fourth-round pick from Florida State; replaced him with Rich Owens, a fifth-rounder out of Lehigh; and then tried Kelvin Kinney, a sixth-round choice from Virginia State.

Tackles: Perhaps the most troubled part of the defense. A dozen players started at least three games at the two defensive-tackle positions during Turner's first five years, some of the switching necessitated by injuries but much by inadequacy. The list included Sean Gilbert, Marc Boutte, William Gaines, Bobby Wilson, Doug Brown, Chris Mims, Tim Johnson, Ryan Kuehl, Lamar Mills, and Leonard Marshall until this part of the defense was stabilized with the addition of Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson in 1998.

Sean Gilbert was a pivotal figure–not so much for the one year he played in Washington but for the chain of deals he triggered. In 1996, still having trouble stopping the run, the Redskins acquired Gilbert, considered one of the league's most promising young defensive linemen, by giving up a first-round draft choice (sixth overall) to the Rams. Gilbert demanded a raise to $5 million a year that would make him the league's highest-paid defensive lineman–suggesting that his demand came straight out of a personal communication with God.

The Redskins front office refused Gilbert's celestial demand and named him the team's "franchise player." This maneuver, built into the collective-bargaining agreement, prevented a player from moving elsewhere as long as his current team was willing to pay him the average of the league's five highest-paid players at his position. Rather than accept that, Gilbert chose to sit out the 1997 season, thus freeing him to sign elsewhere. When he signed with the Carolina Panthers, his good riddance was especially sweet for the Redskins: The Panthers had to compensate them with two first-round draft choices, which provided some of the currency by which the Redskins acquired Brad Johnson, Champ Bailey, and LaVar Arrington.

With Gilbert gone, the Redskins quit fooling around on the interior line and loaded up for the 1998 season with two huge acquisitions–huge in both size and cost. They traded first- and third-round picks to the Bengals in exchange for tackle Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson, a 313-pounder from Ohio State who had been the top pick in the 1994 draft. And they signed free agent Dana Stubblefield, a 315-pound tackle who was a three-time Pro Bowler and had been the NFL's defensive player of the year with the 49ers in 1997. Wilkinson was 25, Stubblefield was 27, their long-term contracts together totaled $57 million–and they looked like the answer for years to come.


Snyder Takes Over

The early months of 1999 were one of the strangest off-seasons ever at Redskins Park, the complex of practice fields, offices, and workout facilities in Loudoun County that had served as the team's headquarters since 1992. Though John Kent Cooke was still the team's president, it appeared that Howard Milstein, a New York real-estate developer who had offered an astonishing $800 million for the franchise, might be taking over before the opening of training camp in July. If so, it seemed likely that both Charley Casserly and Norv Turner would be fired after five seasons together that had produced a disappointing 32-47-1 record and not a single playoff appearance.

The Redskins had been within one win of the playoffs twice during Turner's tenure –in 1996, when they went 9-7, and in 1997, when they were 8-7-1–but it was obvious they still weren't competing with the league's best teams. So it was with that in mind that Casserly and Turner–though aware that their heads were on the chopping block–made several off-season deals.

The big one on offense was the acquisition of quarterback Brad Johnson from the Vikings in exchange for first, second, and third picks, and there were several important additions to the defense. Penciled into the starting defensive lineup were two free agents–Marco Coleman, a veteran end from the Chargers, and Sam Shade, a hard-hitting safety from the Bengals. But the bonanza was Champ Bailey, a cornerback from Georgia who was taken as the seventh overall pick in the draft.

All of this occurred while the ownership saga was taking a final surprising turn–with Milstein's bid blocked by NFL owners and the Redskins acquired by a new group controlled by Dan Snyder, then 34, who had been one of Milstein's junior partners. Snyder was a local boy who'd made a bundle at a young age. A graduate of North Bethesda's Woodward High School, he had quit the University of Maryland and started a marketing company called Snyder Communications (since sold, allowing him to focus more attention on the Redskins). While his success in business had not garnered Snyder a lot of public attention, the purchase of the Redskins turned him into an overnight celebrity whose every move would be the subject of analysis, praise, and criticism.

