American Football: Last laugh for resurgent Redskins

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As recently as five weeks ago, the Washington Redskins were the laughing stock of the National Football League. Under a new coach, Marty Schottenheimer, they were a team in turmoil: their quarterback, Jeff George, was sacked for disruptive behaviour, veteran players raged against their coach's attention to detail, and it seemed the team might not register a single win all season.

A seemingly endless source of material for stand-up comics throughout the US, the laughter has a hollow ring now. On Sunday, the Redskins became the first team in the game's history to win five games in a row after losing their first five, when they manhandled the fancied Philadelphia Eagles 13-3.

Despite enjoying home advantage the Eagles, who had won their last three games, were overwhelmed by Washington's punishing defence, which restricted them to a paltry 186 yards of offense. The Redskins' running back, Ki-Jana Carter, scored his first touchdown in two seasons, while George's replacement, the much-travelled, often-criticised Tony Banks, continued to look assured in his role. The Eagles were never in the game.

"We are not doing anything I did not expect we would do in the first place," said the linebacker Lavar Arrington, one of the stars of his side's compelling defensive effort. "We are just going to keep marching, and we are marching with a grudge. We have a chip on our shoulder."

It will not have escaped the attention of Washington devotees that another of their coaches, Joe Gibbs, lost his first five games when he took charge in 1981. Gibbs won three Super Bowls over the next decade: Schottenheimer, may yet have the last laugh.

All smiles too for the much-maligned Pittsburgh quarterback, Kordell Stewart. Once hailed as the game's next superstar, he has endured three seasons of mediocrity, his talent seemingly destined to remain unfulfilled. A strong showing at the end of last season offered hope, and he has continued the improvement into 2001.

Under Stewart's guidance, Pittsburgh negotiated an awkward trip to Nashville, their 34-24 win over the Tennessee Titans. Stewart threw for a season-high 254 yards, including two touchdowns, and also ran 48 yards for another.

At the beginning of the season, Peyton Manning was regarded as a more likely Super Bowl quarterback, but his Indianapolis Colts have been one of the year's major disappointments. Manning threw for 370 yards in his side's 40-21 humbling at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, but he also gave up four interceptions.

The result effectively terminates Indianapolis aspirations, and may hasten the departure of their coach, Jim Mora. "When you turn the ball over five times, four interceptions, you ain't going to beat anybody," he said. "We threw the game away. It was pitiful, absolutely pitiful."

Unlike soccer, coaching casualties are rare during a gridiron season, but Mora is not the only man facing uncertainty. Tom Coughlin's seven seasons at the helm in Jacksonville seem set to end following the Jaguars' late capitulation against the Baltimore Ravens, while George Seifert's three Super Bowls with San Francisco will cut little ice in Carolina, where the Panthers lost their 10th game in a row, 10-3 against Atlanta. Dick LeBeau may also be seeking employment following the Cincinnati Bengals' lamentable 18-0 effort against the Cleveland Browns.

No such concerns for New England's Bill Belichick. When he lost his quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, early in the season, Patriot hopes looked bleak. Bledsoe's replacement, Tom Brady, has been the surprise of the season, however, and his four touchdown passes helped upset the New Orleans Saints 34-17.