The Cleveland Browns, the Redskins' hosts tonight, are a young, improving football team. They were the surprise of the National Football League last season, turning a 3-11 record in 1975 - their worst mark ever - into a 9-5 record in 1976.
Much of the credit for the Browns revival was given to head coach Forrest Gregg, the former Green Bay Packer great, who is entering his third season as coach of the Browns.
Gregg's biggest problem in 1975 was settling on a quarterback. Mike Phipps, the golden boy from Purdue, never seemed to blossom, and Gregg eventually split time between Phipps and Brian Sipe, a 15th-round draft pick in 1972.
But last season Phipps was hurt in the opener against the New York Jets. Sipe took over and has been starting since. Phipps is now in Chicago.
Sipe was voted the Browns' offensive player of the year last season, over two-time 1,000-yard rusher Greg Pruitt. Sipe completed 57 per cent of his passes for over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns.
But he will not have Pruitt to hand off tonight. The jitterbugging little tailback pulled a muscle in his buttock in a scrimmage last Sunday and is listed as extremely questionable.
"Pruitt will start if he's ready but will not play at all unless he is 100 per cent," a Cleveland spokesman said.
If Pruitt does not play, Larry Poole, a third-year pro who picked up 35 yards as a backup in 1976, will start in the backfield with fullback Cleo Miller, who does most of the blocking for Pruitt.
Sipe has an excellent trio of receivers, led by the incomparable Paul Warfield, 34. Warfield caught 38 passes last season for 613 yards and six touchdowns, his best year since 1971.
The double coverage that Warfield often received freed Reggie Rucker, the eight-year pro from Anacostia High School, to catch 49 passes for 678 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Oscar Roan had four TD catches.
Defensively, the Browns are led by veteran All-Pro Jerry Sherk, middle linebacker Bob Babich and a young secondary that came up with 21 interceptions last season. Don Cockroft does all the kicking.
Gregg will start his veterans but has not said how long they will play. Several rookies, most notably defensive backs Bill Armstrong (Wake Forest) and Oliver David (Tennessee State), massive 6-foot-5, 282-pound defensive tackle Robert Simms (South Carolina State) and kick star Walter Payton's older brother from Jackson State) have been impressive in camp thus far.
This will be the fourth time the Browns and Redskins have met in exhibition play. The Redskins won two of the previous meetings, including the last one in 1975, 23-15, in RFK Stadium.
The last time the teams met in the regular season was in 1975 when the Redskins dropped Gregg's first-year record to 0-6 with a 23-7 win in Cleveland. Cleveland, however, leads the series, 31-6-1.
The Browns are expecting 35,000 fans.