He had no football experience, but it was clear that he was deeply in love with the Redskins–he'd worn a Redskins belt buckle to school as a kid and had idolized undersized but gritty cornerback Pat Fischer. It was clear too that Snyder wanted to win and that he wanted to win immediately.

Snyder also gave notice that he would not be one of those owners who buy a sports franchise and hire a front office and coaching staff to run it until they prove incapable of success. Jack Kent Cooke had leaned in that direction, but Snyder gave special meaning to the concept of a "hands-on" owner–much like Al Davis of the Raiders and Jerry Jones of the Cowboys in the NFL, both of whom have won Super Bowls, and George Steinbrenner of the Yankees and Peter Angelos of the Orioles in baseball.

Snyder–an intense, energetic, and impatient workaholic–swept into Redskins Park just before training camp in the summer of 1999 with a barrage of suggestions about players who might be acquired–often big names who did not elicit much enthusiasm from the front office and coaching staff, who considered several of them over the hill, disruptive, no better than what the team already had, or not worth the price in money, draft choices, or salary-cap room.

There were possibilities enough to stock a fantasy league: Barry Sanders, the great running back who had abruptly retired from the Lions; Lawrence Phillips, the volatile running back from the University of Nebraska who had been arrested twice for assaults on women and had failed to stick with the Dolphins and Rams; Randall McDaniel, a Pro Bowl guard with the Vikings; and Charles Haley, once a great pass-rushing end with the Cowboys and 49ers, who had a history of back problems. Nothing came of these, but the Redskins did sign fullback Larry Centers when he was released by the Cardinals.


Howard Milstein probably would have fired both Cass-erly and Turner, but Snyder said his first inclination was to retain both of them when he took control of the Redskins in July 1999. But he soon determined that longstanding conflicts between the general manager and the coach–some of them over who should be signed or drafted–made it nearly impossible for them to work together. One of them had to go, and it turned out to be Casserly.

He had been sympathetic to the failed ownership bid by John Kent Cooke; with just days before the opening of training camp, it was too late in the year to find a new head coach; and Casserly had done little to ingratiate himself with Snyder. While Turner had been noncommittal or kept to himself any opposition to Snyder's proposed personnel moves, Casserly had told the new owner why he thought they would be a mistake. "Norv sort of rolled over to save his job," says one source.

Many of Casserly's duties were assumed by Vinny Cerrato, whom Snyder brought in as director of player personnel. Cerrato's résumé included a stint as chief recruiter for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, where he'd gained notoriety for impressing prospective recruits by standing on the Notre Dame sideline during televised games feeding them play calls in advance via cell phone–a tactic the NCAA later banned with a special "Vinny Cerrato rule." He'd then worked as college scouting director and director of player personnel with the 49ers before being fired in a front-office shakeup.

Howard Milstein had hired Cerrato as a player-personnel consultant in anticipation of taking over the Redskins. Cerrato lived for several weeks during 1999 in a hotel near Dulles Airport studying film given him by Charley Casserly. And that's how he got to know Snyder, the only member of Milstein's group living in Washington. The two men hit it off, sharing a high-energy style filled with late-night phone calls, and are said to like hanging out together for a beer or a meal at Morton's in Tysons Corner.


Right away snyder put everyone at Redskins Park on the hot seat or showed them the exit. He fired about 25 employees in the first few days, including secretaries, public-relations people, and stadium personnel, many of whom had worked for the Cookes for years. During training camp he followed the release of offensive lineman Joe Patton with comments that he was an example of what would happen to anyone who dogged it. If players didn't work hard, Snyder told Sports Illustrated, "we'll pack up all their stuff and throw it out in the parking lot."

