WASHINGTON — The Washington Redskins have adjusted to their playoff disaster against the New York Giants, expressing determination to bring success from that failure.
"I think what happens is that you get close and you really get hungry," said Washington safety Curtis Jordan. "You see how close you were and it's so frustrating, it kind of wears on your mind all offseason."
While surpassing all expectations during what was expected to be a rebuilding 1986 season, the Redskins are now hoping to follow the same path from playoff disappointment to the Super Bowl blazed in successive seasons by the San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears and New York Giants.
The 49ers lost the Jan. 8, 1983 NFC title game to the Redskins on a Mark Moseley field goal with 40 seconds remaining. They rebounded the next season with an 18-1 mark and a Super Bowl XIX victory.
The Bears, blanked 23-0 by the 49ers in the conference title game on Jan. 6, 1985, responded with their own 18-1 season and the title in Super Bowl XX. The Giants, shut out 21-0 in a divisional playoff Jan. 5, 1986, rebounded with a 16-2 record and the conference title. They are favored by 9 points over the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XXI on Jan. 25 in Pasadena.
The Redskins were blanked, 17-0, by New York Jan. 11 in a wind-whipped Giants Stadium. The Giants handed the Redskins three of their losses during a 14-5 season that included a playoff upset of the defending champion Bears.
As the Redskins cleaned out their lockers a day after the Giants loss, they expressed as much optimism as disappointment.
"We were a new team, one that people said had no character because of the famous people who had left," said defensive end Charles Mann, referring to veterans John Riggins, Joe Theismann and Moseley, all released. "We were one team away from the Super Bowl. We're on one of the peaks of the range, but we want to be on the top of the highest mountain. At the start of the season, we said, 'We hope we can.' Now we say, 'We know we can.' "
Said Washington Coach Joe Gibbs: "We're a notch away right now. We've got to find a way through hard work to take that next step. I said to them that last year I felt like we were one win away from the playoffs. This year, we were 18 points from going to the Super Bowl. Somewhere, we've got to come up with that 18 points to go to the Super Bowl."
That the Redskins were beaten in the NFC Championship game is less surprising than the fact that they were playing in it. Gibbs and the rest of the organization cautioned during the preseason that 1986 would be a season of "transition," with veterans released before the season and youngsters such as quarterback Jay Schroeder, wide receiver Gary Clark and running back Kelvin Bryant assuming important roles.
The Redskins, considered an aging team last season, finished this season with 12 rookies on their roster and had as many as 14 late in the season before USFL refugees Derek Holloway and Clarence Verdin, both wide receivers, were placed on injured reserve.
"Those young guys really added something to us," Gibbs said. "The guys who have been here and have been the mainstay, I felt like they did their job of leading. We kind of meshed those two together and I felt like we added up to a team that played its heart out."
Schroeder, 25, quashed preseason worries about his leadership ability by setting a Redskins single-season passing record and leading the NFC with 4,109 yards, while earning praise for his cool under pressure and deft decision-making. He will join five teammates in the Pro Bowl.
"I think everybody was wondering over the long haul how he would do: do we have a quarterback who can take us to the Super Bowl?" Gibbs said. "Through the process of this year, I think there's not a player here who doesn't feel like Jay can do that, and I feel the same way."
Clark, in his second year, relieved Art Monk's work load by emerging as a dangerous pass receiver with a knack for finding the seam in coverage. Both receivers posted 1,000-yard seasons, as did running back George Rogers, the main replacement for Riggins.
With Schroeder emerging, the Redskins changed from a plodding, ball-control team to a quick-strike passing team. That figured, because even Gibbs said he did not know what he had entering the season.
"Like everybody else, I was unsure," said Gibbs, who surpassed George Allen as the Redskins' all-time winningest coach in his sixth season. "I said it was the biggest change we've had since I've been here. We had some of those guys who had led us to those Super Bowls who were no longer with us. We had a lot of young guys and we had USFL guys. The way all that took place, it was like a whirlwind of things that happened. I was sitting there saying, 'I don't know what to expect."'
"Now, I feel more comfortable about who's going to be playing what. I don't think there's going to be as many question marks for me," he added.
The team's top priority entering 1987 is bolstering the linebacker position. Mel Kaufman, the top pass rusher from the position, missed most of the season with a torn Achilles tendon, and veterans Rich Milot, Monte Coleman and Neal Olkewicz are steady--not dominating.
Defensive end Dexter Manley set a club record with 18 1/2 sacks to become the Redskins all-time career sack leader. He also whined about his $1.6 million, four-year contract, but says he will be back. Defensive tackle Dave Butz, at 36 the league's oldest defensive lineman, says he is weighing retirement despite a fine season.
"We're really going to look forward to next year," said Mann, with one eye on Super Bowl XXII. "You know, the best thing that could happen for us now is for the Giants to win the Super Bowl. I'm dead serious. We don't want them to lose and come back hungry and mad next year. Let them win and get all those New York endorsements and TV shows, just like the Bears did."