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After Gibbs' worst preseason, things are falling into place for Redskins


You are Joe Gibbs. You haven't won your division in four years. You haven't beaten the New York Giants in four years, either, which is no coincidence. You have characterized this past preseason as the worst of your 11 in Washington.

If you are Joe Gibbs, though, and you coach the Redskins, things are suddenly looking good. Very good.

This is why:

* Your three top challengers for NFC supremacy are all going with different quarterbacks this season. Joe Montana is sidelined by a torn elbow tendon in San Francisco. Phil Simms is doing backup duty for the Giants. And Randall Cunningham is gone for the season in Philadelphia after knee surgery. In their absence, you would face Steve Young, Jeff Hostetler and Jim McMahon.

* Your offense may be the most balanced, most potent in the NFL. You can pound it (see Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs, Ricky Ervins) or pass it (see Art Monk, Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders).

* Your quarterback is erratic, but nevertheless has a winning percentage of .656 in 32 career starts. That is fifth-best among active QBs behind Montana, McMahon, Mike

Tomczak and Jay Schroeder. Mark Rypien knows this is his make-or-break year in Washington.

* You have one of the game's premier place-kickers in Chip Lohmiller, who normally is good for up to 55 yards.

* Your team has won the first two games of the season for the first time since 1986. It ravaged Detroit 45-0 and then came from behind to take a 33-31 victory over the vastly improved Dallas Cowboys in their stadium.

It is only two weeks into the season, but these are all good signs for the Redskins, who normally start slowly. "This was a big game," Rypien said after Dallas. "We always make a strong stretch drive at the end. Getting off to a good start is one of the things we stressed this year."

Even Washington's one weakness, its pass defense, has its silver lining. That would be the play of Darrell Green, perhaps the best cornerback in football today, and the coaching of Richie Petitbon, one of the finest coordinators. It's a defense that could jell by playoff time.

So, if you are Joe Gibbs, and if Phil Simms doesn't reclaim his job, and if Joe Montana doesn't come back, this could be a Super Bowl season in the nation's capital.

* STATE OF MONTANA: Despite all the doom-and-disaster stories coming out of the West Coast, Montana is on schedule to test his injured right elbow late next week. The 49ers' quarterback has been the subject of much speculation in recent weeks, including reports he has torn ligaments (not true).

Montana injured his arm in August when a tendon tore away from the elbow. Even with cortisone shots, the pain was too much for him to play. Rest was prescribed. To ensure he did not rush back and risk further damage, the 49ers placed Montana on injured reserve.

Since then, there has been improvement in the arm. But neither the doctors nor Montana will know whether he can play this season until he tests the arm next week. If the elbow does not respond to rest, the next option is surgery, and that would effectively end his season.

To count Montana out at this point, though, appears foolhardy. This is the same guy who had back surgery early in the 1986 season and came back to finish the season. In 1987, he threw 31 touchdown passes.

* THE MORE THINGS CHANGE: This was what has transpired in Indianapolis, where the Colts have started the season 0-2 for the seventh straight year: Eric Dickerson shoved a reporter for asking him about his return to Los Angeles for next week's game against the Raiders; general manager Jim Irsay reportedly had to dissuade owner Bob Irsay from firing coach Ron Meyer after a season-opening loss to the pitiful Patriots (a report young Irsay denied); the players held a players-only meeting.

Said Meyer, "As Moses said when he arrived at the Red Sea, what we need here is a miracle."

* AUDIBLES: Monday Night Mismatch: Warren Moon, who passed for 527 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-10 victory over Kansas City last season, vs. the Chiefs' depleted secondary in Houston's Astrodome this week. Safety Kevin Porter is the only non-ailing defender in the secondary for the Chiefs . . . Cowboys wide receiver Kelvin Martin, who fumbled a punt that led to Washington's first score last Monday night, will no longer ,, return punts . . . With the acquisition of 315-pound tackle Irv Pankey (of Aberdeen), the Colts' offensive line will average 317 pounds. That includes left guard Bubba Paris (325), center Ray Donaldson (300), right guard Zefross Moss (338) and right tackle Kevin Call (308). Maybe that will help Dickerson, who has an average gain of 3.6 and a total of 124 yards on the ground so far.

Miami coach Don Shula's next victory -- against Detroit on Sunday -- will be the 300th of his career . . . Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert is 12-0 against AFC teams and the 49ers have won their last 10 games against the other conference . . . Dolphins running back Mark Higgs has rushed for 257 yards in two games. In three previous NFL seasons, he rushed for 251 . . . 49ers' Jerry Rice is the latest to receive a $500 fine for excessive celebration. His crime: exchanging high-fives with 49ers fans after a touchdown against the Chargers. It's a penalty that has to go . . . The Redskins have won 15 of 17 games the week after a Monday night outing.

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