The people who look hardest at the Redskins seem more confident about their chances against the Cowboys today than the people who look most lovingly. The major question about town before the annual Armageddon I is how the poor little locals could be just 2 1/2-point underdogs to Landry's Legions.
Golly, whiz, how can Redskin blockers scarcely out of Pampers hold their own against the most imposing front four this side of Mount Rushmore without holding every other play? Let's make Tony Dorsett shake hands with the Redskin defense before the game, so it at least gets to touch him once.
Tom Landry against Joe Gibbs? Gulp!
Funny how a year can change the way Washington views the season opener.
With their best runner, John Riggins, farming in Kansas and their only decent tight end, Don Warren, recovering from a broken leg, the Redskins still were seen by the blindly faithful as beating Dallas last Sept. 8. They had won 10 games the year before, somehow, without a lot of the necessities of football life. So who needs fullbacks? Came that Monday reality, and the massacre.
This season, Riggins is hale and Warren hearty, darters Joe Washington and Terry Metcalf have been added and the offensive line cannot be that much worse. Since only three men in the entire universe fully comprehend defense, and one is unemployed in California, the Redskins are expected to defuse Dorsett for no other reason than because they always have.
That must be the oddsmakers' logic.
There are not many coaching nightmares worse than throwing an offensive line that includes two rookies and two other untested starters against arguably the best defensive line in football. Cowboy blockers against the Redskins' front four is supposed to be slightly less of a mismatch.
Everybody who knows a football from a foot fault has heard the part of the gospel about games being won and lost up front, that pit crews are pivotal beyond Indy.
But these are 11-man units coliding in RFK Stadium. And, as Roberto Duran keeps telling us, nobody's perfect. Both teams have strong areas, capable at times of being dominant, though Washington's are not so obvious.
If the Redskins would pay dearly for the Dallas defensive line, the Cowboys might dig deeper than petty cash for Washington's defensive backfield. The Redskins' affection for a Pat Donovan might be no more than the Cowboy's yearning for a Riggins. Both are enormously skilled, and also a pain in the wallet. Who would not face third and long from the opponent's 35 more easily with Mark Moseley warming on the sideline?
Despite their massive overhaul, the Redskins still have more fossils than the Cowboys -- five players with 10 or more years in the league to the Cowboys' three. Dallas has a few more players with five or more years experience, reflecting the stability of its organization.
Dorsett has been spectacular lately, and has rushed for more than 100 yards 18 times during his four-year career. Against the Redskins, he has averaged 59 yards, with his most productive game 72 yards in 21 carries three years ago in Texas Stadium.
Danny White completed half his 34 passes against the Redskins in two games last season, but had six interceptions and no touchdowns. Charlie Taylor, the Redskin assistant publicity director, also ferreted out the fact that Mark Murphy has intercepted a pass in each of the four Cowboy games since he became a starter. Murphy blocked a punt against Dallas as a rookie.
Although the Cowboys have 10 players with Pro Bowl experience, they are not quite invincible. They surrendered more points last season (311) than any other team that made the NFL playoffs except the Chargers. And San Diego, which had the reputation of not being able to stop anybody, yielded only 16 more points.
Offensive wizard Gibbs is awash with anticipation about his debut as an NFL head coach, matching wits with defensive genius Landry. Whatever attack plans he has are being hidden with extraordinary care. Gibbs was not even offering a hint about early-play, opening-game philosophy.
Some coaches, especialy in college, spend an inordinate amount of time on the first play of a game or a half. They believe a quick strike can have a negative effect for some time, or at least keep the defensive off-balance. Others simply probe. After nearly two months of training camp, the Redskins under George Allen still could not come up with anything more daring than Larry Brown off tackle.
How does Gibbs regard the first offensive play of the regular season? As a tone-setter, for the season as well as the game? As his stylistic signature? Or a way to set up something more fanciful?
Come see. He is not allowing Landry any free peeks inside his mind.
"It depends on the feel I have," he said. "What I'd like to do."
First play. Big play. What matters most to Gibbs is to be ahead after the Last Play.
Apparently, there have been no psychological big plays this week. With Allen and most of his disciples gone, it has been tough to generate genuine hate on either side. Bulletin boards are almost void of incendiary talk.
The Redskins were so dry for inspirational material that a 4-month-old newspaper article containing an even older joke was presented during a team meeting. It had quarterback White telling a pro-Cowboy audience the one about the Arab oil minister and his three sons who attended American colleges.
Surely you recall the punch line. The son who attends NYU falls in love with the Statue of Liberty, and the father says he will buy it; the son who attends Cincinnati falls in love with the Reds, and the father says he will buy them; the son who attends Southern Cal falls in love with Disneyland, and the father says he will buy that.
"What I'd really like is one of those Mickey Mouse outfits," the son said.
So the father bought him the Redskins.
You take what the opposition gives you, though Dave Butz chasing White with more zest after having that read to him defies belief.
The Redskins are hoping the Cowboys no longer regard these collisions as war games, and themselves as the red faces who could muster only one touchdown in eight quarters a year ago. Gibbs would be delighted to have Cowboy minds drifting up Interstate 95, toward Philadelphia, while Art Monk was striding free under a Joe Theismann pass. A few bombs will get any rivalry cracking again.