The turmoil that marked the last two Redskin training camps is over. This summer, the club's five-week stay in Carlisle, Pa., will be highlighted by a search for stability and growth -- and for a way to beat Dallas in the season opener.
Although the start of camp is still six days away, the Monday night Sept. 8 premiere against the hated Cowboys already dominates the thinking of Coach Jack Pardee and his staff. For example, in an hour interview recently, Pardee mentioned the Cowboys at least a dozen times.
"You always put a lot of thought into your opener," Pardee said, trying to play down the constant references to the Cowboys. "You have a long time to prepare for that one game."
But there is much, much more to it than that. Even beyond the natural Washington-Dallas rivalry -- the NFL's best -- there is now the memory of Black Sunday, that painful afternoon in Big D in December when Roger Staubach's passing heroics left the Redskins two minutes short and 35-34 losers of what would have been a Cinderella run for the NFC East title.
The Redskins have lived with the ifs, ands and buts of that game for the last six months -- and with the defensivce collapse that brought their season to such a stunning finish.
With Staubach, long a nemesis, now retired to the television booth, the Cowboys no longer are the division's dominating force. Pardee feels the Redskins are good enough to assume that role. But to back up that claim, Washington realizes it has to win the opener.
There also is the need to prove that last season's 10-6 record -- when an 8-8 mark seemed optimistic before the season opening kickoff -- was not manufactured from a mixture of surprise, absence of major injuries and a large measure of coaching magic.
"We're not flukes," Pardee said emphatically, knowing full well his team still has a credibility gap. "But we aren't good enough to just show up and win.
"If we play as a team, the same thing I said all the time last year, we are good enough to beat anyone. But if we don't play hard every time out, we can be beaten by a lot of people too.
"There is no reason to think we shouldn't be a better team. We used a lot of young players last year and I am confident that they are going to be much improved this season. If they aren't we'll have some problems."
Now that his two-year roster reshuffling is over, along with the stunning trimming of all those well-publicized veterans, Pardee sees perhaps only "five or six" changes this summer and perhaps no switches in the starting lineup.
That could be an optimistic estimate, but at least the Redskins appear to be at a point where all players, from stars to free agents, aren't constantly looking over their shoulders, wondering when the ax will fall.
"We came within a few seconds of being the division champs last year," Pardee said. "I'm convinced that we can make enough improvement to be a better team for two more minutes. If so, why can't we win the title?"
For one reason, the Redskins' schedule is tougher. Although everyone else in the division, save for the lowly cardinals, face a similar task, that still doesn't make it any easier for the Redskins to combat the likes of the AFC West -- San Diego, Oakland, Denver and Seattle -- along with Chicago, Minnesota and New Orleans.
Still, the Redskins have reason to be optimistic. They have a No. 1 draft choice, receiver Art Monk, for the first time in a decade. The team has a horde of young players who should get better, plus an accepted quarterback, Joe Theismann, who has the ability to keep the Redskins around the top. CHANGES
The most interesting part of any camp is the struggle for spots on the roster and starting positions. This summer the major battles will center around four areas:
The secondary, where one of the league's best units could undergo a 50 percent change in starting personnel. Cornerback Jeris White, obtained from Tampa Bay for Danny Buggs, seems likely to beat out incumbent Joe Lavender, while Tony Peters will push Ken Houston for the strong safety spot.
The offensive line, where guard Dan Nugent, sidelined last season with a back injury, tries to reclaim his job as starter. Since Jeff Williams is entrenched at the other guard spot, Nugent will have to beat out veteran Ron Saul. But Gary Anderson, a 6-foot-4, 259-pound second-year man from Stanford who was sidelined in 1979 by an injury, could surprise by beating out both Saul and Nugent.
Running back, where Clarence Harmon and Buddy Hardeman will compete with Benny Malone to become John Riggins' backfield mate. Malone may not survive the roster cuts. Harmon appears to be the leading candidate although Hardeman has just as good a shot. The key will be who plays better in the exhibitions and whether the Redskins can find a replacement for Harmon as Riggins' fullback backup.
