HERNDON, Va. — Former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, like many others, wondered how this year's team differed from the ones he led to the Super Bowl in 1983 and '84.
Recently, Theismann set out to Redskin Park to find out.
"I was standing at practice next to (assistant coach) Dan Henning, and three players walked up to him and asked him to hold their earrings," Theismann said. "That's when it hit me."
Yes, the Redskins have changed in more ways than one. In four years, Coach Joe Gibbs has returned to his third Super Bowl of the decade with a whole new look. Although 16 veterans remain from the Super Bowl teams of the early 1980s, this is a different team.
The Redskins won Super Bowl XVII in 1983 with a 27-17 victory over the Dolphins and returned a year later, losing to the Raiders, 38-9.
Those Washington teams were deep in tradition, unyielding to change. Theismann was the quarterback, a player who refused to relinquish the ball to a backup even in practice. John Riggins was the running back in the Redskins' one-back formation.
In 1983, Riggins carried the ball 375 times, a team record that still stands.
Art Monk was the star receiver.
Now look at the Redskins. This year, Jay Schroeder and Doug Williams have alternated at quarterback. Washington has used three running backs--George Rogers, Timmy Smith and Kelvin Bryant.
Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, two United States Football League refugees, are the new star receivers, though the ageless Monk remains.
"You'd expect us to be a losing team with all that change," veteran linebacker Neal Olkewicz said. "Before, everything was constant."
Even the Redskin defense has changed. There are more packages, formations, alignments. In other words, Olkewicz doesn't play as much as he used to.
"Now, I play on first down and in some 3-4 packages," he said. "There are a lot more packages now."
Dave Butz, a 14-year Redskin veteran, could only laugh when asked how Theismann and Riggins would have handled being platooned.
"John Riggins wouldn't have gotten in that position, and Theismann wouldn't have allowed it," Butz said. "There's your answer right there.
"Theismann had this deal where one time Billy Kilmer came on the field and shushed him off the field. He never forgot that. Consequently, Joe would never release the helm to anybody for anything."
Theismann agreed but said that the whole game has changed since his last Super Bowl, from a game of power to one of speed and specialists. The Redskins are a microcosm of a league-wide shift in philosophy.
"In three years, there's been a face lift," Theismann said. "It's the age of specialization. It would drive me crazy. And as a running back, I don't know how those kids do it. If Riggins carried the ball 25 times a game, his most productive runs would be in the last half. I don't know how they get in a groove."
The Redskins now use Rogers for inside running, Smith for outside running and Bryant for pass receiving out of the backfield.
The Redskins have managed to succeed in spite of the changes because they recognized that it was for the ultimate good of the team, veterans said.
Also, they had little choice.
"It's been a tough year all the way around," Olkewicz said. "Any one of our changes could have disrupted our team. But we just have a lot of guys who are smart enough to know what's going on. Guys are realistic about the situation. You know, it's not always as fun as it was in high school."
Linebacker Mel Kaufman, another veteran from a different Redskin era, said it hasn't been easy adjusting to the new age.
"It's a little bruising to the ego, but you have to deal with it," Kaufman said. "Now, they're just looking for production. They don't care who's in there.
"The game today is so specialized. There's guys for every situation for every down. You have to learn to play with a team concept. I'm sure Riggins wouldn't have liked it, but if you want to win as a team, it's something you have to deal with."
Veteran offensive tackle Mark May thinks the use of more players has brought the Redskins together rather than split them apart.
When everyone has to contribute, everyone cares, he says.
"We've had a lot of different heroes this year," May said. "In crisis situations, they're called on to play and they've played well."
Theismann thinks Gibbs deserves credit for recognizing the change in the game and adapting to it. And General Manager Bobby Beathard gets the credit for getting the right talent to the right positions.
Gibbs also has dealt well with massaging player egos.
And Theismann? Well, he's still not completely sold on the idea of shuttle-system football.
"Coaches argue it both ways," he said. "It gets everyone involved in the game when you have 45 guys playing, that's positive. On the another side, you never really develop a consistency. Do you know in Green Bay they now have run-blocking guards and pass-blocking guards?"
Yeah, and how about those earrings?