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The Washington Redskins get ready for the Dallas Cowboys

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 12:32 AM

The week leading up to the Dallas game is a flurry of activity in every corner of Redskins Park, from the locker room to the owner's office to the video room. Days start early and end late.

Trying to distance themselves from a disappointing stretch of team history, standing at the start of the Mike Shanahan era, the Redskins prepare for a game they hope will set the tone for the weeks, months and years to come.

Monday: The Camera guy

For Mike Bracken, Dallas week is over before it even starts.

He arrives at Redskins Park around dawn. While the players have a practice later in the day, Bracken, in his seventh year as head of the team's video department, and his staff have already prepped hours of Cowboys' footage for the coaches.

"We're already working on Houston and St. Louis," said Bracken, himself a former player at Lycoming College, a Division III school in Pennsylvania. "We're about two weeks ahead of the coaches."

Bracken's work space is like something stolen from a sci-fi set. Monitors, laptops and computer equipment fill the room. Every NFL game dating back to 2007 is available on the team's servers. There also are tapes of every league game since 2006 and every Redskins' game since 1985.

Bracken and his staff have to marry statistics and details of every play with two video feeds - a sideline camera and one stationed in the end zone. They never rely on the network footage that fans see on highlight shows. The video is then turned over to assistant coaches Sean McVay and Kirk Olivadotti, who input details such as formation and personnel groupings

Coaches can access this footage on the computers in their offices upstairs and sort it in every way imaginable: third-and-long situations, blitz packages or every red-zone play the Cowboys have run under Coach Wade Phillips. With younger, computer-savvy coaches on this year's staff, video is integral to game-planning.

"They're big video watchers. I don't want to say other staffs weren't, but I think these guys really try to push the limits of our computer system," Bracken says. "They're very good at it."

The video crew also staffs each practice session, manning cameras and recording every second. About midway through practice, Bobby Slowik, one of Bracken's assistants and the son of Bob Slowik, the team's secondary coach, races inside and begins editing the footage. About 10 minutes after practice is finished, the video is already available for coaches to review.

Tuesday: The GM

On the ground floor of the Loudoun County government building in Leesburg, Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen waits for the Board of Supervisors meeting to begin when he spots a display case in the lobby that features a Redskins helmet.

"It's autographed," he says. "I wonder who they got."

As Allen looks closer, he sees that it's actually his signature on the helmet.

While Shanahan runs practices, part of Allen's job is to serve as a public face for the franchise, attending rallies, charitable events and government meetings. In the Board of Supervisors' chambers, a proclamation is read declaring this "Redskins Kickoff Week." Allen addresses the crowd, saying, "We're teaching a new generation of Redskins players and a new coach what this rivalry means to the community."

Allen understands the rivalry better than perhaps anyone at Redskins Park. His father, George, coached the Redskins from 1971-77, and Bruce grew up on the sidelines, hating the team across the field. Time did little to change things.

"You always have feelings," Allen said. "They don't go away. I was just like every other kid in the Washington metropolitan area. It's Dallas week. You have to win."

Allen spends the week working the telephones, talking to scouts and the personnel department about recently-released players across the league. Depending on whom you want to believe, Allen also spent some time talking with the Tennessee Titans about trading defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Allen, though, denies this.

He does a couple of radio interviews and visits team functions, such as the one Wednesday night at an Arlington bar involving a couple dozen Redskins alums. This is when Allen is really in his element. The players remember him as a kid running around the practice field, and he remembers them as giants of the game.

Over the noise, he yells at four-time Pro Bowl running back Larry Brown to take the stage. Brown quickly hits a hole and cuts through the room. Allen soon takes the stage himself, grabs a microphone and surveys the players behind him, former greats like Gary Clark and Charles Mann.

"One of the reasons that this franchise is put on Sunday night TV is thanks to the contributions of these great players, who have made the Redskins a dominant team in NFL history," Allen says. "And gentlemen, on behalf of the organization, thank you so much. Because if we could line up with these guys, I promise Larry Brown's got another 30 runs in him and we'd kick their ass."

