Even though the Redskins begin preseason practice Thursday in the midst of a summer of controversy throughout the National Football League, they are hoping for their most placid training camp in years.
Barring unexpected contract problems, team officials believe they will not be faced with the holdouts (John Riggins, Jeris White, Mark May) or walkouts (Lemar Parrish, Joe Lavender) that have marred the last few training camps at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
All important veterans and rookies have been signed. All key players injured last season have recovered. And Joe Gibbs, no longer an up-tight rookie coach, has managed to keep his coaching staff intact.
Still, all these positive points, even when combined with last year's strong finish that led to an 8-8 record, may not be enough to shield the players completely from outside distractions or create an optimistic atmosphere at Carlisle. Other factors tend to diminish the anticipation. These include:
The ongoing labor dispute between the National Football League and its players association, which has created what Gibbs calls a "major distraction." With talk of strikes and lockouts, there is a question whether a regular season will ever be played, which won't make the heat of summer camp any more bearable for the players.
Ongoing revelations about drug usage in the league, which have left players edgy and have made coaches especially sensitive to the problem. Although Gibbs says he believes "there is no drug problem on the Redskins," he admits special emphasis will be given to drug counseling and education during camp.
An arduous schedule, rated the hardest in the league and featuring back-to-back games against Super Bowl participants San Francisco and Cincinnati. The schedule could make it difficult for the Redskins to show much improvement even though Gibbs and General Manager Bobby Beathard are convinced their personnel is much improved and deeper than last season.
Washington's failure in the offseason to sign either receiver Renaldo Nehemiah or defensive tackle Bruce Clark, both highly regarded free agents, which could retard the team's growth, especially if both prove to be standouts.
The labor problem most likely will dominate the next months. Indeed, this possibly tranquil camp could turn into one of the most unpredictable in team history as the regular season draws near and the NFLPA remains without a new contract, which is highly likely. Says Gibbs:
"I don't feel like it (the negotiations) has affected the players' preparation for camp. But it will be a nagging thing, always hanging in the background. We can't kid ourselves, it will be there. But it will be something we will try to ignore while we conduct as normal a camp as possible."
In dealing with the drug controversy, Gibbs wants Carl Eller, the ex-Viking and admitted drug user, to address the team. He says his policy will remain: "We are here to help. I've really been trying to evaluate how I can help the players as a coach. I'm not naive enough to ignore the fact that drugs are a problem in our society and with people who have lots of money, but all this talk has cast a cloud over the players and the game. The stories have done an injustice to everyone."
The Redskins have signed 118 players. As many as 80 probably will report to Carlisle by 6 p.m. Wednesday, with the rest of the veterans due by July 31. Not even George Allen supervised such large numbers, but Beathard maintains he kept finding players good enough to challenge for roster spots.
An arduous offseason weight program conducted by newcomer Dan Riley has convinced Gibbs this team will be stronger and more durable than in 1981.
Special emphasis will be placed on defensive improvement, especially at end, where Gibbs says the play last season was "dreadful." He wants more aggressiveness from this unit and more hard hitting from his secondary, where cornerback Vernon Dean, the team's first draft choice (in the second round) comes in with a reputation of a zealous tackler. Dean could replace Parrish, who was traded to Buffalo.
Mat Mendenhall and Dexter Manley, last year's starters, and Mike Clark, who spent 1981 on injured reserve, will compete at defensive end. Darryl Grant, who has moved from offensive guard, also could be a factor, although he will be tried first at tackle, where Gibbs thinks he could be a regular.
"If we see the ends just aren't getting it done, we will consider switching to a 3-4," Gibbs said. "I'd even do it once the season begins. We aren't going to be stubborn and get killed at end like we did last year."
Any move to a 3-4 also will be affected by the development of middle linebacker Larry Kubin, another injured reserve graduate whose aggressiveness draws raves from Gibbs. Gibbs anticipates using Kubin as a stand-up pass rusher on long-yardage situations, assuming he doesn't beat out Neal Olkewicz.
To compensate for not signing track star Nehemiah, the Redskins hope rookie Carl Powell, a speedy deep threat, and Charlie Brown, last year's camp sensation, develop rapidly at receiver.
Gibbs would like to keep four running backs, four tight ends and four wide receivers, which means there could be massive cuts at running back. Gibbs also has to decide whether Wilbur Jackson or Riggins receives the bulk of playing time behind Joe Washington, last year's most valuable player (916 yards rushing, 70 catches). And where will runner-receiver Terry Metcalf fit in?
Unlike last season, Gibbs isn't worried about his vastly improved offensive line, where the major experiment involves moving May from tackle to guard. Gibbs also won't waste most of camp concentrating on a two-back offense, as he did in 1981. Instead, the Redskins will work on their one-back, two-tight end offense, although some two-back plays will be employed.
For the first 10 days of camp, the staff will take a closer look at rookie prospects such as tackle Don Laster, running back Reggie Williams, defensive end Todd Liebenstein, linebackers Lemont Jeffers and Jeff Goff, and defensive backs Willie Holley and Greg Williams.
Gibbs anticipates a smoother camp, with fewer roster changes than last year, mainly because of his experience and better knowledge of personnel.
"I know the players so much better," he said. "We will be able to move along much quicker and put people in the right spots faster. That will save time. I feel good about this team, I really do. But I just hope fans don't expect too much, not with our schedule. I just want everyone to be realistic."