The Washington Redskins flew into New Jersey today for a rare practice in what George Allen described as "enemy territory." "Worried? You're darned right I'm worried," Allen insisted. "I'm always worried."
So nothing really has changed as the Redskins finished up their final preparations to begin the 1977 season with a 1 p.m. game Sunday against the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. A capacity crowd of 76,000 is expected and the game will be televised by WTOP-TV-9.
The head coach is still a bundle of nerves. The quarterback, Billy Kilmer, has a sore knee and an ashy back but will start. And the starting tailback, Mike Thomas, will probably limp on and off the field all day because he is still not totally in shape to play a full game.
But the oddsmakers say the Redskins are favored ny four points over a Giant team that lost 11 of its 14 games in 1976, dropped five of six in the preseason and will start a rookie quarterback against a veteran defense that thrives on confusing peach-fuzz passers.
Still, Allen is leaving nothing to chance. He has never lost an opening game in 11 seasons as an NFL head coach. And if a practice in the Meadowlands, with its artificial turf and higher-than-normal crown, will assure No. 12, nothing could keep Allen away.
"It's something we always did in Los Angeles, and we had the best road record in the league for five years," Allen said today. "I just want them to check the field out. We laid an egg here last year. I want our quarterbacks to get the feel of it. I want them all to be familiar with the scene of the battle."
A year ago, the Redskins won the statistical battle against the Giants, but lost the war when a last-minute Joe Theismann pass from the New York seven intended for Thomas was intercepted in the end zone by Jim Stienke.
The Giants prevailed, 12-9, for their first victory of the season, and the Redskins were in the pits with a 6-4 record. Clearly it was the lowest point of the 1976 season, and the Redskins, who won their final four in 1976, have not forgotten.
"You have to remember a game like that," said safety Ken Houston. "But we're not going there for revenge. We're going there to win a football game. That game left a bitter taste, no question. I'm sure George will remind us about it, too."
The Redskins do not have to be reminded that they have hardly been a dominant team in the preseason, despite a 4-2 record in exhibition games. And they also enter their seventh season under Allen with a number of nagging problems.
Thomas, the tender tailback, has had only three full practices this week to get in shape. Although he insisted today. "I haven't felt this good in a long time," Allen knows Thomas' left hamstring could pop any time.
"I'd be satisfied if he could play a half, a good half." Allen said. "I expect a couple of big plays from him. But we'll play it by ear. He'll probably be in and out."
"I've had no pain this week," Thomas said. "I feel 100 per cent. But I have had a little trouble with conditioning. I'll probably need a breather here and there, but I'd like to play as long as possible."
Without Thomas, their only quick back, the Redskins had difficulty moving the football consistently in the preseason. They did not score more than two touchdowns in any one exhibition game, and the offense constantly broke down because of missed blocks, dropped passes and untimely penalties.
"I still feel good about our offense," said Kilmer, the man who must make it go. "We've always had a history of not moving the ball in the preseason, but we always got it going when it counted.
"Our offensive line has played together all through training camp. Charley Taylor's going to help the passing game. Mike Thomas looks ready to play and John Riggins, is too.
"I'm not worried about it. But I do know this, the key to the Giants is their defensive line. If we don't control those guys, it's going to be a long afternoon."
The Giants, who will start Jerry Golsteyn at quarterback, scored only 72 points in the preseason, 21 of the last week against Miami.
Still, they are catching the Redskins at a time when their chief defensive signal-caller, Chris Hanburger, is still resting in Arlington Hospital recovering from an appendectomy on Sept. 1. And cornerback Pat Fischer will spend most of the day on the bench because his back is still not ready for 60 minutes of pounding. Fischer is coming back from a pinched nerve in his lower back.
Mike Curtis, a 12-year veteran, will replace Hanburger at outside linebacker. He has had only one week of practice to become familiar with the Redskins' complex defenses, though Allen said today, "I'm not worried about Mike. He's a real pro and he'll do a fine job."
There is more concern about Fischer's replacement, second-year man Gerard Williams. In the preseason, Williams was either very good or very bad, and Golsteyn is sure to test him early and often.
Golsteyn spent all of 1976 on the Giants' injured reserve list with a bad knee.He beat out five other quarterbacks for Sunday's starting assignment, and the Redskins insist they are not anticipating a confrontation with the kid.
"Every time I think about rookie quarterbacks I think about what Clint Longley did to us in Dallas," said Houston.
"This guy hasn't been in the league long enough to know fear. Even if you're in perfect coverage, he just might try and throw it in there anyway, and he just might complete it. The old guys, well, you pretty know what they're going to do. The rookies are unpredictable, and that's what scares me.
Golsteyn completed 45 per cent of his passes in the preseason, including a 9-for-15 performance last week against the Dolphins for 138 yards and one touchdown.
The Ginats have not given their quarterbacks must time to throw, however. The offensive line yielded 23 sacks in six exhibition games, and that should be good news for a Redskin pass rush that has not been overpowering in the preseason.
Giant running backs have been mediocre at best in the preseason, particularly fulback Larry Csonka, who averaged 2.9 yards a carry. He will be used mostly to block, and the Giants usually pair him with 240-pound Willie Spencer, cut earlier in preseason by the Redskins, in short-yardage situations. They call it the "tractor-trailer" backfield.
The Giant wide receivers are not exceptional, although tight end Bob Tucker is one of the most underrated players at the position in the NFL. He will be a target often today, as will Giant running backs.
A year ago, the Giants finished 22d of 28 NFL teams in total offense, and they only managed 250 yards a game in the preseason. The defense, ranked 16th in 1976, allowed opponents an average of 341 yards a game during the exhibition season.
"I know the statistics don't show it, but they've got a good defense," Allen insisted. "They've been using a lot of players, so that doesn't mean a thing.
"I think we're in pretty good shape, at least in everything we can control. We've had a good week of practice, and I think they're ready to play. They have to be. We have to play our best game to date as a team."