Wednesday: The first-year wide receiver

At 6:20 a.m., the alarm clock on Anthony Armstrong's cellphone went off. The first-year wide receiver didn't know for certain until just a few days ago that he'd be a part of the Redskins' 53-man roster, so he's still living in a nearby hotel.

Armstrong reaches Redskins Park within the hour, has breakfast there and squeezes in a hot tub session before Cowboys' preparations formally begin.

Armstrong is originally from Carrollton, Texas, on the outskirts of Dallas, attended college at West Texas A&M, played with the Odessa franchise in the Intense Football League and then with the Dallas team in the Arena League. He was born and bred a Cowboys' fan.

"I remember when I first got here, I remember Santana [Moss] caught those two touchdown passes from [Mark] Brunell," Armstrong said with a smile, recalling the Redskins' 14-13 win in 2005. "I told him I was pretty upset with him. It took me a while to get to like him."

Armstrong now holds bitter feelings for his childhood love because the Cowboys never gave him a shot. Dallas' Arena team was owned by Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner, and its head coach, Will McClay, also worked in the Cowboys' scouting department. The Cowboys, he said, had every opportunity to bring Armstrong aboard but never gave him a look.

At 8 a.m., Armstrong begins more than two hours of meetings. He receives a binder containing the week's game plan and a DVD the video staff prepared specifically for the wide receivers.

All the while, his phone lights up with text messages and his Facebook page receives new wall posts. Friends and family deliver the same message: We hope you have a good game, and the Cowboys still win.

"They're basically ganging up on me," says Armstrong, who w ill be making his NFL debut if the coaches include him in Sunday's game plan. "I enjoy that underdog role, fight your way out of the corner type thing. I'm ready."

At 27, Armstrong is the oldest first-year player on the roster. As a practice squad player in 2009, he didn't have to study the Redskins' gameplan each week, but now he takes the binder home each night and reads everything multiple times. Sunday's game is important, he says, for more than a few reasons.

"I just remember they were real heartfelt games, very physical, and they just meant a lot to both cities," he says. "Being on this side, it will be little bit different, but it's going to be fun."

Thursday: The laundry guy

As the team's afternoon practice ends, the laundry bins in the locker room fill up quickly. Sixty-one players make a mess. Three men clean it up each day.

The equipment room is where the trouble-shooting occurs - helmets are fixed, new shoes found, pads sanitized. Every request is fulfilled. Brad Berlin's office is separated from the room by a giant window. Berlin is in his 10th year with the team and oversees all aspects of its equipment and locker room, which is a lot more complex than it sounds.

Berlin arrives each morning by 6 a.m. Shortly after Shanahan was hired in January, Berlin tried for several days to beat the head coach into the office. He finally managed it on his fourth or fifth attempt, showing up before 4 a.m.

"That afternoon in Danny Smith's office, I made the mistake of saying, 'Coach, I beat you to work today,' " Berlin said. "He chuckled. And it didn't happen again. He's always here."

With just three days remaining before game day, Berlin and his three-man staff have mostly completed filling five dozen trunks with equipment that will be shipped to FedEx Field. They include everything from the footballs - the team must supply 24 for each home game - to trainers' equipment to the head coach's wardrobe. "We could conduct minor surgery with the stuff that we take," Berlin said.

On Sunday, Berlin has 100 people to outfit. Only 53 of them are players. In Shanahan's office at FedEx Field, Berlin will hang five to six outfits and allow the coach to choose what he wants to wear on the sidelines.

"Weather is the biggest obstacle we face," he said. "Rain changes everything, more than anyone can imagine. It changes what everyone wears, changes shoes, changes gloves. We got to have more footballs, more everything. It's a nightmare."