He also put Norv Turner on notice that he would be fired if the Redskins didn't make the playoffs, and after a 38-20 loss in Dallas early in the season he raced down to the locker room for a high-volume, 20-minute heart-to-heart with his shocked and beleaguered coach.

While some people in Washington cheered Snyder as introducing long-overdue accountability, others regarded him as an overbearing bully. The press initially seemed to side with the critics and treated him with a good deal of mockery. Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser began referring to him as The Danny, an allusion to The Donald, the nickname of Donald Trump, the egomaniacal New York developer. The Style section began running a "Dan-O-Meter" after every game, measuring whether a win put him in the gloating range or a loss made him ballistic.

Right beside Turner on Snyder's hot seat was Mike Nolan, the Redskins' defensive coordinator whom Turner had hired from the Giants at the end of the 1996 season after dumping Ron Lynn. With an ever-shifting cast of players, Nolan's defensive units had never reached anywhere near the league's top level–ranking 16th in 1997 and 24th in 1998. And defensive weaknesses were apparent in the very first game of the 1999 season, a home opener against the Cowboys. The Redskins blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime, 41-35, on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Raghib Ismail. In the games that followed, an inability to stop the run, an anemic pass rush, and difficulty shutting the door on third downs–familiar old problems–translated into surrendering more yards and points than nearly any other team in the league.

This prompted lots of finger-pointing about what was wrong. Could it be inexperience? The sudden retirement of Ken Harvey during training camp had left the linebacking corps with two first-year starters (Shawn Barber and Greg Jones) and another (Derek Smith) with just a couple of years under his belt; in the secondary, both Leomont Evans and Champ Bailey were youngsters. Was it flaws in Nolan's philosophy or lack of execution by players? Some said Nolan's read-and-react defensive style wasn't as effective as the all-out, straight-ahead aggressiveness favored by some teams, while others said there were too many mental errors and missed assignments. Could it be a lack of team chemistry? At one point, feeling the need for bonding, the defensive players started getting together to socialize every Thursday night over dinner–giving the silent treatment in the locker room to anyone who hadn't shown up.

The problems reached an embarrassing point in the fourth game of the season, against the Carolina Panthers, when the defense gave up 21 points in the first quarter–a breakdown salvaged by an offense that put up enough points to secure a 38-36 victory. Snyder seemed ready to fire Nolan immediately, though Turner talked him out of it. At the same time, the team hired 72-year-old Bill Arnsparger as a consultant, hoping that his years of experience as one of the NFL's most admired defensive coaches would allow him to suggest solutions to help Nolan get the defense untracked.

Whatever the problems and whatever the solutions, the defense managed as the season wore on to execute a turnaround. It allowed 402 yards a game in its first eight outings. But it surrendered only 293 yards a game in its final ten, including a playoff win over Detroit and a playoff loss to Tampa Bay. Had the defense matched that ten-game effort for the entire season, it would have ranked second in the NFC behind the Buccaneers.

The offense, meanwhile, had a superb year, finishing second in yardage in the league and finally looking like the powerhouse that Turner had produced in Dallas. Several players had career years, including quarterback Brad Johnson, the league's fifth-ranked passer; wide receivers Michael Westbrook (1,191 yards in receptions) and Albert Connell (1,132 yards); and tailback Stephen Davis, who gained a team-record 1,405 yards. Johnson and Davis made the Pro Bowl, along with 326-pound guard Tré Johnson, in his sixth year after being drafted in the second round from Temple.

With the playoff appearances–the first since the 1992 season–some of the cocktail-circuit criticism of Dan Snyder abated, affirming the cliché that everybody loves a winner. Tony Kornheiser, one of the new owner's early tormentors, wrote a column that gave him credit for energizing the Redskins with his feet-to-the-fire management style. Private assessments were more generous too: "He didn't know anything about football," said one of the most famous players in Redskins history. "But he's learning." >

In April, Snyder threw a lavish party at Olives, an expensive DC restaurant at 16th and K streets that was becoming to him what Duke Zeibert's had been to Jack Kent Cooke. The Style section ran a story on the celebration, including praise for the owner from sportscaster George Michael and Sonny Jurgensen, the Hall of Fame quarterback and sportscaster who had become a member of Snyder's inner circle. About 450 Washington VIPs showed up to smoke his cigars, drink his booze, and eat his food–and it was hard to tell whether it was more a celebration of a playoff season past or a kickoff for a Super Bowl season to come.


