At Redskin Park eight years ago, Harold McClinton surely sat on the same red bench as his successor, Don Hover, occupied after practice yesterday, talking softly and hopefully about trying to replace another popular middle linebacker. McLinton then spoke of Mo Pottios the way Hover yesterday spoke of McLinton:
"Mixed feelings. I feel bad in a way, but that's the business. Unless he steps down, I don't get my chance. So there's two different feelings."
In the NFL, the bodies come and go but the words essentially remain the same. Except that Hover, like nearly everyone else, was surprised that McLinton would be completely severed from the Redskins.
It was a frustrating fact of life for McLinton that during almost all his 10 pro years, the Redskins were actively trying to find his replacement. Finally, they have found him. Or thought so.
But why not keep McLinton at least as insurance, in case no other team signs him? The major question is not whether Hover is a better player than McLinton but whether McLinton is superior to the apparent backup, Neal Olkewicz.
Because he is young and an eager headhunter on special teams. Olkewicz probably had to be kept on the active roster ahead of McLinton. But what if Hover should be injured seriously, as he nearly was Monday during practice?
It would seem that a player who knows the defense thoroughly and is experienced at the position would be a better choice to move directly into the lineup than an undrafted rookie scarcely larger than a mole.
Let us assume the worst for a moment, that Hover was hurt. A reasonably healthy McLinton would be available in Silver Spring to fill the void and the young tiger could still risk his life running under kicks and learn his new position without hampering the defense.
Historically, NFL teams frequently have hustled one of their former veterans off the street in such a pinch. The Cowboys, with an offensive tackle named Tony Liscio, come immediately to mind.
The Redskins no longer have that option, although it is intriguing that until late yesterday -- a full 24 hours after McLinton was cut -- Coach Jack Pardee thought they did.
Two of the reasons they do not are that McLinton is not hurt seriously and the Redskins refuse to lie about it.
To keep teams from stockpiling players, the NFL has waiver rules that one or two people in the known world understand. One of them is the Redskins' Dick Myers, who when he worked in the league office, once caught George Allen trading a draft choice another team owned.
According to Myers, if the Redskins had waived McLinton as healthy or with an injury that would take at least four weeks to mend, they could have reactivated him at some future date. But the injury McLinton sustained last week against Atlanta is not that serious.
So they played by the rules -- and lost every chance of using McLinton this season.
Still, Pardee was saying late yesterday, "It's my understanding (McLinton) could be activated if he cleared (waivers) twice, if he has a no-cut contract." Then he laughed and said: "I wouldn't bet my life on any of those rules."
Unless Myers has made a rare error, McLinton could not be activated by the Redskins this season if he was the last middle linebacker on earth. That might ultimately prove troublesome.
Just about this paragraph, McLinton might be mustering a smile. Imagine, he could think to himself, one of those rascals who constantly downgraded my play all these years suddenly insisting I could be useful.
McLinton will accept that with the same calm manner he accepted all the criticism.He was that unusual, nearly unique, athlete who could read evil about himself and a few hours later walk up to the reporter and say:
"Hey, go ahead and ask me what you want. I'll talk. I know you're only doing your job."
And McLinton represented the Redskins off the field as proudly and fiersely as he did at middle linebacker. He was the one who could be approached at the last moment for the small reception that paid nothing with the assurance he would attend.
"We kept the seven best linebackers," Pardee said, "the seven best athletes who can help the team right now."
Of the two middle linebackers, who have never played a regular-season down at the position in their NFL lines, Pardee said: "I'm confortable with them."
That was not the scenario many fans and some Redskin insiders had in mind before training camp. They assumed the team would use one of their relatively strong areas, possibly wide receiver, in a trade for an experienced middle or right linebacker.
All of a sudden, the receivers are a problem. General Manager Bobby Beathard and Pardee admitted their first mildly significant personnel misjudgement when they released John McDaniel. He had not cost much, although he was the reason Frank Grant was traded last year. But Beathard was confident he had gotten an exceptional player exceptionally cheap.
He and Pardee have the same feeling about Hover, the eighth-round draftee a year ago who did not play the middle in a conventional pro defense until an all-star game after his final season at Washington State.
Hover is optimistic and also realistic.
"I figured it'd be another two to three years before I'd get the chance to start," he said. "There's pressure, no doubt. They cut a 10-year vet. Not just demoted him. Cut him. And then came out and said I'm the first-team guy.
"I realize what kind of decision it was for them. My job is to prove them right. Sometimes things just fall into place. This time they fell a little sooner than I expected."