NEW SEASON, OLD QUESTIONS Redskins show familiar promise and problems

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- It's easy to get Joe Gibbs agitated.

Just mention to the Washington Redskins coach that his team is being picked -- not only by such sporting publications as Sports Illustrated and Sport but also by Playboy -- to go to the Super Bowl this season.

If you mention it after a frustrating, 24-21 overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns in an exhibition game, he's likely to go ballistic.

Steve Buckhantz of WTTG-TV in Washington found that out two weeks ago in a post-game interview after that Browns game when he started with the somewhat exaggerated comment that, "Everyone [is] saying it's the most talented team we've seen in a long time."

Gibbs said: "That, I might say, is ridiculous. Who did say that?"

Buckhantz replied, "A lot of people have said it."

Gibbs shot back, "Who's a lot of people?"

Buckhantz then made the mistake of saying, "Playboy picked you to go to the Super Bowl."

Now Gibbs was really angry.

"Playboy! Take it for what it is then -- Playboy, OK?" Gibbs said. "Playboy picking football, you know. So anybody that would say this is the most talented team in a long time, Steve, all I'm saying is, that's kind of ridiculous. And I've said it from the beginning. Now people are going to say it -- hey, fine, go ahead and say it. That's kind of absurd. . . . I'm not taking that as a shot at our team. And certainly nobody around here has said that. I don't think that at all. I think we've got a long ways to go, and we haven't won a division here in four years. So, I mean, we've got serious problems, OK? So, I'm just telling everybody that right now. So [if] anybody else thinks that, then they've got my answer on it."

Buckhantz decided it was time to change the subject.

Once Gibbs calmed down, he said he got a bit carried away. After a 13-9 loss to the New York Jets last week, in which the Redskins played even worse than in the Browns game, Gibbs apologized for his team's play and then apologized to Buckhantz in the post-game interview for his tirade the previous week.

Even the team's 1-3 preseason record isn't necessarily a bad omen, even though it was only the second preseason in which Gibbs had posted a losing record. The team went 0-4 in the 1982 exhibition season and won the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, not all observers are convinced great things are in store for the Redskins. Two of USA Today's three prognosticators picked the Redskins fourth in the NFC East.

So what kind of team will the Redskins be?

The best guess is that they'll be much like Redskins teams in past years. They figure to win 10 or 11 games. They've done that in five of the past seven seasons. In the other two seasons, they were 12-4 in 1986 and crashed to 7-9 in 1988.

Consistency is the Redskins' trademark. They're not an awesome team, but they're well-coached and rarely beat themselves.

Of the 47 players on the active roster, only five -- rookies Bobby Wilson and Ricky Ervins, and Plan B players Matt Millen, Terry Hoage and Danny Copeland -- never have played for the Redskins. Even in picking up players off the waiver wire, they found a former Redskin -- tight end Terry Orr.

The questions about the Redskins are the same ones they had last season.

The major one is how far Mark Rypien can take them. He flopped in the playoff game in San Francisco last January when the team got inside the 49ers' 20-yard line three times in the second half and failed to score. He then held out for 10 days in training camp, but played well in the exhibition season until he struggled along with the rest of the team in the finale against the Jets.

"Now's the time to get things going," Rypien said. "I know we're concerned about what's happened in the preseason. We didn't finish as well as [we'd have] liked, but right now that's in the past and we can kind of say that was the past, and if we get off to a good start this week, I think we'll all feel better about it."

This is likely a critical season for Rypien. If he doesn't do it, Gibbs may turn to young Cary Conklin, who caught his eye in preseason.

But Rypien said he doesn't want to think about that.

"I just try to focus on doing what I have to do and things will fall in place," he said. "You get caught up in all of that, and you're not doing the concentrating you like to do. I know as long as I win football games here, that's the most important part. How I play is important, too, because that has a lot to do with the outcome. Consistency is a big key."

He also said he's not putting pressure on himself.

"I think there's always been been pressure," he said. "That's just part of the competitiveness of the sport, the pressure it brings with it. You've just got to learn to put that in the back of your mind and go out and play the way you can."

The other key player on the offense is versatile running back Earnest Byner.

A year ago, the Redskins started off featuring a three-wide-receiver offense, but switched back to their traditional emphasis on the running game in the second half of the season as Byner became the trigger man in the one-back offense and gained 1,219 yards.

He's also going to replace Kelvin Bryant as the third-down back coming out of the backfield.

The Redskins have a spectacular trio of wide receivers in Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders and a solid offensive line, so their fate on offense will come down to how Rypien and Byner perform.

On defense, Charles Mann is being counted on to come back from knee surgery and provide a pass rush. Tim Johnson and Eric Williams, obtained in trades last year, are supposed to stop the run in the middle with help from Millen at middle linebacker.

Andre Collins and Wilber Marshall have switched roles at the outside linebacker slots.

The secondary is the key question mark. Darrell Green is one of the best at one corner, but Martin Mayhew has struggled on the other corner. He'll have to do the job until A.J. Johnson returns from the injury list.

Then there's what may be the most important question: Do the Redskins play with enough emotion to go back to the Super Bowl?

Gibbs has put together the kind of team he likes, a businesslike, colorless team that just does its job. But it sometimes seem to lack the spark it had when Joe Theismann was at quarterback, John Riggins was the Diesel and Pete Cronan was a terror on special teams. The team doesn't seem to have much leadership, although Millen may help in that category.

Gibbs said the team has leaders.

"I think that your leaders come from guys who produce, work hard and have something inside of them so other players know they're going to be laying it on the line, and they have that ability to make plays and stand up to get other people to follow them," he said. "In the past, we had more vocal guys, but I think all of our older guys, Joe Jacoby, Jeff Bostic, Donnie Warren, Art Monk, all those guys are guys who've been to Super Bowls. I think they're leaders and they're the guys who set the example for us."

The cycle theory

If you want to figure out which team is going to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, just follow the cycle. This simple formula has worked three times in the past four years because three teams -- the Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants -- have made it every four years.

The Redskins did it in 1983-87, the 49ers in 1984-88 and the Giants in 1986-90.

The only team to break the cycle was the Chicago Bears, who went in 1985, but flopped to 6-10 in 1989, the year the 49ers became the only team in a decade to repeat.

If you follow the cycle, it's the Redskins' turn to go again this season.

Years.. .. ..Super Bowl winner

1983, 87.. ..Redskins

1984, 88.. ..49ers

1985, 89.. ..Bears, 49ers

1986, 90.. ..Giants

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