Though $800 million sounds like a lot of money to pay for an NFL franchise, Dan Snyder got plenty of value for his money. He acquired one of the league's most valuable franchises–located in a high-profile market, with a new stadium that is fitted with luxury suites and holds more spectators than any other in the NFL, with a bigger revenue base than any club except the Cowboys, with a rich tradition of success on the field, and with an avid fan base that keeps the stadium sold out and the waiting list long.

His timing was excellent, too, because he got an improving team on the verge of a breakthrough as well as a stockpile of draft choices to make it better fast. Charley Casserly had left behind three first-round picks in the 2000 draft–the 2nd overall, the 12th, and the 23rd.

That was an extraordinary position for a 10-6 team coming out of a playoff year, but the Redskins made one additional move before the April draft that created even more excitement. Vinny Cerrato, who'd worked in the San Francisco front office, made a deal with Bill Walsh, who had returned to the 49ers as general manager and was faced with rebuilding a much-depleted team. Walsh needed lots of bodies in the draft and was willing to trade his top pick (third overall) for four Redskins picks–the 12th and 23th choices in the first round as well as picks in the fourth and fifth rounds.

On draft day the Redskins used that third pick to acquire Chris Samuels, a highly rated offensive tackle from Alabama, and spent the second overall choice on linebacker LaVar Arrington of Penn State. Arrington, a Pittsburgh native who entered the draft after his junior season, had established himself as a rare talent: Big for a linebacker at six-foot-three and 250 pounds, he played with an aggressive style that scouts and coaches thought made him a good bet for NFL stardom. After their selection, Arrington and Samuels were flown from New York to Dulles Airport in Snyder's private jet, shuttled by helicopter to Redskins Park, and introduced at a press conference with Snyder, Cerrato, and Turner beaming at their sides. Eventually, as training camp was opening in July, both were signed to six-year contracts–a $31-million deal for Samuels with a $10-million signing bonus, and a $34-million deal for Arrington with a signing bonus just over $10 million.


Snyder also inherited a Redskins team in a fortuitous position when it came to signing free agents. The team's payroll for players, one of the NFL's highest in the early 1990s, had been trimmed to the point where it was the league's second lowest by the time Snyder took over. Several teams had payrolls above $70 million–the Bills, Browns, Cowboys, Jaguars, Lions, Packers, Patriots, Giants, and Eagles–but the Redskins payroll was just $50.6 million. That meant Dan Snyder had taken over a team with the flexibility to spend money on veteran free agents without going over the salary cap. "Cap room," they call it in the NFL–a precious commodity that could translate into flesh-and-blood linebackers, cornerbacks, and ends.

The free-agency system established in 1993 by the collective-bargaining agreement between players and owners creates the opportunity for veterans to play out their contracts and offer their services to the highest bidder. After they've played for three years, players first become "restricted free agents,'' meaning they can negotiate with other clubs, though their old team has the right to retain them with a matching offer and is entitled to draft picks as compensation if they leave. After four years in the league or more, any player whose contract has expired is an "unrestricted free agent" who can sign anywhere at any price with no draft compensation involved.

But the real challenge for a front office in piecing together a talented roster is the salary cap. This number, which is intended in part to establish parity among teams, sets a maximum amount a franchise is allowed to spend in pay to its players. The cap is just over $62 million this season, though most clubs spend more–including the Redskins, with their outlay of more than $100 million.

