Coach Jack Pardee is convinced that his Redskins are not playing over their helmets and that they won't collapse in midseason as they did last year, if they can avoid crippling injuries.
"We are a legitimate 3-1 team," Pardee said yesterday, "considering the injuries our opponents have had and the way we have played."
"I feel better about this team right now than I did at this time last year (when the Redskins were 4-0). There is no reason to doubt that we can keep getting as good a performance out of the players as we are getting.
"If we get that, I'll be satisfied whether the score is good or bad. If we keep playing like we are, I feel we will win our share of games."
Pardee conceded that his team has benefited from lucky bounces and fortunate breaks through the first four games. In discussing Atlanta, the next opponent, Pardee wondered out loud when luck ends and ability begins.
"Atlanta is a lucky team," he said. "They keep getting breaks and coming back. But after a while, you have to wonder why.
"Maybe it's because their receivers are pretty good and because they are aggressive on defense so when a fumble occurs they have more men around the ball than the other team.
"I just hope we don't stop getting the breaks. We've been in a situation to take advantage of them more because of our hustle. That's what I like about this team. It's playing touch, hard football and it's going to get better."
Pardee remembers all too well those heady days of last season, when the Redskins raced to a 6-0 start and had all of Washington talking about the Super Bowl.
But the team deteriorated, was plagued by injuries and wracked by dissension. The Redskins won only two of their next 10 games, losing their last five. In the offseason, Pardee cast aside many of the aging veterans he felt contributed to a serious morale problem in 1978.
"Last year, we weren't good enough to be 6-0, nor bad enough to be 2-8," Pardee said. "This time, I think we are a solid 3-1, based on the way our offense, defense and kicking all are contributing and at different times.
"I can't forecast what our wins and losses will be. But I know we are playing like I wanted us to play. And with all of our young people, there is no reason we can't keep improving Every game they play, we should be better."
Pardee gave these specific reasons for optimism:
Quarterback Joe Theismann "is playing super, just great. His decision-making, his ability to go to the right receivers, the way he isn't getting rattled. He's having a more consistent season, even though his stats were more impressive last season. He does not feel he has to do it all by himself, so he isn't doing silly things like forcing the ball into an area he shouldn't. He's becoming a leader by performance and I think the players are starting to rely on him."
The Redskin defense is "playing a lot more aggressively and we are stopping the run better. We are playing the way now like I knew we could. Our defense is forcing things to happen. We already seem to have forced as many turnovers as we did all of last year."
The players have been much more receptive to the coaching staff. "They know us better and we know them better the second time around," he said. "We've got everyone pulling together instead of going in three or four or six different directions. Everyone is convinced this is the way to do it. It's not my way or their way but the Redskin way, and that's the way it should be. I don't know if the dissension is gone forever. What came first last year, the dissension or the losing? Whatever, we can't have it. It tore us up."
The ability to do fundamental things "like run eight yards for a first down instead of needing to pass or getting just enough yardage for a Mark Moseley field goal," he said. "We've still got him and that makes me feel good too."
The 1979 Redskins, even when their defense was struggling, have been able to cause turnovers. They have nine interceptions and have recovered seven fumbles. Eight times they have sacked quarterbacks.
The coaches are convinced the defense which has allowed only seven points in two games, is nowhere near its potential. It will improve as long as such youngsters as Rich Milot, Dan Hover and Mark Murphy gain experience.
Pardee wants the offense to become more consistent.
"We seem to be able to produce points when we need them," he said, "but we aren't steady enough. We have to think we need points every time we get the ball, not just at certain times.
"Joe could have been 13 of 15 Sunday without the dropped passes. It's something we need to work on."
Yet the offense only had one turnover, staying with Pardee's plan of playing mistake-free cautions football. The team has been geared toward not beating itself while trying to take full advantage of every opponent error. That's why the defense must continue to cause mistakes.
We are aware of our strengths and weaknesses," Pardee said. "We aren't kidding ourselves. We know we aren't super, that we can't win by just relying on the shoulders of one player.
"We need everyone contributing every game. That's the only way we can stay competitive."
The Redskin coaching staff is willing to gamble, knowing it can't line up against such teams as Houston and St. Louis and expect to win without some surprise adjustment.
Against the Oilers, the Redskins used strong safety Ken Houston as a second inside linebacker. Against St. Louis, they used Houston for unexpected blitzes against the Cardinals' inside running game.
"We still have to rely on fundamentals and solid play but changes help," said Pardee, acknowledging it would be a devastating blow if anything happened to the ageless Houston and his string of 174 straight pro games.
Pardee admitted that the Redskins will be very cautious about any player moves, although they can activate defensive tackle Perry Brooks, who has been out since training camp with an arm injury.
Remembering back to last season, when the trading of Frank Grant set off shock waves within the team, Pardee said:
"Even though that trade has helped us, I don't know if I'd do it again. You have to worry about the mental effect. Anything we do now we'll consider carefully. We don't want to upset the balance."
Pardee said he was concerned about end Karl Lorch's foot sprain, although he said he expected Lorch to play Sunday. "It's going to be sore," the coach said . . . Brooks could be activated if Lorch, Paul Smith (hip pointer) or Dave Butz (sore knee) can't play Sunday. "We don't want to be short along the line," Pardee said.