The equipment area is really a series of storage rooms. There are more than 1,000 footballs in unopened boxes. One wall features shoes piled from floor to ceiling. On any given Sunday, around 40 of the 53 players will want a brand new pair of cleats. Three years' worth of game uniforms hang along one wall, and helmets and face masks fill another room. (Little-known fact: the paint on a Redskins' helmet isn't technically burgundy. It's called "pearl cardinal metallic.")

The equipment staff also helps run practice. Shanahan gives them a script, and they've got to make sure that for each play, the ball is in a certain spot and the appropriate players are wearing beanies on their helmets or colored jerseys to represent specific players on the opposing team.

It costs about $800 to outfit each player - from the custom-made pads to the helmet to the gloves and shoes. And, of course, the jersey. Even as the game draws near, complications can arise.

On Wednesday, Allen called Berlin and told him that rookie tackle Trent Williams would like to change from No. 72 to his old college number, 71.

Berlin called the league for permission. The league called Reebok, the manufacturer for the okay. Then the league called back Berlin and gave him the go-ahead.

Berlin had to order new nameplates for Williams' locker, prep a new practice jersey, change the number on all of his shoes and make sure he had shorts in Size 4XL with 71 already stitched on the side. Then he had to call his seamstress in Falls Church and ask her to stitch "WILLIAMS" on a No. 71 jersey by Friday.

Williams's is the last of the team's jerseys that Berlin waits on.

Friday: The owner

Traffic is bad and Daniel Snyder, in his 12th year as owner of the Redskins, is running late. He's due to speak at a high school pep rally in Leesburg at 3:30 p.m. Not that he needed anything else to pluck at his nerves this week. With each passing day, Snyder can feel the season growing closer.

"I'll be a mess on Sunday," he says.

Every season opener is important. But for this one, he has a new head coach, new general manager and a new quarterback. Plus, it's Dallas.

Snyder publicly says all the right things, but as a lifelong Redskins fan, it's not hard to figure out his feelings about the rivalry with the Cowboys. In his Tysons Corner office hangs an Associated Press photograph of former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. In the photo, Parcells stares at the field and the scoreboard glows brightly in the background: only 14 seconds remain and the Redskins lead, 35-7.

The photo is from December 2005. It helped launch Washington into the playoffs and marked the most one-sided Redskins' win in the 50-year history of the rivalry. It's also among the biggest victories of Snyder's tenure as owner.

"That was a great game," Snyder says.

At Heritage High, the pep rally has already begun. An ESPN camera crew is present, filming an upcoming "E:60" feature on the owner, as Snyder is ushered into the gym. Cheerleaders scream and the band plays as Snyder grabs the microphone. He stands in the middle of the gym floor, yet still looks as if he's trying to hide.

He speaks for less than a minute and gets a loud ovation from the students.

"Now you all go win that game for the Redskins," he says. "And cheer hard for us to beat them Cowboys, right?"

Saturday: The head coach

Sentimentality is for greeting cards; Shanahan is clinical in his approach to Sunday's game, as he is to everything. How does he feel? Better question: What does he think?

"I think you look forward to it," he says of his first regular season game on an NFL sideline since he was fired as Denver's head coach 20 months ago. "You're just like the players - your stomach is turning and you look forward to this opportunity."

He again shows up early at Redskins Park, around 5:30 a.m., and when his players finally arrive, he leads them through a brief walk-through practice at 10:10 a.m. Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the team's offensive coordinator, will script out the first 15 plays of Sunday's game. The players should know what play they're running before they even reach the huddle.

Most players leave Redskins Park by 11 a.m., with the marching band, cheerleaders and a few dozen fans cheering them as they drive off the property.

Shanahan hangs around. At 11, he has a production meeting with NBC's Andrea Kremer, the sideline reporter for Sunday's game. As Kremer quizzes Shanahan, an area moving company has backed its truck against the building. Sixty trunks - about 20,000 pounds worth of equipment - are loaded up. And by noon, the truck hits the road.

The next stop: FedEx Field, 55 miles away. And beyond that? The Redskins are eager to find out.

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