As the Washington Redskins prepare for their game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday at Texas Stadium, H-back Craig McEwen is being asked over and over again about the game against the Cowboys last Oct. 19, the game that may have made his career.
It came on that bittersweet Monday night at Texas Stadium when the Redskins replacement team played the game of its brief life, defeating the Cowboys in what, for many, was the final NFL game of their lives.McEwen had seven receptions for 108 yards; four were on important third-down plays, including one for 30 yards and another for 42.
Jack Reilly watched and smiled. As the offensive coordinator at the University of Utah, he had seen McEwen have two years' worth of games like that one. He also had an idea.
A couple of days later, he placed a phone call to his old pal Bobby Beathard.
"I knew that Craig hadn't made the team when he tried out during the pre-season," said Reilly, who became friendly with Beathard when they were in their 20s and playing against each other in an adult touch-football league in Southern California. "I disguised my voice and said to Bobby, `I'm a fan of the Redskins and I think that when you have a player of Craig McEwen's ability, you really ought to know that you should keep him.' I kept going on and on and eventually Bobby figured out it was me and he said, `Well, (McEwen) wasn't prepared well enough in college and when he first got here, he hadn't been able to overcome all of those bad habits. We've got him going in the right direction now.' "
Actually, it was Reilly who got McEwen going in the direction of what now is a starting job with the Redskins. The story begins in December 1984.
Reilly had just left El Camino (Calif.) Community College for Utah. He was told the Utes had several good candidates to play H-back in Reilly's new offensive system. However, when he arrived in Salt Lake City he didn't like what he saw. He remembered that Santa Ana Junior College had a pretty good prospect, so he made a call to another old friend, Santa Ana Coach John Featherstone. Soon, Reilly was headed back to California.
"I went out there, saw Craig on film and decided I wanted to talk to him," recalled Reilly, whose players at El Camino had included Joe Caravello - another Redskins replacement player now on their active roster. "I asked where he was and they said, `He's outside playing basketball.' I went out to watch and I knew right away this guy was a great athlete. He didn't have the greatest shot in the world, but just from the way he moved, I could tell he could play."
McEwen had received no scholarship offers out of high school. While at Santa Ana, the only offer he received was a chance to make Fullerton State's team as a walk-on. Reilly offered him a full scholarship. By February, McEwen was in Salt Lake City.
The trip proved worth the effort. Playing in a system perfect for his size (6 feet 1, 220 pounds) and skill - a system, Reilly said, that is strikingly similar to the Redskins' - McEwen caught 111 passes for 1,099 yards in his two seasons. He also caught the eyes of the Redskins.
"One of their scouts came through here during his senior year and liked him, so Bobby came out," Reilly said. "After he saw Craig, he said to me, `Jack, he can play for us right now.' "
Of course, that did not prove to be the case. McEwen made it to the last cut, but the Redskins decided to keep Clint Didier instead. But then came the strike, a spot on an expanded roster and a season-ending trip to injured reserve. Then, this year, the Redskins decided to keep McEwen instead of Didier.
It has proven prudent. McEwen, who also is the starting holder for place kicks, has made 14 receptions for 144 yards, including five for 50 last week in the Redskins' 24-23 loss to the Giants.
"We cut a pretty good football player for him to make this football team," tight-ends coach Rennie Simmons said. "And he's done a very good job for us. He's performed consistently and steadily."
This comes as no surprise to Reilly. "He has to be in the right style of offense because he's not going to be a dominating tight end," Reilly said. "But he's very bright, has a great understanding of the game, knows how to beat people in different coverages and he has great hands."
However, what Reilly believes has helped McEwen the most is his attitude. "He has the ability to practice and play as if he's doing it out at the playground," Reilly said.
Said McEwen: "That's just my personality. I'm loosely wound. I'm real easygoing. I like to have a good time. Now, when it comes down to game day, there's a little bit different type of attitude. I don't go around smashing chairs or yelling and screaming but, you know, different strokes for different folks."