There are several reasons for this discrepancy. One is that teams usually front-load lengthy multiyear contracts with hefty signing bonuses that are paid out immediately. This appeals to players and agents because it's the only money in most contracts that is guaranteed, and it appeals to teams because they are able to reduce the hit against their salary cap by prorating the signing bonus over the life of the contract. In addition, teams often back-load contracts by paying fairly small salaries in the first year or two–thus minimizing the amount counted against their cap–and penciling in huge salaries in the out years–all with the expectation that by then the player will be gone or can be enticed by another signing bonus to renegotiate.

When you hear that Deion Sanders, at 33, has signed a seven-year contract with the Redskins worth $56 million, it doesn't mean he'll be here until he's 40 or that he'll collect all that money. What really happened is that the Redskins paid him $8 million up front in a signing bonus, which will count only $1.14 million against their salary cap this season–as well as for each of the next six years. His first-year salary, a modest $500,000, will count too, but about $38 million of the $56 million is scheduled for the contract's last four years–when Sanders, by then in his late thirties, probably will be too old and slow to make the roster.


As The Redskins approached this season, all of this arcane salary-cap business set parameters for their attempt to retool their defense and fine-tune the offense. It created an incentive to save money and gain more room under the cap by releasing or trading backup quarterbacks Rodney Peete and Casey Weldon, fullback Larry Bowie, punter Matt Turk, long snapper Dan Turk, linebacker Fred Strickland, and Brian Mitchell, the running back and return man. The loss of Mitchell, a ten-year Redskins veteran who was a popular figure in the locker room and the NFL's career leader in combined punt- and kickoff-return yards, was the hardest for Redskins fans to swallow. Mitchell, in something of the same position as Art Monk years before, took some bitter parting shots at the club–apparently directed at Vinny Cerrato. He then signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, partly to get a couple of chances this season to run one back against the Redskins.

For Dan Snyder, these cuts and the relatively low payroll he inherited provided room to correct weaknesses in the Redskins defense by bringing in new players–assuming he was willing to spend money. It soon became obvious that he was–engaging in a spending spree on veterans and top draft choices that has pushed the Redskins' outlay on players this season over the $100-million mark, far above the official salary cap and higher than any single-season investment in NFL history. The intent has been to seize the moment by accumulating the last few players considered necessary to put the Redskins into the Super Bowl–a kind of go-for-the-jugular strategy that reminds people of the 49ers under Eddie DeBartolo and the Cowboys under Jerry Jones.

To pay for this, Snyder made an effort to increase Redskins revenues by offering new services and increasing the price of others. Much of the task fell to the team's new president, Steve Baldacci, who came over from Snyder Communications. The biggest deal involved selling the naming rights for Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to Federal Express for $205 million over 27 years, the highest price ever in the NFL. There was a big push to lease luxury suites that had remained empty. Nearly 3,000 seats and 12 luxury suites were added, bringing the stadium's capacity to just over 85,000. Some ticket prices–already highest in the league–were raised, along with prices for concessions and parking, which was expanded and improved. There was new aggressiveness in selling in-stadium advertising; a team newspaper was launched; and local television stations, which had always used the Redskins name and logo for free on their special football shows, were charged fees.

With a waiting list for season tickets that approaches 50,000, Snyder also saw that he could make money and create lots of goodwill by offering more fans the chance to see the team up close at training camp. Last summer it was moved from the remote campus of Frostburg State in western Maryland to Redskins Park in Ashburn. In an innovative move that did not sit well with some other owners but seemed popular with fans, Snyder's Redskins became the first NFL team to charge for watching practice ($10 admission for adults, $10 for parking).


Some of the free agents signed by the Redskins in the off-season were to add depth to the offense–notably strong-armed quarterback Jeff George from the Vikings, the league's third-rated passer in 1999, and running back Adrian Murrell, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher from the Cardinals–but even more of the additions were intended to strengthen the defense. Free safety Mark Carrier was brought in to replace Leomont Evans, a former fourth-round draft choice from Clemson who had been a disappointment. Carrier, during a ten-year career with the Bears and the Lions, had made the Pro Bowl three times and developed a reputation as an intimidating tackler; he'd been disciplined by the league six times, including a couple of one-game suspensions, for using his helmet as a weapon.

