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Hello, Anybody Home?

That's what the fans are asking as the Washington Redskins continue to stumble

Things just haven't been the same in Washington lately. It's not only the White House changing hands, a Democrat there after all those years of Republican occupancy. It's also Duke Zeibert's restaurant being closed. And it's Riggo and the Hogs and the Smurfs leaving town. And the Redskins looking so god-awful.

On Sunday they lost again, this time to the Atlanta Falcons 27-20 before a crowd of 53,238 at Washington's RFK Stadium. As the end neared, 16-year veteran linebacker Monte Coleman stood on the sidelines and implored the home fans to get more involved. He waved a towel over his head. He yelled. He jumped up and down. "The game wasn't out of reach," he said later. "But they didn't respond. Not at all. In the old days the place would have rocked. You would have felt the ground shaking out there. Not anymore."

The old days. That was when the team and its fans were arrogant beyond measure, proud and cocksure, boorish. Back then, everybody went to Duke's for lunch and chattered about the Redskins over big bowls of crunchy pickles and onion bread. They sipped cocktails and relived the glory. The crowd was newspapermen and TV talking heads and Capitol Hill sharps and Beltway lawyers with and without earrings. When they got tired of the food and the chatter, they padded off to the lobby and took a look at the Lombardi Trophys lined up all in a row. The Redskins won three Super Bowls when Joe Gibbs coached them from 1981 to '92, and Jack Kent Cooke, who owns the team, showed off the spoils right there at Duke's. "See there," Zeibert was once heard to say, as if he himself had something to do with it.

But Zeibert lost his lease this summer and closed his doors, and the regulars scattered. It seems a weird coincidence that the D.C. power-lunch crowd lost its favorite roosting place at about the same time the Redskins went all to misery and hell. Maybe Duke's should have closed down last year, when then-coach Richie Petitbon's team stumbled to a 4-12 record, the Redskins' worst in 30 years.

Much has changed, all right, but not Cooke, the eccentric old billionaire who seems stuck in a time warp. After the Redskins lost by 21 points to the Seattle Seahawks in the first game of the season, Cooke momentarily appeared to forget what year it was. "We're going 9-7," he declared. "Mark my words!"

Cooke is one of the richest people on the planet and thus can afford such optimism. But pity Norv Turner, the rookie coach who joined the Redskins in February after Cooke fired Petitbon, and who now finds his team at 1-3. Not that he meant to pressure his new man, but Cooke handed Turner a club with the highest payroll in the NFL (more than $47 million), and one that has been suffering through an identity crisis, at least with the fans. Who are these new guys, these free agents, anyway? And where have Jacoby and Mann and Byner gone?

No, not that he meant to pressure him, but Cooke predicted that Turner would "one day be called one of the greatest coaches in the National Football League."

Having spent the previous three years with Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys, Turner, 42, is no stranger to public gestures that include bear hugs and big, wet kisses. He was as strong a candidate for a big-time NFL coaching job as was available last year, having served so well as Johnson's offensive coordinator. Yet Turner has stepped into a situation that might require more reinventing than rebuilding. The Redskins have at least two dozen players who weren't on last year's squad, and most of Turner's assistant coaches are new.

Except for a few hangers-on like Coleman and defensive back Darrell Green, the great names who contributed so mightily during the Gibbs era have cither retired or moved on to other teams. Yet, curiously, the Redskins haven't gotten any younger. In fact, the average age of the players has increased this year from 26.5 to 27.4.

"Sure, we're a year older," Turner says. "But that's what happens when a year goes by. You get a year older. I'm older, you're older, everybody's older."

One has to wonder whether Cooke and the city of Washington have the patience to give Turner enough time to make things better. Although it is true that few NFL teams enjoy fan support as hysterical as that of the Redskins', it is also true that few fans are as spoiled and whiny.

The Redskins draw mainly from southern Maryland, northern Virginia and the District of Columbia, a region with more than three million people who expect to watch their football team straight through to late January and the Super Bowl. A recent history of winners has made them that way, starting in the mid '70s with George Allen and his Over the Hill Gang.

The Redskins have had sellouts in 207 straight games (not including those played by replacements during the 1987 strike) at RFK since 1966. Some 60,000 people are on the waiting list for season tickets, 4,000 more than the total number of seats available. No wonder Cooke is so anxious to build a new stadium.

Turner says he appreciates everyone's enthusiasm, most especially Cooke's, but he adds somewhat soberly, "I have a pretty good understanding of what we're capable of doing. And I think if you live in a world of fantasy...well, maybe I shouldn't call it fantasy. But if you start thinking I've got some kind of magic and that because I'm here we're going to change this thing overnight—I can tell you, that's just not going to happen. It's a long process."

