They call themselves the "JVs," but any hopes the Redskins have of rebounding quickly from this disatrous season will depend heavily on how soon they can earn the pro football equivalent of a varsity letter.
The "JVs" are the men on the club's injured reserve corps. But most of them are no longer injured. They are healthy enough to practice daily with the team, giving Coach Jack Pardee and his staff a legal way to fully evaluate their talents before next summer's training camp.
The two most glaring Redskin weaknesses are the offensive and defensive lines. And it is no coincidence that most of the injured reserve players are offensive and defensive linemen, including last May's No. 2 draft choice, defensive end Mat Mendenhall.
If the Redskins feel such players as Mendenhall, guard Melvin Jones (No. 7 in May), defensive tackle Pat Ogrin (free agent signed after the draft) and tackle Mike Gibbons (second year on injured reserve) can challenge for starting positions next season, it will affect the way they approach the 1981 draft.
"If most of the injured reserve people can wind up as starters the next few years, it will turn our offensive and defensive lines from old to pretty young," Coach Jack Pardee said. "But if they don't make it, we are going to have to scramble for some other bodies real fast."
Already, Pardee has promoted offensive tackle Jerry Scanlan to the active roster. Scanlan, 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, has made a faster-than-expected transition from tight end at Hawaii to his new pro position after being signed as a free agent prior to training camp.
With the Redskins starting 32- and 34-year-old tackles, Scanlan could be in line for a starting job next year. And he may not be the only "JV" in line for a promotion.
Until this fall, Mendenhall had never seen a halftime show on game day. He was always in the locker room, preparing to play. But he has viewed more than his share of halftime highlights since being placed on injured reserve just before the start of the season.
"I've really benefited from being on IR," Mendenhall said. "But it kills me not to be able to play. Sundays are horrible. I've never had to sit on the sidelines before. I go to games and sit in the stands and it eats me up. I want to get out there so badly. I can't wait for training camp."
The Redskins and Mendenhall had every reason to believe he would be in uniform this year. A surprise second-round choice out of Brigham Young, Mendenhall was the large defensive end (6-6, 245) the club needed to develop while veterans Coy Bacon and Joe Jones played out their careers.
Neither he nor the team ever thought the ruptured appendix he suffered 18 months ago would have such a lingering effect during last summer's training camp.
Mendenhall lifted weights to build himself up for camp after falling to 215 pounds following the appendix problem. But his stamina failed him. The longer the camp lasted, the weaker he felt. His legs weren't strong enough to handle his new bulk and he lacked the quickness to become an effective pass rusher.
The Redskins didn't want to give up on a high-round pick very quickly, but Pardee also felt he couldn't keep him on the active roster. To avoid cutting Mendehall, he was placed on injured reserve.
A month later, Mendenhall was practicing and lifting again. He has worked up to 260 pounds and he says "I feel just great right now. This is the best I've felt since before my appendix acted up.
"By the end of the camp, I didn't have any stamina. I couldn't play a full game. I was very concerned but they ran me through three days of tests and I was cleared. When they told me I was going on injured reserve, I was a little skeptical, being the No. 2 pick and not being on the team. I thought I wasn't doing my share.
"But this was the best thing that could have happened to me. I've practiced hard and picked up a lot of things. I've made practices my day, I've made them my learning experience."
Although the NFL doesn't allow taxi squads, the injured reserve list fills that purpose for many clubs. Teams can put players like Mendenhall on IR and not lose rights to them, while also giving them a chance to develop. And once the player is healthy, he is allowed to practice while being paid his existing contract.
There are two injured reserve lists. Mendenhall and Jones are included among players dropped from the active roster before the season began. They can only be activated if they clear waivers though the entire league. The other list includes players hurt during the season, like tight end Phil DuBois and receiver John McDaniel. They must stay inactive for at least four weeks, then they can be recalled. There is no limit to how many athletes can be in either category, although the league has the power to check out the injuries to make sure they are legitimate.
Mendenhall may not have the quickness to become a standout pass rusher, but the Redskins feel he should eventually become a starter, which is a change from training camp, when many were wondering how General Manager Bobby Beathard could had drafted him so high.
"I feel I've got to prove the Redskins were right by drafting me No. 2," said Mendenhall, a quiet, low-key man who relishes seclusion. "I sure don't think they made a mistake, but I can't just talk about it. I have to prove it. I'm trying to do that now, in practice."
"You've heard of a hip pointer?" Melvin Jones asked, a smile on his face. "Well, by the end of training camp, I had a butt pointer from getting knocked backward so much trying to pass block."
Jones is short but massive. He carries 260 pounds on a 6-2 frame that is dominated by massive thighs.
Those thighs are powerful tools when Jones is blocking for runs. But at Houston, he was rarely called upon to stop a pass rush from tackle, his college position.
When he came to training camp in July after Beathard had called him "the second best guard in the draft," Jones quickly discovered what happens to guards who can't pass block. And to quarterbacks who get sacked by opponents those guards can't stop.
"The quarter got hit too much and I got knocked around too much and I got yelled at a lot," Jones said. "I just couldn't handle it. I knew it. Things happened so fast and I was being asked to do things I hadn't done before. It took time for me to learn the right techniques."
Near the end of camp, Jones' chronic phlebitis recurred and his leg became infected. The redskins, knowing he needed more seasoning, placed him on injured reserve. He spent 10 days in the hospital, where he say "I really started to learn how to play this spot in the pros. I bet I got 60 percent better just sitting there and thinking. I finally grasped what was going on and what I was supposed to be doing.
"I'd read the play book before and it wouldn't click, I couldn't relax. Now I can.I always was a good practice player, I really put out. So I can use practices here to work on my techniques. It's a blessing. I'll be coming to camp next summer knowing the system."
Beathard is convinced that Jones, Mendenhall, Scanlan and possibly Orgin will eventually become pivotal members of the Redskins. He says Orgin, who injured a knee at Wyoming and was signed for long-range potential, could become a major surprise.
Mike Gibbons is the unofficial captain of the "JVs." He also is their old man. He'll be 30 in January, and he realizes time is beginning to run out.
Gibbons already has had a taste of life in pro football. He played in the World Football League for two seasons, then got into 16 games with the Giants during 1976 and 1977 before being released and signed by the Redskins in 1979. He hurt his knee playing volleyball before training camp and spent last season rehabilitating the injury. It was a familiar pattern for him, since he already had recovered from three other knee operations.
Pardee had high hopes for Gibbons last summer, but Scanlan's unexpected progress diminished his chances. Then he strained his back at the end of camp and again was placed on injured reserve.
"I was very depressed at the end of camp," Gibbons said. "I had put so much effort into getting ready all of last season and in the offseason. Then when I hurt my back, it scared me. I figured if it was worse than a pull, that was it for me."
Gibbons knows that being on injured reserve can be a strain, especially to the younger players. He sometimes fills the role of counselor, but mostly he tries to push himself to play hard and stay optimistic.
"I think of myself as a professional. I want to play, because I love this game, always have. But I won't drag this out. If my time is up, I'll get out. I have no regrets. Only, I still feel I can play in this league. gThat's what keeps me going."
Then he looked around the locker room. "But that's what keeps us all going," he said with a laugh. "We don't want to be JVs forever."