WASHINGTON -- The Redskins left the ballpark happily confused yesterday, which was a marked improvement over their last game against Dallas, when they left sadly confused.
Nobody really knows which Redskins are the real Redskins, or if the real Redskins even exist.
They don't simply win, lose, win, lose. Anyone can do that. They crush good teams after getting crushed by bad ones, and what does that make them?
"The kind of team," says Jeff Bostic, "that drives a coach crazy. We're like a ride at Kings Dominion -- up and down."
They're the kind of team that you can't figure. They drive coaches, fans and oddsmakers crazy. They're the kind of team where the players can say, after a 42-20 win like yesterday's over Miami, that they could go to the Super Bowl this season, and, though tempted, you can't really laugh. (That's because I make a practice never to laugh at guys whose wrists are bigger than my thighs.)
"The potential is there," Russ Grimm said, weighing in at 275. "You can see the potential."
You can see a lot of potential, but not all of it for good. The Redskins are a team with a decent, but hardly great, defense (but good enough to shut down Dan Marino yesterday), complemented by an unpredictable, but erratic, offense. Among the Redskins, they talk about all the talent there is on the offense, and how many weeks it goes wasted.
"It's a shame," said Gary Clark, the talented wide receiver. "We just can't seem to put it together week after week. We're a better team than that."
After a game like the one yesterday, you wonder if he's right, that maybe the Redskins are better than their 7-5, going-to-the-playoffs-but-barely record. But if you believe that, you probably have to believe in Earnest Byner, too.
Byner is a 28-year-old journeyman running back who is most famous for making huge mistakes in big games when he played for Cleveland. Before yesterday, his most memorable moment as a Redskin was a dropped pass in the end zone against the Giants. But there he was yesterday, the horse for which Joe Gibbs would gladly trade his kingdom, running 32 times for 157 yards against a Miami team that was, statistically, anyway, the best defense in the league.
Nothing could have cheered Joe Gibbs more. It doesn't take much to win a coach's heart. If you're a running back and go 30 times a game, the next thing you know, you're going steady. Gibbs wants Byner to wear his ring. He wants to run him 30 times every week. Gibbs wants to wake up each morning and look at Byner and see John Riggins. He'd love to hear Byner say, "Loosen up, Joey baby."
Since he can't have Riggins, Gibbs traded last season for Gerald Riggs (the spelling was close) and for Byner, hoping to give himself two chances to find one runner. But Riggs is back on the injured-reserve list. Other runners include Kelvin Bryant, who is a third-down back, and Brian Mitchell, a rookie who is running back punts. That pretty much leaves Byner.
"Earnest came to me last night and said, 'Hey Joe, I just want you to know I want to carry the load.' " Gibbs said yesterday. "He laughed. I said, 'In case you didn't know it, you're the only one around here who's left.' That is the truth."
He was the man yesterday. The aging offensive line opened up big holes, and Byner, when he didn't find a hole right away, cut back and found another one. He was cutting and slashing, and the Redskins were punishing the Dolphins.
Bostic, the Redskins' center, wasn't surprised by the turn of events. Nor was he impressed with the Dolphins' statistics.
Certainly, the holes were there (Mitchell, in reserve, ran for 36 yards on seven carries), but Byner had to find them. He found them two weeks ago against New Orleans, in another impressive Redskins victory. When the Redskins can mount a running attack, the pressure on quarterback Mark Rypien (21-for-28, 245 yards) is measurably reduced, and suddenly the offense looks like an offense.
For Byner's part, he wants as much to succeed as Gibbs wants him to succeed. He's a hard-working back who isn't afraid of punishment, the kind of determined, guts-on-the-ground player for whom coaches root.
"If it takes 30 times running the ball," Byner said, "give it to me 30 times. I want the ball. When Riggs was injured, there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders. But I want the pressure."
He wants the pressure; he wants the ball. But can he produce often and well enough to take the Redskins very far into the playoffs? The same question applies to the entire offense. And forget the playoffs. Can they even do it two weeks in a row? This Sunday, the Bears come to town in another game that would help determine what kind of team the Redskins are.
"I'm not going to brag on this one," Grimm said. "One week we're up, and the next week we're down. The tough thing is to see what we do this week against another good team. If we win that one, it will say something about what kind of team we have."
The truth is that through 12 games, no one has any idea.