WASHINGTON _ For Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson, the third time was the charm.
On Sunday his third career interception brought him his first career touchdown, by way of an improbable 88-yard return. Don’t believe the 300-plus pound defensive tackle can run that far in 11 seconds? Big Daddy had 77,621 eyewitnesses leaping out of their seats at Redskins Stadium when Washington defeated Chicago, 48-22.
“What can I say? I’m just a big athlete,” Wilkinson joked after the game.
And for the first time since he came here as a big-money free agent, he made a big-money play. Wilkinson’s “run” was still the talk of the nation’s capital days after the game. For a rare time this season the 5-2 Redskins’ suspect defense made a direct effect on the game.
For Wilkinson, the best description of his startling run came from a teammate, wide receiver Albert Connell, who said: “He was like an old Ford trying to get some gas, trying to rush to the gas station.”
Wilkinson’s run was a team effort. He had the NFL’s one-time fastest man _ Darrell Green by his side. Slipstreaming behind Wilkinson, Green kept would-be tacklers from overtaking and stealing Wilkinson’s moment of glory. A seven-time Pro Bowler who weighs 184 pounds _compared with Wilkinson’s 313 _ Green leads the Redskins with 48 career interceptions. But Green never demanded Wilkinson hand the ball over.
“He was just pushing me along, nudging me a little bit,” Wilkinson said.
In 1994, when he was the Bengals first round draft pick out of Ohio State, Wilkinson didn’t need any nudging to run the 40-yard dash in 4.79 seconds.
“Big Daddy’s got good speed for a big man like that,” said Buckeyes coach John Cooper after watching the play. Added his former coach: “He’s got an awful lot of talent. He should end up being All-Pro sometime.”
Last year, critics blasted Wilkinson and fellow defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield as overpriced free-agent duds. In 1998, Wilkinson signed a five-year, $21.4 million contract. Those who thought the team wasn’t getting its money’s worth carped about the sedentary defense, accusing Wilkinson and Stubblefield of never moving. Critics tagged the pair the “Washington Monuments.”
But, for Wilkinson at least, the slothful image was belied by the statistics. In 1998, Wilkinson had a career-high 60 tackles and led the team with 7.5 sacks. Stubblefield had 41 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
So far this season, Wilkinson has 15 tackles and five sacks and the one interception. But it’s probably still too early to label Big Daddy’s tenure here a success. Despite Wilkinson’s shining moment, the Redskins defense still ranks dead last in the NFL, surrendering 401 yards a game. They have some things to work on “technique-wise,” Wilkinson said.
Redskins coach Norv Turner praised Wilkinson’s “big play” in Sunday’s victory. “The key is to keep growing, and then when it really matters in December and January, you can put a game together when you are hitting on all cylinders,” Turner said.
Washington’s poor defense was the focus of fallout after both Dallas defeats this year. The Cowboys scored 41 points on Sept. 12, and 38 points on Oct. 24. Before the Bears game the defensive players talked about their poor showing, Wilkinson said, and it paid off.
“We had several meetings, just chewing the fat, talking about what we need to do,” Wilkinson said. “As long as we stay mentally sharp and on top of our game, we can go out there and perform like that.”
The Redskins play the Buffalo Bills here on Sunday. Quarterback Doug Flutie should present a different challenge to the rebounding Redskins defense. The fleet Flutie has the speed to run down Wilkinson, or any other defensive lineman, if there’s another interception.
For Wilkinson, this week is just like any other _ another challenge. He said, “We’ve got to continue to build week in and week out.”