But how long is long? For some Washingtonians, not very. When the Redskins scored with just under two minutes left on Sunday to cut Atlanta's lead to seven points, less than half the crowd was still around to see it. Everybody else had gone home. "Give me a refund," one man cried in a raw voice.

"Talk to Mr. Cooke," said another.

The band played Hail to the Redskins, but empty seats don't sing. And neither do losers. In the Seahawk game, even Cooke's guests were reported to have left his box early, not wishing to get tied up in the rush of angry traffic, or maybe just afraid of having to deal with their host's disappointment. The desperation to see the Redskins win big again also seems to have spilled over into the press. Two days after the loss to Seattle, Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell pointed a long, admonishing finger at Turner, then wagged it. "Turner looked like a man who'd been thrown out of a plane but hadn't found his rip cord yet," Boswell wrote. He concluded the piece by alluding to Petitbon, now a restaurateur in the D.C. area: "Whatever Turner learns about himself, it still wouldn't be a bad idea to buy a restaurant."

"It was a hard column," says George Solomon, editor of the Post sports section. "But if nothing else, it let Turner know that he was now in the bigs."

If Turner weren't so well-equipped to fight his own battles, one might be inclined to come to his defense and shout at the lusty throngs, "Hey! Give the guy a break!" Boswell's shot, however, didn't seem to intimidate him. "One game isn't an entire season," he said. "Obviously we're judged by what happens on Sunday, but I'm not quite ready to judge us yet."

Lest he forget, this is Washington, and judgment comes crashing down whether you're ready or not. Take quarterback Heath Shuler, for instance. The former Tennessee star was the third player chosen in the 1994 draft, and the Redskins gave him an eight-year, $19.25 million contract. Shuler, if handled properly, could develop into a marquee player, but fans at RFK apparently forgot that when they mercilessly booed him in the preseason. It seemed to them he was taking too long to complete a pass, or maybe they simply didn't appreciate the fact that a 22-year-old greenhorn was making all that money.

One plus for Shuler was that he wasn't playing in a stadium as big as the one in Knoxville, which has nearly twice as many scats as RFK. "First time I walked out here," Shuler says, "I kept looking around and thinking, Where's the upper deck?"

Shuler fared better against the Falcons. He received a rousing ovation when he entered the game, with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, but that might have been because folks were simply tired of sniping at John Friesz, the starter who had thrown three interceptions.

Shuler's popularity is on the upswing, but that could change this Sunday against the Cowboys if he doesn't produce. Washington has no patience with failures. Just look at what happened with Petitbon last year: "Richie," as everybody in the city affectionately called him, was given 10 months to prove his mettle as coach before Cooke canned him. "Sometimes," Cooke said of the '93 season, "I almost wished that I could be sick and have justification for not going to the games."

An invitation to sit in the owner's box at RFK has long been one of the most-prized invitations in town—even more prized, it has been argued, than an invitation to a White House dinner. Washington is a self-important town filled with self-important people, and what's more important on an autumn Sunday afternoon than watching the Redskins alongside the ancient tycoon who owns them? A celebrity football team deserves a celebrity audience, and, boy, does Cooke deliver.

His list of guests generally includes government and media hotshots. Larry L. King, the playwright, is on the A-list, as are political commentators Carl Rowan and George Will, Utah senator Orrin Hatch and former presidential candidates George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes fame used to go with her husband, author Aaron Latham, but they moved to New York a while back. Before each game Cooke and his former wife and current companion, Marlena, a Bolivian beauty some 45 years younger than he, entertain the troops with food and cocktails. Everyone has a blast, unless, of course, you happen to work for the team.

Says Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins' assistant general manager, "I used to sit up there when [former general manager] Bobby Beathard was here. It was tough. I feel sorry for [current G.M.] Charley Casserly because he's got to catch all that nasty stuff. He doesn't know everything that's going on on the field, but he's got to try to answer for it to the boss. The boss says, 'Why would you do that? That's stupid!' And Charley says, 'Urn, uh, um....' And the boss says, 'Spit it out, Charley!' "

Cooke professes to feeling a large sense of responsibility to the city and to its football fans. He wants to give them another winner, and at 81 he doesn't have much time to waste. Washington has professional basketball and hockey teams, but of late both have done nothing but disappoint. Who can recall the last time the Bullets were any good? And while the Capitals do tend to bully their way into the playoffs each year, they always self-destruct in the clutch. Major league baseball fled a long time ago. That makes the Redskins "the only game in town," as Washingtonians are fond of saying. On the day after the Redskins win a Monday night game, the Post sells about 7,000 extra papers. And gobs more people report to work wearing burgundy and gold than they would otherwise.

"There actually are two Washingtons," says Will. "There's the real Washington, made up of people who've lived there for generations and generations. And then there's the conspicuous Washington, the population of transients who go there to work and who turn to the Redskins as a way of attaching themselves to the city. To the extent that a sports franchise can express the hopes of a city, the Redskins are it."

