Joe Gibbs would like everyone to believe that Sunday's confrontation with Dallas represents merely another obstacle in the Redskins' playoff push.
So what if Washington is the only undefeated team in the NFL since Miami lost its first to Tampa Bay last night, 23-17; so what if the game is in RFK Stadium; so what if the Cowboys are the one team Redskins' fans want to beat above all others? And so what if this is the most important game of his short Washington tenure?
No matter. Gibbs is one Washington coach who is not about to deliver fiery rhetoric about the Cowboys. His staff may spend extra time, even during the offseason, studying Dallas, but come the week before this game, Gibbs watches his words as if his job depended on every utterance.
"From being here a year, you sense this game is special to the fans," said Gibbs, who last year allowed he was curious to see what Dallas week was like. "You get more questions about them than anyone else.
"But I don't know if I have any particular feelings. I think the fact they beat us twice last year, the only team to do that, means something . . . (but) I don't think one game is a crusade. It's a very important game, but I think you take a logical approach to understand how important the game is and what it means to us.
"This game certainly is as important as any of the others. Each week, as a coach, you view the next game as the most important in your career and in the team's future. We realize what kind of team Dallas is and what kind of challenge we have . . . It will be the only chance we have to play Dallas, at least in the regular season, and that makes it important, too."
Gibbs did admit that beating Dallas would help his players achieve one of his goals for them: recognition.
"Our players are not as well known as their players, for the most part," he said. "I think they have players who are established; they have many more Pro Bowl players than we have; they've been recognized because they've won. That's what we are striving to do; we are striving to win, so maybe our players will get some recognition."
Gibbs conceded a victory over Dallas may give his team credibility that even four straight victories this season hasn't earned.
"I'm sure people are still looking at us, not knowing what to make of us," he said. "No one would have projected we would have beaten four playoff teams already. But it's been a life-and-death struggle . . . I know against Philadelphia, I felt like I was sliding down a wall, trying to hold on with my fingernails."
Yet the Redskins are at a point in this season where even Gibbs worries that they could be spoiled by success.
"Success could spoil us if we aren't able to cope with it," he said. "The players realize what kind of team we are and certainly, with Dallas coming into town, you won't get carried away.
"You kind of build your own monster. When you lose, doubt creeps in. When you are winning, you cope with other problems, like letting the small things start to slide and not being as hungry and not playing with the same intensity and not realizing how you got to where you are. We spend a lot of time talking about that. It takes a total team effort for us to win and they realize that."
Gibbs also said:
* He and General Manager Bobby Beathard talked to Robert Sigholtz, general manager of the D.C. Armory Board, about the condition of RFK Stadium, criticized by both Redskins and Eagles players Sunday. "I didn't think it was in as good a shape as last year," Gibbs said. "The field doesn't seem to have the same thickness. And the sidelines were a mess, all muddy. Bob (Sigholtz) said he thought it was the same as last year, but that they would try a couple of things on it to see if they could improve it."
* He hasn't lost confidence in punter Jeff Hayes, although the rookie from North Carolina is averaging only 35 yards a kick, below the Redskins' preseason expectations. "Jeff didn't kick as well as we wanted on Sunday and he knows it," Gibbs said. "I have great confidence in him. I think he can be a star in this league. He's still just a young guy, but he has great potential."
* Rookie cornerback Vernon Dean is "living up to what we expected of him when we drafted him. He's a very tough guy, very smart and as he gets experience, he'll get better and better." Dean had his best game as a pro against the Eagles, although he was the only starting defensive back who didn't have an interception.
The lack of major injuries in the two games since the end of the strike can be attributed greatly to the Redskins' revamped weight program. "This is a result of a lot of hard work," Gibbs said. "We are ahead of where Dan Riley (the team's strength coach) expected us to be. We put an emphasis during the offseaon on improving our strength and this shows the result of our overall awareness about strength problems last year. We don't worry anymore about protecting our personnel because they aren't strong enough."
Mike Nelms, who has fumbled three times this season, says he is considering covering the football with both hands on kickoff returns "at least for the first 10 or 15 yards. All three fumbles have been unavoidable. I've been hit on the arm in the same place and I'm just not strong enough to overcome the force of the blow" . . . Dallas has won the last five games against Washington, including two straight at RFK. The last Redskins victory was Nov. 18, 1979, in RFK (34-20). Dallas won, 26-10 and 24-10, last year but Gibbs said Washington "is improved since the second game, we are healthier and we are playing better."
The Cowboys last played Thanksgiving Day, beating Cleveland. They have had similar layoffs 14 times over the years and only once have they lost the first game afterward . . . Gibbs said he hoped linebacker Monte Coleman, who sat out Sunday with a bad shoulder, will be able to play against the Cowboys . . . The Redskins were disappointed that Joe Washington did not carry more against Philadelphia, but Gibbs was concerned the wet field could threaten Washington's bad knee . . . Although all four Redskins' victories have come against 1981 playoff teams, those clubs have combined for only three victories this season, counting Tampa Bay's victory last night over Miami. graphics 1/photo: AP Rookie Vernon Dean of Redskins, enjoying best NFL game, breaks up pass intended for Ron Smith of Eagles. graphics 2/photo: By Joel Richardson--TWP Eagles' view of Charlie Brown's touchdown shows referee with hands in air to signal score and Brown flipping the ball behind him in end zone.