Deficiencies in the pass rush were addressed by signing defensive end Bruce Smith from the Buffalo Bills. In 15 seasons, Smith had appeared in 11 Pro Bowls and four Super Bowls (all losses), and his 171 career sacks were second only to Reggie White's 192.5. The 37-year-old Smith, who had spent his entire career in Buffalo, was available as the result of a scenario that has been played out more and more around the league: An aging star with a high salary is cut, management blames it on a need to create cap room to bring in younger players, fans lament the loss of a hero they'd hoped would be theirs forever, and the old veteran takes his bruised ego elsewhere. When the Bills released Smith in February–along with wide receiver Andre Reed and running back Thurman Thomas–the Redskins signed him a few days later.

Norv Turner was convinced that Smith, given proper rest, could still be a force, especially on passing downs. He had a reputation for staying in great shape and had the experience and will to win that would be a good influence on younger players. Smith found the Redskins attractive partly because he's from Virginia–having grown up in Norfolk and played at Virginia Tech–and because he liked playing on grass. But there was more to it than that. Of the teams interested in him, the Redskins seemed to offer the best chance to at last win a Super Bowl ring, the one honor that had eluded him.

More intriguing was the delicate footwork surrounding the Redskins' signing of cornerback Deion Sanders, released last summer by the Cowboys in another cost-cutting maneuver. It was delicate because adding Sanders almost certainly would reduce the playing time of Darrell Green, who was nearing the end of a remarkable career. Green, who weighed only 185 pounds and stood just five-foot-eight, had played more games as a Redskin than anyone, had been to the Pro Bowl seven times, and held the team record for career interceptions. He had come into the league as the Redskins' first-round draft choice from Texas A&I in 1983.

Green, who had been clocked as the NFL's fastest man four times in his career, was considered a remarkable physical specimen capable of age-defying speed. Just last spring, at the age of 40, he ran a 4.24 in the 40-yard dash at Redskins Park, better than any of his teammates; just behind him, in order, were Albert Connell, Champ Bailey, and Michael Westbrook.

But Green's physical gifts, work ethic, and the clean living that came from his commitment as a born-again Christian were not likely to translate into superior performances forever, so the availability of Deion Sanders was something Dan Snyder could not pass up. Snyder went to great lengths to make sure Green was on board on the Deion deal, perhaps because he remembered the negative reactions that accompanied the treatment of Art Monk in 1994. Snyder, who is a great Green admirer and had supported his faith-based program for inner-city children, tore up Darrell's old contract, wrote a new one with a $2-million signing bonus in honor of his career achievements, and brought him along to dinner at Olives when recruiting Sanders.

Deion, at the introductory press conference where he showed up in a burgundy-and-gold suit, made a point to pay homage to Green, along with God, Dan Snyder, and Norv Turner. Sanders is one of the highest-profile and most charismatic athletes of his generation–a media-hungry superstar whose persona has lost little flash in his transformation from a hot-dogging young hipster who liked to be called "Prime Time" and "Neon Deion" to a born-again family man who now describes his latest suits as those of a natty preacher. There's also no question that Sanders, who came out of Florida State in 1989, has backed up his bravado on the field. A seven-time Pro Bowler often considered the best cover corner in history, he's an athlete with such quickness and speed that teams often dare not throw in his direction.

The task of blending these newcomers and the returning starters into a dominating defense has fallen to Ray Rhodes, whom Snyder hired as defensive coordinator to replace Mike Nolan. Despite the improvement in the defense during the second half of last season, Nolan was fired, moving on to become defensive coordinator with the New York Jets. Rhodes, a Texan who played seven seasons as a wide receiver and defensive back with the Giants and 49ers, was the defensive coordinator on the 49ers' Super Bowl team in 1994 and is one of the few African-Americans who've had a shot as an NFL head coach.