"What makes it so unique around here," says the Post's Solomon, "is that the Redskins are one of the few unifying factors, so there's a lot of intensity directed at them."

Cooke has been negotiating to win approval for a new stadium for several years now, but political opposition has compelled him to move the proposed site for the facility from one area of metropolitan D.C. to another. His latest target is Laurel, Md., some 20 miles north of the city. The 78,600-seat structure would cost about $200 million. But zoning, environmental, traffic and various other hurdles must first be cleared. "It'll happen," Cooke has promised. But the day after Marion Barry won the Democratic primary for mayor on Sept. 13, he called Cooke to say that he believes the Redskins should remain in the District.

Barry is the former three-term mayor who was imprisoned for six months on a misdemeanor narcotics charge after an FBI camera recorded him smoking crack in a D.C. hotel room. Before running into trouble, he was close to completing a deal with Cooke to keep the stadium at home—a deal that went to pieces when a new administration came to power. The issue remains unsettled, but there's no doubting where most fans would choose to have the stadium built. The Redskins are still Washington's team.

"For a long period of time our fans have been treated to winning football," says Jeff Bostic, the former Redskin center who retired in March after 14 years with the team. "It even got to the point where we could win a game and they wouldn't be happy with how we won. There was actually a certain way you had to win. Now what does that tell you about the place?"

Washington is growing restless, but Turner, for one, is undaunted. He and his wife, Nancy, would not have bought' a $700,000 house in Oakton, Va., he says, if "we didn't plan to be here for a while." And all one need do is examine his past to see whether he owns a hide tough enough for a place like Washington.

Turner is the son of an alcoholic ex-Marine who abandoned his family when Turner was two and died about 10 years later. When Turner was eight, his mother, Vicky, learned she had multiple sclerosis. Relying on welfare, she raised five children by herself in public housing in Martinez, Calif., near San Francisco. Turner won a football scholarship at Oregon in 1972 and for a time played quarterback there behind Dan Fouts, the future NFL Hall of Famer. Two of the assistant coaches who helped recruit him were John Robinson and George Seifert, both of whom became NFL head coaches themselves. Turner says he was working as an assistant to Robinson at Southern Cal in the late '70s when one day he looked around and realized that he'd landed in a pretty fair place in the world, far from the one he'd known as a child. "Jesus, I thought to myself, now this is a different deal. There were a lot of very influential people around—alums and whatever—and they all wanted to be around you and you're only 26, 27 years old. And you're thinking to yourself, Now why does this guy care about me?"

Turner doesn't bother to answer the question, for that seems obvious: He was a football coach. And a coach who won.

Turner says he has made only a few trips into D.C. so far, to play at RFK and to eat at restaurants, not to attend any fancy Georgetown soirees. He doesn't know much about Cooke's box, and he's had no introduction to the city's ruling social set. Mention Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn and he shrugs. Mention a couple of the reigning power brokers and his eyes grow dull and flat. "But look," he says finally, "that's one of the reasons why this job was so exciting to me. My Number 1 issue right now is this football team, but as time goes on and we have an opportunity to be here awhile, then some of those other things will be fun and, er, interesting."

For now, anyway, Turner and Cooke seem to be enjoying some measure of bliss in each other's company. "Oh, he's marvelous, a marvelous guy," Cooke says.

"I'm fascinated by Mr. Cooke," Turner says when informed that he is marvelous.

Their relationship probably has a greater chance of sustaining itself if Turner can avoid many more repeats of what happened Sunday against the Falcons, but maybe Cooke is softening. He has been a regular at practice, watching from a red hardback chair on the sideline, his Italian sunglasses giving him the appearance of an aged movie star with a lifetime of secrets to tell.

"I think 44 is a wonderful number," Cooke was saying one day recently as he watched his team train. "John Riggins, you'll recall, wore 44. Yes, 44 is a helluva number. Any of the double numbers is a great number. Twenty-two is great...33, 44, 55, 66—any of the double numbers I think is the best."

Cooke suddenly paused and pointed to a man walking toward him, and a great smile found his face. Cooke even slapped his knee, gave it a nice, hard one.

"That's my pride and joy right there," he said, "and he doesn't have a number on him or anything else."

Who is that, Mr. Cooke?

"Norv. I'm just crazy about him."



Cooke, a regular at practice, would like to dial up a new stadium and, even more urgently, a better team.



The good old days: Allen (lower left) and Cooke (upper left) hobnobbed with the First Fans; the Hogs (top) and the Smurfs were D.C.'s darlings.



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Cooke shared triumph with Gibbs (top) and defeat with Petitbon (center), and he now shares high hopes with Turner (bottom).



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In 1991 all was blissful at RFK—the Super Bowl-bound Skins with the fans, the boss with Marlena.