In the most stunning move of the preseason, the Redskins cut Pro Bowl kick returned Tony Green yesterday.
According to team sources, Green's unexpected departure after a sensational rookie season came when it was apparent to the coaches during exhibition games that he had lost his courage for heavy contact. Last year, he had been the team's major big-play threat.
"We kept waiting for him to show something," said Coach Jack Pardee. "But with the new preseason schedule and format the way it is, we didn't have more time. Yes, it's a major disappointment. We had high hopes Tony would develop even more as a returner and a running back."
In reducing the roster temporarily to the season limit of 45, Washington also cut veteran defensive back Gerard Williams, kicker Nick Lowery, and guards Fred Dean and Gary Anderson, who has a badly sprained ankle, was placed on injured reserve.
Pardee said the Redskins most likely would bring in free agent back Buddy Hardeman, who was cut last week, to fill Green's spot as the top returner, unless a better player unexpectedly pops up on this week's waiver lists. Pardee said the club probably will add a fourth wide receiver before Friday.
Even with Hardeman, who played two years in the Canadian Football League, the Redskins are left with only cornerback Lemar Parrish having NFL experience as a return man. Pardee will not risk him in that position, however.
Halfback Ike Forte presently is listed as the No. 1 kick returner, although he said yesterday he hadn't brought back punts "since I was in high school."
In another unexpected decision, Pardee said he will close practice all week for the first time since he took over the team last year. For the season opener against Houston, he said, the Redskins were putting in some changes "and what you (reporters) don't see, you won't have to talk about."
Later, Pardee said the Redskins weren't "doing anything major." But one probability is the switching of tight end Jean Fugett to starting wide receiver, a change the team tried out earlier in preseason.
Just as in the trading off of Eddie Brown and Frank Grant last season, the cutting of Green seems initially hard to understand. especially considering the void created by his departure.
But at least in the eyes of the coaching staff, his return skills and aggressiveness had deteriorated so much that the club felt any alternative was better than to keep him on the final roster.
"He had a chance last Friday night to save himself," said one team source. "But against Cleveland, he didn't do anything. That did it."
Green returned seven punts for an 8.1 average during the preseason. He averaged 21.6 yards on five kickoff returns. He also ran the ball from the halfback spot 10 times for 18 yards.
"It was like he was going at halfspeed the whole camp," said General Manager Bobby Beathard. "He didn't have the zip, the zing he had last year. He's always had quickness, but not this year.
"He didn't seem surprised by this. I asked him today if he still wanted to play and he said yes. But he showed no emotion."
Beathard said he worked diligently yesterday trying to trade Green. Although a couple of teams showed interest, he could not work a deal by yesterday's noon deadline. League sources said the New York Giants are considering picking up Green.
A sixth-round pick last season out of Florida, Green was the only kick returned in the NFL during 1978 to score touchdowns on both kickoffs and punts.
He sprinted 80 yards with a punt against Philadelphia and 99 yards with a kickoff against St. Louis in back-to-back weeks during September.
He accumulated 1,484 combined yards rushing, receiving and returning, ranking seventh in the NFL in both return categories and second in kickoffs and third in punts in the National Football Conference.
Green had come to this season's training camp hoping to win the starting halfback spot from Benny Malone. When Malone walked out briefly before the Denver game, Green moved into the starting slot against the Broncos.
By the final exhibition contest Friday night, he was running behind both Malone and Forte, who enjoyed a fine preseason.
"We kept giving Tony opportunities to prove himself," Pardee said, "He really didn't show enough to keep."
Pardee admitted that Green was hurt by the new kick return rules, which do not allow any blocking beneath the waist.
"A guy like Ike Forte is what you want," he said. "You need someone who is strong and gets the ball and gets whatever yardage he can with it.
"You can't finesse anymore. It's a terrible rule."
Green, according to team sources, almost did not make last year's squad because of attitude problems. Last month in training camp, Beathard spoke publicly about his progress, telling one group of radio advertisers: "Tony has matured, he has his head together. He's worked hard every day.We are really excited about him."
Beathard said yesterday Green told him "he was saving himself for the regular season. But competition is too tight to do that." Green was informed of the decision yesterday morning, checked out of his hotel and was not available for comment.
Pardee was asked why the Redskins cut Hardeman, who was waived by the Cowboys in 1977 before going to Canada, and stayed with Green for a week. Pardee earlier had said Hardeman had good hands, ran strongly and was the best receiver among the backs in camp.
"We felt we could get Buddy back (through waivers) easier," Pardee said. "Buddy had a good camp. That's why we played him so much." Hardeman returned five punts for an 8.6 average and gained 17 yards on seven carries.
When the Redskins bring in players this week, they will move defensive tackle Perry Brooks onto the regular season injured reserve list, according to Pardee. Brooks, recovering from an arm injury, will not be able to come off the list for four weeks.
Williams was the Redskins' extra back in the nickel pass defense and he also had started 16 games, mostly for Pat Fischer, the last three seasons. He was beaten out by rookie Ray Waddy of Texas A and I, who was practicing yesterday returning punts.
Waddy, a free agent, was one of seven rookies to make the final squad. The others were tight ends Don Warren (fourth-round pick from San Diego State) and Phil Dubois (free agent from San Diego State), wide receiver Kris Haines (ninth round from Notre Dame), and linebackers Rich Milot (seventh round from Penn State). Monte Coleman (11th round from Central Arkansas) and Neal Olkewicz (free agent from Maryland).
In all, 17 players were not on last year's opening game roster. Three of those -- offensive tackle Greg Dubinetz, defensive end Angelo Wells and quarterback Fred Mortensen -- are virtual rookies, never having played in an NFL game although they had attended previous training camps.
Other newcomers from last year's final game roster include defensive end Joe Jones and safety Tony Peters (both from Cleveland), and defensive tackle Paul Smith, a free agent from Denver.
Olkewicz, who was wearing No. 55 in preseason, is now No. 52 and Dubois, who had No. 87, is now No. 86. Pardee said the changes were made in made in respect for Chris Hanburger (55) and Jerry Smith (87) . . . Pardee said the team's injury situation is good for Houston. Guard Dan Nugent is still recovering from back problems but will be kept on the active roster in hopes he can play within two weeks. . .Pardee never closed practices last year. He said this was "probably a one-time thing" this week. George Allen regularly closed workouts.