Punter, where Mike Bragg, who has the longest tenure as a Redskin of any player on the squad, receives a full-scale challenge from young vets Mike Michel (ex-Eagle) and Mike Connell (ex-49er). Bragg will have to improve on his inconsistent output of last season. NEW FACES
Monk, the speedster from Syracuse, has been given a gaudy buildup as a much needed game-breaker. Pardee hasn't handed him a starting role, but it would be hard to keep him on the bench if he has even half the ability claimed for him by Redskin scouts.
"Art doesn't have to come in here and be a star," Pardee said. "He can contribute right away and he can help us. But we still will go at first with our veterans Ricky Thompson and John McDaniel."
But Pardee allowed later that the fact his team now may be able to "pull off a few game-breaking long plays" is a plus that last year's grind-it-out edition did not have. And Monk is the only new offensive player who fits into the big-play category.
Washington would like to carry at least four wide receivers this year, which means that besides Monk, such veterans as Morris Owens, a former starter for Tampa Bay, and Kenny Harrison, a fourth-year pro from SMU, also have a chance of sticking.
Immediate help is expected from safety Mike Nelms, a star kick returner-cover man signed out of Canada. Either Nelms or Monk is expected to take over Hardeman's runback chores and Nelms, who had 10 interceptions last year, is considered good enough to aslo be given time in the secondary.
White, a starter at Tampa Bay, has a reputation as a fine force man on the run who also plays well in zone defenses. He was a star on the Bucs' No. 1-ranked defense and should strengthen both the Redskins' standard and nickle defenses. But he also is unsigned entering the option year on his contract, so this could be the only season he plays with Washington.
Besides Anderson, the Redskins also say tackle Mike Gibbons, a 6-4, 262-pound, third-year man from Southwest Oklahoma State, could surprise. The club needs Gibbons or holdover Gred Dubinetz to develop, since both starting tackles, George Starke and Terry Hermeling, are over 30.
Mat Mendenhall, the second-round pick from Brigham Young, should make the roster, but isn't being counted on to contribute immediately at defensive end.
As for the new Monte Colemans and Neal Olkewiczs, watch for these players: fullback Ron Harkless, 5-10, 215, a free agent from Nicholls State; defensive end Mike Matocha, 6-4, 235, an 11th-round pick from Texas-Arlington who is quick, and receiver Steve Stapler, 5-11, 163, a free agent from San Diego State with good hands. Longshots include running backs Sam Thomas and Rickey Claitt. PROBLEMS
Although the Redskins had a decent sack total last year (47), their pass rush was inconsistent and unpredicatable. "It's got to be better," Pardee said, "and that means we have to get help from our inside men. That's the key."
One of the inside men, tackle Dave Butz, can be one of the best when so moved. The other could be veteran Perry Brooks, whom the Redskins feel has star potential if he would push himself.
If Brooks (6-3, 260) can't help out with his quickness, then the other starting tackle job probably will be shared again by veterans Diron Talbert and Paul Smith. If Brooks comes through, one of those two probably will be cut.
Pardee also would like to see improvement from end Karl Lorch, who was steady but unspectacular last year. He will be pushed by sometime-linebacker Dallas Hickman and pass rush specialist Joe Jones.
The Redskins believe former free agent Phil DuBois can be a competent backup to tight end Don Warren, who now weighs 235, but if this proves incorrect, there will be depth problems at that position.
Likewise, an injury to either Starke or Hermeling at tackle could prove devastating unless one of the younger players develops quickly.
Washington hopes the switch of Rich Milot to middle linebacker to back up Olkewicz also will protect the club in case of injury. Milot will be groomed to replace Olkewicz on passing situations while still seeing some action on the outside.
"We gave up too many passes in the 30-yard range," Pardee said. "We didn't get burned for bombs much, but we have to cut down on this medium-range stuff. We've got to have more stability on defense, so we don't have four or five bad games like last year.
"I'd also like to get our rushing average in the four-yard-plus area. That would mean another 300 yards of offense a year, maybe 20 to 30 yards a game and a couple of first downs. That may be all we need to put us over the top, you never know."
To ease any headaches about lack of depth, Pardee will spend considerable time in camp developing backup players, especially people like quarterback Kim McQuilken and DuBois. Little else will change. The Redskins will stick with the high-percentage passing game that come on so strong at year's end. And, if anything, they will substitute even more by down and distance than last year, when 36 players saw action in scrimmage plays.