With only six days remaining in training camp, it is apparent that the Redskins' much-criticized defensive ends will leave here as the team's major concern.
There is some guarded optimism among the coaches that the play of the ends, which Coach Joe Gibbs said "was not up to NFL standards" last year, has improved.
But that improvement does not satisfy the expectations of Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator. "We would all like to have the ends play a whole lot better," he said.
Petitbon said the ends "weren't very impressive against Miami (in the preseason opener). We were hoping for a big improvement out of all of them and as of yet, we haven't seen any. But it is too early to become awfully worried."
To protect themselves, the Redskins are studying closely films of defensive linemen from every other league team, although General Manager Bobby Beathard says he is not yet actively pursuing a trade.
"We are grading everyone we look at," Beathard said. "You try to keep on top of everything so if a player becomes available and we think he'll help us, we can grab him. Good defensive linemen are such a scarcity, anyway. The chances of getting one are slim."
Whether the Redskins pursue a trade more vigorously could depend on the play of the ends this Saturday at Tampa. The Redskins especially are hoping that Dexter Manley, who was inconsistent against Miami, starts living up to their expectations as a pass rusher.
Manley has the physical ability to be a dominant pass-rushing specialist. If he fills that role, it would ease a glaring problem and reduce the need for a deal. His development, along with the continued improvement of Mat Mendenhall against the run, are the keys to ending the crisis at end.
"The ends are better now than they were at the end of last season," said Torgy Torgeson, the veteran defensive line coach. "Experience is one reason. Dexter was a rookie who played from a standup position in college. He had to learn to move from a three-point stance, plus absorb a lot of other things. It was a difficult process for him.
"Mat had a bad knee all year after sitting out the year before because of illness. He's never had a full year where he has been completely healthy. If he can keep away from injuries, he should come along okay."
Against Miami, Torgeson said, he generally was satisfied with the line's work against the run, in which the Redskins were particularly weak last year. But he was displeased with the pass rush. The Dolphin quarterbacks received little pressure and were not sacked.
The Redskins had one bright spot that night. Rookie Todd Liebenstein (No. 4, Nevada-Las Vegas) had by far his best effort of the preseason.
"Todd was very active and he hustled and made things happen," Petitbon said. "If he keeps improving, I could see where he could be a pass-rush specialist for right now. But he still needs to keep getting better."
Liebenstein missed most of his senior season with a knee injury and still lacks the upper body strength needed to excel in the pros. But he could be quick enough now to be rotated into the lineup, if Torgeson decides to go with role players instead of using Mendenhall and Manley on every down.
Mike Clark, drafted by the Rams last year and acquired off waivers by the Redskins, has been a disappointment. Clark was slowed earlier by a bruise, and the coaches say he has yet to show the aggressiveness he had in college.
"Clark didn't have a good game, but he'll be used against Tampa and we'll see what he can do," Petitbon said. "Just like with everyone else, he doesn't have much experience and it shows."
Still, Mendenhall and Manley, who went through a difficult learning process last season, remain Torgeson's chief projects.
"I'm playing the run better than I did last year," said Mendenhall, the 1980 No. 2 choice from Brigham Young. "I made up my mind to come to camp in the best shape of my life and I did. But I know I still need a lot of work on my pass rush. I'm quicker, but it's going to take lots of time to get to the point where I want to be."
Mendenhall had some fine games last year stopping the run, but he was usually removed on passing downs. He said his goal is to "be so good that the coaches want to play me full-time. It was frustrating knowing they thought someone else could rush the passer better than I could. It wasn't fun last season getting picked on (by other teams), but you realize if you don't get better, you are going to get run out of the league."
Torgeson: "Mat's added strength has helped him on running plays. We can see progress with him. But his pass rush isn't up to where we want it. He's working on using his feet better. We just have to hope he'll improve."
Manley is one of those rare athletes who can weigh 240 pounds and still run a 4.55 40-yard dash. He has many of the same abilities as San Francisco's Fred Dean, but last year was overwhelmed by the transition from colleges to the pros, especially when teams ran right at him.
"I don't want to be good. I want to be great, I want to stand out," Manley said. "That's why the game against Miami was a bad one for me. My job is to get to the passer and I didn't. But it'll come. I didn't have any experience last year but that's behind me. I should benefit from it."
Torgeson: "Dexter has the ability to be a really great pass rusher, but we want to be patient with him. He's got what you are looking for: quickness, aggressiveness, desire. If he could give us a pass rush, it would really help the entire defense."
Petitbon says that if the ends don't come around, he will be forced to gamble more with blitzes, which also will leave the defense more vulnerable to big plays