He spent four seasons as the top man with the Eagles, making the playoffs and earning coach-of-the-year honors his first year and going back to the playoffs the next. When the team, which had lost several key players, fell to 3-13 in his fourth year, he was fired. Last year, in his first season as head coach of the Packers, the team experienced lots of turmoil, and there were complaints that Rhodes was not a tough enough disciplinarian. When the team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, he was fired again.

He arrived at Redskins Park with a reputation as a man who is popular with players and someone who turns out a defense with a jacked-up level of aggression–something that appeals to what one observer calls Snyder's "kick-ass, scare-the-hell-out-of-'em" style. Rhodes certainly talks tough. "I know how to grind someone's rear end," he has said. "I'll climb up your butt far enough to get something out of you."

With the addition of Sanders, Smith, and Carrier, everyone expects Rhodes to introduce an attacking defense that should produce more success against the run as well as stronger, more frequent blitzing on passing downs. A few Machiavellian thinkers also have suggested that Snyder is in a position to dump Turner and promote Rhodes to head coach if the team gets off to a terrible start.


On paper, the new Redskins roster looks impressive. But there are other teams with legitimate shots at the Super Bowl–including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans, and Indianapolis Colts–and every week the Redskins will face someone out to prove that their preseason hype was a sham. Given their success last year, the Redskins have drawn a schedule that is much tougher–with seven games against playoff teams, including the Rams, Titans, and Jaguars. And there's the question of whether the offense can repeat its performance of a year ago, when Brad Johnson, Stephen Davis, Albert Connell, and Michael Westbrook all had their best years.

Injuries are always a factor, though additional depth this year provides insurance at several positions, including quarterback, where Jeff George is ready to step in if injury-prone Brad Johnson gets hurt or off to a bad start. The Redskins were fortunate last season–their starters lost just ten games to injuries.

Several key players are getting on in years–Green is 40, Smith 37, Sanders 33, Carrier 32–and there's always worry about the effect of age on speed, stamina, and susceptibility to injury. Though Sanders seems to have recovered from off-season knee surgery, he did miss two games last year and was slowed by a toe injury.

Harder to predict is whether Snyder's strategy of loading up with high-priced but aging talent has mortgaged the team's future. Will there come a time, given the pressures of the salary cap, when the Redskins begin to decline and lack the flexibility to reinvent themselves–a time when they will resemble such once-elite teams as today's 49ers? The Redskins say there's no problem ahead, but one source says it's possible that by the 2002 season the team could have 80 percent of its allowable salaries wrapped up in fewer than 25 players.

If that's true, how many good shots at a Super Bowl do they have before a downward cycle? One, two, three?

Washington fans already can smell the first good shot this year, and who can blame them for having such high expectations of a Redskins defense that was so long a weak link but now seems reborn? Crouched along the front line are nearly 1,200 pounds of veteran muscle in the form of Bruce Smith, Dana Stubblefield, Dan Wilkinson, and Marco Coleman. Behind them are young and improving linebackers–Shawn Barber, Derek Smith, Greg Jones, and LaVar Arrington. And beyond them are experienced defensive backs–Deion Sanders, Darrell Green, Champ Bailey, Mark Carrier, and Sam Shade. Nine of them were first-round draft picks–Stubblefield, Wilkinson, Smith, Coleman, Carrier, Arrington, Green, Sanders, and Bailey–and among them they've been to the Pro Bowl 31 times.

Washington fans already are dreaming about how this lineup might perform in a game against the hated Cowboys. In the first quarter, Mark Carrier nails a receiver coming across the middle so hard that the Dallas trainer has to work on him before he gets up and limps back to the bench. Just after halftime, on a third down, Bruce Smith mounts a ferocious rush, tossing aside an offensive lineman to dump Troy Aikman for a 12-yard loss. And with just a couple of minutes left, Deion Sanders takes a quick step in front of Joey Galloway, catches the ball cleanly, and races down the sideline 62 yards into the end zone.