SAN DIEGO — Ricky Sanders returned only four kickoffs for the Washington Redskins this season, but that was enough to let him know how it should feel when he tried to cut upfield.
And Sanders was quite adept at cutting upfield. After all, he averaged 29.5 yards for those four returns.
He definitely did not feel right Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
Sanders returned three kickoffs in the first six minutes of the game, none as far as the 20-yard-line.
"I was slipping all over the place," he said. "I just couldn't get my footing. I couldn't get upfield like I wanted to."
So he switched to longer cleats. He was not alone. A number of Redskins did the same thing, some after pregame warm-ups and some during the game.
It was reminiscent, though hardly as dramatic, as when the New York Giants switched to sneakers at halftime of the 1934 National Football League championship game on a frozen Polo Grounds field. The Giants rallied from a 10-3 halftime deficit to beat the Washington Redskins, 30-13.
However, Sunday's Redskins were not exactly off to a flying start. Sanders returned the opening kickoff and two others in the first six minutes because Denver had scored twice and led, 10-0.
Regardless of whether The Cleat Caper was the reason, Sanders was never to return another kickoff because Denver never kicked off again.
And Sanders, who had not caught a pass before he changed cleats, finished with 9 receptions for a record 193 yards.
Sanders, in fact, triggered the Redskin comeback when he and quarterback Doug Williams teamed up on an 80-yard scoring play for the Redskins' first touchdown. Sanders caught the ball at midfield, and his footing seemed quite secure as he outran Mark Haynes and Tony Lilly to the end zone.
A cleat change also helped the Redskins on the defensive side. End Charles Mann found he needed a bit more traction to pursue Bronco quarterback John Elway.
"It was fine in the pregame," Mann said, "but I was slipping and sliding like crazy once the game began. You need traction when Elway's out there. He'd give a little head fake, and I'd slip and fall down."
Asked the length of the new cleats, Mann held his thumb and forefinger about a quarter-inch apart.
"And that much made a big difference too," he said.
Timmy Smith, who set a rushing record with 204 yards in 22 carries, also switched, but he switched before the game.
"I went out to the field," he said, "and it seemed kind of loose. I had to go with taller cleats."
Ironically, the field looked as good, probably better, than ever. It was neatly manicured and protected, even to the extent of having crews go out during timeouts to replace divots churned up by the players.
But no one was arguing appearances.
"It looked beautiful," Redskin center Jeff Bostic said. "Just like a carpet. If I can find a field just like it, I'd like to play golf on it."
But, Bostic said, it was soft, as if maybe it had been watered too much or too recently.
"But I didn't change cleats," he said. "I don't run fast enough to lose my footing."