On any normal Sunday, an undefeated Washington Redskins team wouldn't wonder about the greeting it would receive today from its usually faithful fans in RFK Stadium. But on this day, with memories of the eight-week strike still fresh, the players admit they aren't sure how the crowd will react during their game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I think the reception will be pretty good, but I'm sure the fans still have to get rid of some of their frustration," middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz said. "If they have to, go ahead. But let's hope everyone is glad to get the strike over with so we can get on with football. They've always treated us great in the past."
Coach Joe Gibbs is optimistic about the fans' reaction to the 1 p.m. game (WDVM-TV-9). It's been 350 days since the Redskins last played in RFK and he thinks the long absence might overcome any crowd resentment about the walkout.
"I'm expecting a good reception," Gibbs said. "We've been gone a long time and the fans have seen our team play hard on the road and win some tough games. They should be real proud of these players. I'm selfishly hoping that they'll give us a lift.
"I've always thought we have an advantage at RFK. The fans are wonderful and the stadium is different. It's not like the real new stadiums. It looks different and we have grass, not artificial turf."
Strike or not, the Redskins already have their 108th straight sellout, since all seats are sold before the season. But how many ticket holders will show up to watch Washington, one of the National Football League's surprise teams?
Last year, the Redskins averaged 3,510 no-shows for eight home games, 6 percent of capacity. The highest total was 8,339 against the Colts. The 1981 Eagle game had only 2,839 no-shows.
"Being 3-0, we should get a very good greeting," said kick returner Mike Nelms. "I don't expect they have forgiven anything, but they've more or less put it aside. They've had a chance to cool off.
"I hope they look at us as people who are performing a service, just like anyone else who works. This is a game to the fan but for me it's the way I support my wife and pay the mortgage note. I wasn't born a pro -- I worked very hard to get here. The whole point of the strike was to say we didn't think we were receiving proper compensation for the services we produce. Just like anyone else, we wanted to be paid what we think we are worth."
Some of the strike's sting today could be neutralized by another return. Joe Washington, who made a token appearance against the Giants last week, is fit for more work now, which should help a Redskins offense that already has the National Conference's No. 1 passer, Joe Theismann, and rusher, John Riggins.
"Joe is going to play considerably more," said Gibbs, whose team has won six straight over two years and five in a row at home. "But John is going to start. He's played so well and he's carried us at times. Joe should be able to give him more rest and he also can add certain things to our offense when he is in there."
Washington is eager to get going after a long layoff caused by a preseason knee operation. "I was able to do a lot in practice this week, things like cutting and changing direction, and the knee felt great," he said. "One more week has helped me, because it was a long time off for me. I had to feel comfortable again and now I do."
To win three straight on the road against 1981 playoff teams was a difficult enough task for the Redskins, but to do it without Washington, their leading rusher and receiver last year, was just as surprising. His return couldn't come at a better time for his team, either, since the Eagles desperately need a victory after an unsettling 1-2 start.
The Redskins beat Philadelphia, 37-34, in the opener, outgaining the Eagles, 487 yards to 427. Philadelphia had a 416-176 yardage advantage last year in RFK, but lost, 15-13, when linebacker Monte Coleman returned an interception 52 yards for the winning touchdown. Coleman has a sore shoulder and will be limited today to pass defense duties, if he plays at all. Mel Kaufman will start for him.
"Football runs in cycles and sometimes you can't do anything about it when things don't go right," Washington said. "The Eagles are going to get things straightened out, but I just hope it's not this week. That's why I'm glad we are 3-0. The fans should be behind us. If we were 0-3, it might be different."
Even though the Eagles are leading the NFC in total offense (374 a game), they fell behind, 18-0, last week against Cincinnati before finally losing, 18-14. Philadelphia's normally strong defense has dropped to 13th in the conference, yielding 389 yards a week.
To help bolster a shaky rush defense, Coach Dick Vermeil has moved Jerry Robinson to inside linebacker, replacing Washington native Al Chesley. But the Eagles aren't running the ball well, either. Wilbert Montgomery, who has sore ribs, has gained only 133 yards, although he has had three 100-yard games against the Redskins.
Philadelphia has six turnovers, a respectable total, but overshadowed by the Redskins' mere two. Washington is playing nearly perfect football, but hasn't had an easy victory yet. Naturally, Gibbs is concerned how long his team can continue to avoid telling errors.
"We know we have to keep away from turnovers to win," he said, "but it's something you can't ever predict. If we start giving the ball up a lot, we can't stay with the Eagles. It's that simple."
Gibbs laughed. "Everyone says to me it should be easier to play the Eagles now, because our staff is more familiar with their personnel. Heck, it makes me nervous, because I know how well they are capable of playing. Sometimes it's better not to have as much knowledge."