Nine weeks ago, the Washington Redskins came to training camp talking about the Super Bowl. Today, with at 1 p.m. game against the Atlanta Falcons at RFK Stadium, they are talking about survival.
"This team faces a crucial test, and it's only the second game of the season," George Allen said yesterday. "It's a big game for us. In my coaching career, I've never gone through this, and a lot of guys haven't either.
"I'm talking about losing the opener and making your second game even more important. It puts more pressure on everyone. And there's no question that Dallas is going to win (against the New York Giants today in Texas.)"
But there remain many questions about a Redskins offense that still has not scored a touchdown in the first period of six preseason and one regular-season games or scored more than two touchdowns in any of those seven contests.
"We've got to come out smoking on Sunday," said veteran wide receiver Charley Taylor. "We've got to go out there and break some noses. We just got to get mean."
The oddsmakers say the Redskins should be sufficiently mean after their opening-game loss to the Giants to be rated a seven-point favorite over the Falcons at RFK. Atlanta will be flying high over a stunning 17-6 victory over the Los Angeles Rams last week. "Those guys can play," said Taylor.
"They're hustling, and they're starting to feel confident about themselves," said Mary Matuszak, a Redskin assistant coach who has scouted the Falcons in every game they've played this year.
The Redskins would seem to have a number of psychological weapons in their arsenal.
The most devastating of all may be the return of cornerback Pat Fischer to the starting lineup. After missing the entire preseason and last week's opener he is making a comeback from a painful pinched nerve in his back.
"If the U.S. government had Pat Fischer," crowed secondary coach Ralph Hawkins, "we wouldn't ever have to worry about Russia or China.
The guy's done an amazing job, and I think he's going to be all right.
"He's moving fine, he'll give us a little more leadership out there and he's a fighting son of a gun. Nah, we haven't had him hit anything. With that kind of guy you just prime him and let 'er rip."
A capacity crowd at RFK Stadium should also provide a lift - as long as battered Billy Kilmer moves the football early on - and George Allen has never lost to the Falcons. In Los Angeles and Washington his teams have compiled a 10-0-1 mark, over Atlanta. The Redskins are 4-0-1 against the Falcons.
Still, the Redskins are not without problems as they enter today's affair. Running back Mike Thomas spent most of yesterday's final 90-minute tuneup resting his sore left leg.
"I just took the day off, it'll be fine," said Thomas. "I'll be there tomorrow, I'll be ready."
Allen was not about to holler "or else" point blank, but he said flatly, "He's going to have to live with that. This is his second week of training camp. I'll see how he is in the warmups. If he's not right, we'll just go with Calvin Hill."
With Thomas still hurtling, John Riggins should have another busy day running the football. Almost forgotten in last week's debacle was Riggins' four-yard rushing average in 20 carries, and two pass receptions, one of them for a touchdown.
This week, however, the Redskins will be facing an Atlanta defense that held the Los Angeles Rams to a mere 59 yards rushing and one first down on the ground and an average gain of 2.8 yards.
The Falcons have gone to an oddman formation up front with defensive tackle Mike Lewis often playing over the center. They also switch to a three-man front, four-linebacker defense on obvious passing situations, and last weel: they blitzed the bejabbers out of Joe Namath and the Rams.
Six times the Falcons sent Ray Easterling steaming toward the quarter-back on a safety blitz, and there should be more of the same against Kilmer, like Namath a quarterback who can't run away and hide.
Kilmer has always had a history of beating blitzing defenses with quick pops over the middle to his tight end and running backs. If he has difficulty moving the ball against Atlanta, the fans in the stands will probably be as hostile as the Falcon front four.
Atlanta's first-year coach, Leeman Bennett, has also installed no-frills, no-flub offense.
"They're not using any fancy plays," said Matuszak, an Atlanta assistant from 1974 to 1976. "The basic difference is that they've gone to a real conservative running game, and they're not making mistakes. They come right at you, and they do a good job of it."
Quarterback Scott Hunter, pressed into service when Steve Bartkowski injured his knee two weeks ago, threw only 17 passes last week, five of them caught by wide receiver Wallace Francis.
Hunter, former Green Bay quarterback the Redskins confused so thoroughly in 1972 when they threw a five-man line at him in the payoffs, is only a 44 per cnt career passer. "He doesn't have the best throwing arm on our team," admitted Bennett. "But he does have a way of moving the team."
The Redskins should have veteran defensive end Ron McDole back in the lineup. He dislocated his right elbow on the second play of the Giant game, but said yesterday "I'll be fine. It's no problem." Redskin trainers will pad the elbow and fit McDole with a special brace so that he will not be able to straighten his arm.
The Redskins would like to take advantage of the Falcons' young oftensive line, a unit that features two rookies, right tackle Warren Bryant and right guard R.C. Thielmann, second-year man Dave Scott at left guard and third-year player Brent Adams at left tackle.
The Rams only got to Hunter twice last week, and even Allen - the man who sneers at rookies - admitted yesterday. "That kid Bryant dominated Jack Youngblood. He really handled him."
"We're trying to approach (the Falcons) like a fresh start," said Taylor. "We've wiped the Giants out of our minds. We open the season on Sunday. I don't think anybody has to get up and make a speech. Nobody has to say a damned thing. We all know what we have to do. And if we don't do it, well, I don't even want to think about it."