Coach Jack Pardee said yesterday that the Redskins' chances of making the playoffs hinge on the further development of younger players such as middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz, who has won a starting sport, and running back Buddy Hardeman, who apparently has earned more playing time.
"We are a playoff team but we are only halfway there," Pardee said. "With five wins (in seven games), we'll need five more to make it. Ten should get us in, although nine might do it.
"But we made a mistake of counting ourselves in last year too early and look what happened. This year, we have got to keep getting the same king of play from our young players that we have so far. They are making us stronger, that's why we are getting better, not standing still."
Instead of settling on a lineup as the season moves to its midway point, Pardee is striving to use more players every week, especially the youngsters, in an attempt to build not only for this year but for future seasons.
So far, the more inexperienced athletes have not disappointed him. Oklewicz, for example, took advantage of his first extensive playing time Sunday against Cleveland to earn a first-string positions, although Pardee refused to officially announce the promotion yesterday.
And Hardeman has shown so much promise as a runner that Pardee conceded he would be replacing Benny Malone more than on just third downs.
"We've got to get Buddy more playing time, that's for sure," Pardee said. "He keeps producing every time. We don't want to wear him down but we've got to use everyone who is giving us help as much as we can."
Malone, a fine blocker, has averaged only two yards a carry the last month. Hardeman, meanwhile, has emerged as a top punt and kickoff returner, a clutch pass receiver and a potentially good running back.
But the youth movement goes beyond two players. Perry Brooks, who missed the first four games with an arm injury, had two sacks Sunday and could be becoming the defensive tackle the coaches had hoped to see when training camp opened.
Defensive back Tony Peters, a five-year veteran, has played so consistently that he is forcing Pardee to find time for him, even as a linebacker briefly against the Browns.
Add nickel back Ray Waddy, back-up fullback Clarence (clutch) Harmon, special teams star Monte Coleman, tight end Don Warren, guard Jeff Williams, safety Mark Murphy and linebacker Rich Milot (now out for three weeks with a fractured wrist) and the nucleus for the future is beginning to take form.
"Maybe it would be nice to do, as they say in baseball, 'make out the scorecard a week in advance and never touch the lineup,' "Pardee said. "But we aren't that type of team. We've got a lot of players with ability and we are still learning about them and they are learning about us. We want to utilize each one as best we can."
Pardee admitted that some of the substituting so far has been based "on guesswork, calculated guesswork," because no one on his staff was certain how the youngsters would hold up under pressure.
"How can you tell how a Neal Olkewicz will play?" he asked. "You have a good idea, based off what he did in practice from the start of camp, but until they play, you can't definitely say.
"So far it's turned out right. Every season has its surprises and usually there are more bad ones than good ones. For us so far, praise the Lord, there have been more good ones."
Olkewicz got his chance despite the fact the man he replaced, Don Hover, was leading the team in tackles. But Philadelphia and then Cleveland had sucessfully run up the middle and, Pardee said, "We just wanted to see if putting Neal in would give us a spark.
"It wasn't that Don was playing so badly. We are going to use both of them, both of them are going to be ready every week. Just like the other positions, we want to utilize the talents of both for the team's benefit.
"Neal will sit in there and hit people. He came up with some big plays, some big hits. It was super effort for his first game. He did what we wanted him to do."
The Eagles come into RFK Stadium Sunday, and Olkewicz's continued progess could be a major factor in the outcome of that game.
Two weeks ago, Wilbert Montgomery overpowered Washington's defense, running up the middle and around left end, and the Redskins must stop him to have any chance of winning.
And with tight end Jean Fugett still nursing a sore knee, Warren has become a key player. The rookie from San Diego State had his best game against Cleveland, a four-catch effort in which he was in on every offensive play.
"Don just didn't hold his own, he did some fine things," Pardee said. "Three of his four catches were clutch catches."
Peters, a starter when at Cleveland, is limited only by the excellence of the Redskins' secondary, their strongest unit. To utilize his talents better, Washington spent much of last week practicing on a six-back defense and employed it successfully Sunday.
"He's a heck of a player," Pardee said of Peters, who probably will replace Ken Houston next season. "He just helps give us fine coverage in the secondary.
"That's our goal, to force teams to pass so we can go to our nickel. If that happens, we think we can win because with our coverage people and the multiple coverages we have, the percentages are in our favor.
"With Philadelphia this week, we have to keep them from getting big yardage on first downs, that's what is important. If we can force them into third and five or more, they'll have to pass. In the first game, they were making too many yards on first down."
The raw ability of so many of his younger players was one of the reasons Pardee remained optimistic in training camp. despite predictions of a dismal season for his team.
He said the difference between this team and his first Redskin squad last year, "is they went out and got us more athletic ability. Then as a staff you can work with this ability and become more flexible.
"It still comes down to what we said from the very start. If we play hard and work as a team, we can do something. No matter how good you are, you can destroy yourself if you don't play together."
No one at Redskin Park has ever claimed Washington is a powerhouse. Instead, the Redskins have proved to be mortal, flirting with disaster almost every week before somehow pulling out a triumph.
"We played our best overall game against Cleveland," Pardee said. "We just have to keep getting that effort every wek. If we don't we'll lose. We don't have a margin of error built in like a Pittsburg does."
Milot will be able to play again as soon as the pain subsides in his wrist, which Pardee thinks will be no more than three weeks. Pete Wysocki, who Pardee said "played well" against Cleveland, will replace Milot . . . Washington's remaining three road games are against Dallas, Pittsburg and the Giants. The six home Eagles, Green Bay, New Orleans, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Of these nine opponents, only Dallas, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia currently have winning records . . . Pardee said Sunday was the first time the Redskins showed they could properly defense "a conventional, good running game" . . . Only Montgomery's fine performance two weeks ago prevented fulfillment of Pardee's predicition that his team would win four straight road games . . . . Warning to the players: Pardee says he and his staff still determine game playing time in part "by the effort we get from everyone in practice."