- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

So I return from my Rental Unit on the Jersey shore — Melanoma by the Sea, we call it — to find Redskins fans once again sifting through the tea leaves of training camp, obsessing about the True Meaning of a 28-3 loss to the Rams in August.

As if there was one.

It’s a waste of time and energy, this angst about the Redskins’ preseason — about whether it’s had too much yin or not enough yang. Fact is, you can’t tell much of anything about a team from its exhibition results. Clubs go 0-4 and end up winning the Super Bowl. Clubs go 4-0 and end up vying for the first pick in the draft. Often as not, the preseason is one big misdirection play.

So while Joe Gibbs might be looking a little grim these days in the aftermath of the St. Louis Slaughter, rest assured he knows the score. He knows that trying to translate training camp performance into regular season wins and losses is like trying to translate hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone.

“I’ve never been able to do it,” he said yesterday. “There are so many variables in the preseason, as we all know. It’s hard to get a real handle on a team.”

Of course, that’s what he says now. In his first go-round as Redskins coach, the ebb and flow of the exhibition season used to drive him crazy. (Not that there was all that much ebb.) In August of ‘91, he was about as exasperated as I’ve ever seen him after his team sleepwalked through its last two preseason games. He felt the pieces were in place for another title run, but those pieces were playing more like pawns than rooks and bishops.

The veterans, however, didn’t share his anxiety. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We’ll be ready when the bell rings.” And when the bell rang Sept.1 for a Sunday night game at RFK Stadium, the final score was Washington 45, Detroit 0.

That was the Redskins team that flirted with a perfect season, winning its first 11 games and shutting out three of its first five opponents. In the NFL, you just never know.

It’s the league, let’s not forget, that’s responsible for this situation, that’s turned the preseason into an exercise in ennui. In the old days, exhibition games were played with considerably more zest — and for good reason. There were still tickets to be sold, usually, and teams wanted to inspire their followers to reach for their wallets.

In the ‘50s and even into the ‘60s, it wasn’t unusual for starters to play an entire preseason game — and rack up 100 yards rushing or 200 yards passing. The Rams once scored 70 points against the Colts in an exhibition game … and Los Angeles coach Joe Stydahar said he would have put up 100 if he could have.

The Rams had offensive talent coming out of their, uh, horns back then and liked to show it off, no matter what the circumstances. In the ‘56 preseason, they hung 69 points on the Cardinals; in two ‘57 exhibitions, they ran up totals of 63 (vs. the Cards again) and 58 (vs. the 49ers). Now that’s preseason entertainment.

They played for keeps, the old-timers did, be it August or December. Rosters were smaller, jobs scarcer, and there was little holding back. One of the fiercer brawls in NFL history broke out during an exhibition game in 1954 between the Niners and Eagles (a continuation of their free-for-all in the ‘53 regular-season opener). The hand-to-hand combat got so spirited, one of the participants told me, “they turned out the lights and started playing the national anthem.”

Nowadays, the regulars are on the bench not long after the national anthem. By the second half, the game has turned into a veritable rookie scrimmage — if not an NFL Europe affair between the Scottish Claymores and the Amsterdam Admirals. And coaches wonder why players aren’t especially stoked for these affairs. It all starts at the top, fellas, with show-‘em-nothing game plans, quick hooks for first-stringers and a preference for Boring over Scoring.

Mercifully, the preliminaries will be over Friday night and the Redskins can begin preparing for the real games. Mark Brunell, their newly anointed starting quarterback, is undeterred by anything he’s seen thus far. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been through a preseason where there hasn’t been ebb and flow,” he said.

Ups (like the Miami win) and downs (like the Rams loss), Brunell realizes, are as much a part of August as heat prostration. We won’t really start finding out about this Redskins team until Sept.12, when the Tampa Bay Bucs sail into town. Everything else is just talk.

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