The Redskins will open the regular season against the Houston Oilers today at 1 p.m. at RFK Stadium with spiffy new uniforms, a bunch of new faces, a supposed new attitude and a lot of the same old questions that have haunted them since the start of training camp.
Can quarterback Joe Theismann become the consistent player his team needs if it is to have any shot at a playoff spot?
Can the Redskin defense, 24th in the league against the rush last year, improve enough to stop pro football's best runner, Earl Campbell?
Can middle linebacker Don Hover, making his first pro start, fill what the coaching staff feels was a glaringly weak spot at the start of camp?
Can the younger, enthusiastic players give the Redskins enough quickness and aggressiveness to compete with the Oilers, a bona fide playoff team that feels it has a shot at the Super Bowl?
And can the Redskin offense, so inconsistent in the preseason, control the ball enough to not only score but also take the pressure off the defensive unit?
The oddsmakers have answered enough of those questions negatively to install the Oilers as a 4-1/2-point favorite for the contest (WRC-TV-4).
Jack Pardee, the ever-optimistic coach, keeps talking like a man who has seen something in his team this week during closed practices that will prove all the experts wrong.
"We are going to have to play very well, up to our capabilities," Pardee said, "but I think we can do well. We've had a good week of practice. We're as ready as we ever will be. And we know we're playing a super football team."
Certainly, the Oilers aren't shabby. Their main question marks are the condition of quarterback Dan Pastorini's throwing arm (he says it is sound) and the quality of a reconstructed, injury-riddled offensive line. Otherwise, Houston has quickness, experience, explosiveness-- and Campbell.
"We've just got to do a super tackling job on Earl Campbell," Pardeesaid. "He'll break tackles, so we have to have good pursuit, too.
"They also are going to pass deep six or seven times a game. We have to maintain good deep drops so they don't get behind us. And we have to handle (linebacker) Robert Brazile. He's hard to block."
Houston's offense, which features lots of motion and relies frequently on two tight ends, has the kind of versatility that can worry any defense. Pastorini loves to throw long, especially to lanky Kenny Burrough, but he also can use quick Billy (White Shoes) Johnson at the other wide-out spot, or steady tight end Mike Barber.
And there is always Campbell, who is ably assisted by former Maryland player Tim Wilson. Campbell gained 1,450 yards as a rookie last season and the Redskins have no reason to believe his skills have diminished.
"He's something, he really is," said Hover, who beat out veteran Harold McLinton for a staring position. "I've watched films all week, put in extra time. They have a great runner and they like to come up the middle, so I guess it will really be a test for me.
"But one thing about Houston, he isn't their only player. (Center) Carl Mauck is a good one and I have to contend with him. Wilson is a fine runner in his own right. I'm anxious for the game, I really am."
The Redskins have been plotting behind closed doors all week to stop Campbell. Their most predictable move would be rookie Rick Milot starting for Pete Wysocki at right linebacker, although both players will be used frequently. Newcomer Tony Peters could see action in the secondary, possibly with Ken Houston moving from strong to free safety.
But, as Pardee said yesterday, no matter what tactics the Redskins employ, it still will come down to whether their personnel can match up physically with the more talented Oilers.
The Washington coaching staff feels that the addition of defensive end Joe Jones and the steady play of Coy Bacon have improved the pass rush and that other new defensive starters free safety Mark Murphy and Hover have increased the club's quickness and tackling ability. Both areas were problems at the end of last season, when the Redskins lost eight of their final 10 games after starting 6-0.
Another troublesome area at the finish of 1978 was Theismann's consistency. The Redskins have labored hard in training camp to give him enough supporting help: better pass protection and an improved running game. Now the rest is up to him.
"I think he's ready," said Joe Walton, the offensive coordinator. "He has to be consistent. He knows, we know it. That's all we've talked about. He certainly has the physical tools to do the job.
"He's improved. His drops, his cadence, his knowledge of the offense are all better. He can't do it alone. The other guys have to be good, too, because he has shown he can perform when things are right. But he is the key that starts the engine on every play."
Pardee would like to play ball control against the Oilers, whose 3-4 veteran defense was ninth against the rush in the league last year.
"We don't have to jam the ball down their throats," he said. "But we have to be able to keep them in their run defense enough to be able to pass effectively. If we let them stand back and play pass defense, it will be hard to get anything, run or pass."
Despite the presence of John Riggins, coming off his second 1,000-yard season, and despite what Pardee feels is a better offensive line (last year's allowed a whopping 46 sacks), the Redskins probably will have to attack Houston's secondary to have a shot at winning.
The Oilers ranked 24th last season in pass defense. They have worked second-year cornerback J. C. Wilson (ahead of Willie Alexander) and Canadian veteran Vernon Perry into the secondary, but it still rates as their weakest area.
But Theismann had a hot-and-cold preseason passing, although he hit for a high percentage. Neither Pardee nor Walton has been particularly pleased with the wide receiver position, which lacks a true breakaway threat.
To counter the lack of quality players on offense, Pardee will substitute frequently. Tight end Jean Fugett will most likely see work at wide receiver and Ike Forte and Clarence Harmon will relieve tailback Benny Malone and Riggins.
At least the Redskins have kicker Mark Moseley healthy. He had been slowed by a sore thigh muscle but now says he is near 100 percent. In Pardee's conservative offensive approach, designed to reduce mistakes, Moseley could be called on frequently today.
This will also mark the debut of kick returner Buddy Hardeman, who is replacing Tony Green. Hardeman has big shoes to fill, as both Green and Eddie Brown have earned Pro Bowl appearances off their work on the Redskin special teams. And Hardeman says he has returned no more than 10 punts in his life.
"But I think I can be a good returner," he said, "I follow blocking well and I can think while I run. One thing about our special teams, they block well."
The Redskins realize that few expect them to finish better than 8-8 this season. Veterans like Ken Houston say they will surprise everyone with how they play. Pardee is a bit more cautious.
"I like what I see out there," he said. "It just depends on how we jell. How good are we? That's why we play the regular season."
Redskin captains are tackles Terry Hermeling and George Starke, linebacker Dallas Hickman (special teams), Houston and defensive tackle Diron Talbert . . . The Oilers led the NFL in fewest sacks allowed (17) in 1978 . . . This will be Jeff Williams' first start at guard and Benny Malone's first at tailback.