Sunday seems a perfect time for the Redskins to smooth the remaining wrinkles in a nearly flawless season.
The New Orleans Saints, losers of three straight, may lack their two best players, quarterback Ken Stabler and running back George Rogers, in the 4 p.m. EST game in the Superdome (WDVM-TV-9).
What better chance could there be for the Redskins to rediscover how to score touchdowns and how to best use Joe Washington, the team's 1981 most valuable player who has become the forgotten man of the 1982 offense?
If Washington (6-1) is to be a serious contender in the playoffs, Coach Joe Gibbs must correct the offensive flaws that have limited the Redskins to three touchdowns in the last four games.
It's probably just as important to find a place for Washington, one of the team's rare big-play performers who has spent the last weeks filling in for John Riggins and as a third-down receiver.
Washington's knee has healed from a preseason operation. He looks quick, and Gibbs promises that he will spell Riggins more often Sunday. But Gibbs has promised the same thing the last three weeks, only to stay mostly with Riggins' power runs.
"This (artificial) turf should be to Joe's advantage," Gibbs said. "And I'd like to balance it up between Joe and John. Things haven't worked out for Joe the way I had planned the last few weeks, but he adds something to our team. He's a playmaker and he needs to play more to get his confidence back and get into a groove."
Gibbs is reluctant to change a winning offensive formula, even if that formula barely produces enough points to keep the Redskins alive. He doesn't want to affect the morale of Riggins or his teammates by suddenly switching to Washington, even though the little halfback was a major reason the Redskins won eight of their last 11 games last year.
Washington gives the Redskins quickness, the one dimension Riggins can't supply. He is among the NFL's best running draws and he remains an elusive pass receiver. He also is better than Riggins on sweeps, a play that has not worked well lately for the Redskins.
"The ingredients are there for us to score touchdowns," quarterback Joe Theismann said. "We were making big plays earlier in the season and now we aren't. It's that simple. We put in extra time this week on plays inside the (opponents') 20. The emphasis should help."
Even though the Saints (3-4) have given up 56 points the last two weeks, their defense is not without strength. It ranks second in the NFC, thanks mainly to linebackers Rickey Jackson, Jim Kovach, Dennis Winston and Rob Nairne, and end Bruce Clark. The game has no betting line because of the Saints' injuries.
Gibbs expects both Rogers and Stabler to play, and has been warning his players against a letdown. His sales pitch has focused on the Redskins' drive for a home-field advantage in the playoffs.
"We need to win this game," he said. "If the home field is worth three points generally, it has to be worth five points to us. Otherwise, we would have lost a lot of games this year that we barely won. With the natural field and our fans, we need to play at home in the playoffs."
Redskins officials say that a victory Sunday would guarantee the team at least the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC, no matter what Atlanta (5-2) does. A No. 2 seed would mean at least two home games, should the Redskins keep advancing.
If Stabler can't play, he'll be replaced by former wide receiver Guido Merkens, who led the Saints in receptions last year. A former special teams standout, Merkens was a quarterback at Sam Houston State but had thrown only two pro passes until this season, when he moved to quarterback to replace the injured David Wilson.
Merkens has had a dreadful time replacing Stabler so far, completing only nine of 25 passes for 82 yards and one touchdown. He's thrown an interception and has been sacked four times. His backup will be Bobby Scott, who was activated from the injured list last week.
Rogers pulled a hamstring at practice Wednesday after gaining 166 yards against Dallas last week. He leads the NFC in rushing with 535 yards and is the major reason the Saints are the conference's No. 3 running team.
Coach Bum Phillips is rebuilding the Saints around their ground game, so even if Rogers is a spectator, they likely will keep running with Jimmy Rogers (who once gained 114 yards against the Redskins) and Wayne Wilson. They also have activated from injured reserve Marvin Lewis, a sixth-round draft choice.
And the Redskins are sure to throw an assortment of blitzes and stunts at both Merkens and his inexperienced backfield. But first, Washington wants to shut down the run and force the Saints to pass.
Over the last five weeks, the Redskins have allowed 116 rushing yards a game, including only 55 last Sunday against the Giants. A big reason for the improvement (last year, they yielded 135 each game) is the 3-4 alignment on second down. In 1981, Washington often would remove middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz and put in five defensive backs on second down. Opponents would then run, frequently for significant yardage.
This season, the Redskins have used the 3-4 alignment 29 times on second and 10 or more yards. Eighteen times, opponents have fared so poorly they still faced long yardage on third down, allowing Washington to use its nickel set.
"We still can play a lot better on defense," said safety Tony Peters. "Every game we are gaining more experience and confidence. We now feel we can shut people off, even on the run. And we know we're okay if they want to pass on us."