Six weeks into the regular season, the Redskins are on the verge of fielding the team Coach Jack Pardee thought was good enough to reach the playoffs. But can this nearly healthy squad beat Denver Monday night?
"I think we have a better chance of doing a good job than we have had," Pardee said. "If we get everyone back, we still aren't going to blow anyone out. But we have more of our guns loaded than before, and we thought those guns were going to give us a pretty good team.
"Maybe now we can start to do what we want to do and not be as limited, especially on offense, as we have been. Maybe we can start dictating some things instead of having things dictated to us."
Pardee stopped short of predictions prior to this 9 p.m. confrontation (WJLA-TV-7) with the Broncos, whose aggressive defense and boisterous crowd make them a tough opponent at home.
"Before we can say anything, we have to start scoring points," Pardee said, aware that his 1-4 outfit is averaging 12 points a game. "We've moved the ball. Our offense is in the middle of the pack in the league because we have gained some yards. But we're last in scoring (tied with Green Bay before the Packers' 14-14 tie with Tampa Bay today) because we keep beating ourselves.
"We've got to stop making those killing mistakes. We can't have the penalties and the fumbles and the interceptions. We've got to start playing like a quality team."
Washington is its healthiest and most spirited since the opening loss to Dallas. Tackle George Starke and tight end Don Warren are returning to the starting lineup, which should strengthen the running game blocking. That area has been weak lately, especially with Ron Saul slowed by a bad calf. The rest of the injured who already have been playing are nearing 100 percent. Practices were crisp this week and the cloud of despair over Redskin Park seemed to be lifting.
The only time Washington has gained more than 100 yards on the ground this year came with both Starke and the versatile Warren in the lineup.
"A team like Denver changes their (3-4) defense so much during a game that you need an experienced line," Pardee said. "Our players have to be able to make quick decisions that are based on past history. You can't take time to think about them. That's why having a guy like George in there is such a benefit."
Pardee realizes that his insistence on establishing a running game no matter how long it takes -- and no matter how many games the Redskins lose in the process -- increases the pressure on the team. But he defends his approach, saying that it is the only way for his players to regain the toughness they have lost.
Although he says he will continue with this run-first approach against Denver's once-proud defense, now ranked last among AFC clubs, the Redskins have to be tempted to rely a bit more on Joe Theismann's passing. The Bronco linebacking corps, the heart of the unit, has been devastated by injuries. Randy Gradishar is slowed by a rib injury and may not play and the Broncos now are extremely vulnerable to the pass, having surrendered 245 yards a game through the air en route to a disappointing 2-3 start.
Yet Denver can still play defense. This is a team that relies heavily on emotion, and the atmosphere in Mile High Stadium should be electric, especially if Denver can shut down the Redskin rushing game.
The Redskins need more from Wilbur Jackson -- who cost them two No. 2 draft choices and is averaging just 2.6 yards a carry from his new halfback position -- because leading rusher Rickey Claitt is hobbled with a sprained ankle and probably will see limited duty at best.
But Clarence Harmon, who didn't play last week because of an ankle injury, is healthy enough to resume starting duty at fullback in Claitt's place. The Redskins also probably will add halfback Ike Forte to the roster off the injured reserve list.
"This team just needs a win desperately," Harmon said. "We've got to ease the pressure that's built up. And we know the last Monday night game we had (the loss to Dallas) was an El Stinko. We were embarrassed and we'd like to make up for that. Anyway, everyone always gets up for Monday night." l
Although Pardee isn't saying so, there is a feeling among the Redskins that their defense can control the Bronco offense, which also has stuttered all season.
Pardee has made one significant change, switching to Tony Peters at strong safety in place of veteran Ken Houston, long the heart of the defense. The move was made because the Redskins have given up too many long plays that have overshadowed an otherwise fairly consistent performance. And Houston has been involved in a good share of those long-distance mistakes.
Denver is not noted for its quick striking power, especially on the grounds. The Broncos rely on prodders like Otis Armstrong and Jim Jensen to ground out yardage and not make mistakes. That tactic worked as long as the defense was forcing turnovers, which isn't happening very much this season. But Denver is certain to test the Redskin rushing defense, which hasn't played well this season.
Matt Robinson, obtained in an off-season trade with the Jets, will start at quarterback, but Coach Red Miller is quick to send in veteran Craig Morton if the offense bogs down. Both quarterbacks like to throw to receiver Rick Upchurch, the only fast end on the roster.
The one major advantage Denver has over the Redskins is kicking: Fred Steinfort is 10 of 12 on field goal attempts. Mark Moseley is two of 10.
Moseley is shelving his old kicking shoe, the one the Cowboys said was filled with lead, and will use a new model.
"Why not? I've tried everything else," he said. "Maybe this will be the one thing that will snap me out of this. I've had the shoe for a couple of weeks now and I've used it in practice and it's felt great."
Moseley has been accurate this week in practice. He also has been under intense scrutiny from the coaching staff and has been filmed from all angles.
"We didn't see anything significant in the films," Pardee said. "But this is the best Mark has kicked all year. He's hit it strong and long. I think he's ready to break out of it right now."
Moseley normally does not kick extensively between games once the season is under way. But as his misfortunes have escalated, he has hit more and more practice kicks. Pardee, however, thinks his difficulties have been created because everyone is thinking too much. "I want them just to go out there and kick and not worry about the wind or the time on the clock or what they have done in the past."