Three days before the regular-season finale, the Washington Redskins are experiencing their most extensive run of injuries and illness this year, with the most serious problem involving kick returner Mike Nelms.
A pulled muscle in his right thigh limited Nelms to returning punts against New Orleans last week. Neither Nelms nor the Redskins would officially rule him out of Sunday's game with St. Louis, but he admitted he was less than positive about his availability.
"If I play this week, it could be just doing the same as last week, returning punts," he said. "And that means I probably would be returning only punts in the playoffs. If I gave it a week off, I could do both. Anyone in his right mind would want to be healthy for the playoffs.
"But it feels better today than it did yesterday. We'll have to see how it improves. I'll be suited up."
If Nelms does not play, which appears likely unless he improves considerably, Nick Giaquinto, who returned kicks briefly for Miami two years ago, will replace him. Nelms' usual backup, Alvin Garrett, is out for at least two weeks with a badly sprained ankle.
And Giaquinto's backup, Virgil Seay, limped from the practice field yesterday with what was diagnosed as a strained hip flexor muscle. Seay didn't return, but trainer Bubba Tyer said he thought the young wide receiver would be healthy by Sunday. Seay will be examined by Dr. Stanford Lavine today.
With Seay and Garrett unable to work out, the Redskins were left with only two wide receivers, Art Monk and Charlie Brown. Coach Joe Gibbs said they would be spelled by tight ends Clint Didier and Rich Caster if Seay did not improve.
Linebacker Monte Coleman remains the other most seriously injured Redskin. He aggravated his shoulder Sunday and did not practice yesterday. He said he expected to play on special teams against St. Louis but was not sure if he could handle his usual pass coverage duties in the nickel coverage alignment.
"My shoulder doesn't feel as bad as the last time I aggravated it, but it still is worse than last week," he said. "I'll just have to wait to see."
The reduced number of offensive players yesterday hindered the Redskins' preparations for Sunday, when they will try to secure home field advantage for all NFC playoff games.
"We are kind of beat up and hobbling around," Gibbs said. "We are going to follow our normal policy. If a guy is nicked and can't play 100 percent, we will hold him out. If he is okay, he'll play. We aren't going to worry about the playoffs the next week. We want to win this game first."
Fullback John Riggins, who has a bruised thigh, worked out some. Guard Russ Grimm, who has a stress fracture in his left leg, was replaced by guard Fred Dean, although Grimm will play Sunday. Fullbacks Clarence Harmon and Otis Wonsley have influenza.
Nelms first bruised his thigh against the Giants two weeks ago. He pulled a muscle above the injury in practice last week and cut back on his workload. On Sunday, the leg felt tight and Wayne Sevier, the special teams coach, decided that returning kickoffs would endanger Nelms.
"On kickoff returns, you have a long run and a long burst and that pushes the leg," Nelms said. "On punt returns, there is less chance of hurting it because the bursts are shorter. I really didn't make it any worse by playing on it Sunday. And it would be nice to play this Sunday, since St. Louis has good special teams."
Nelms has been frustrated recently by opponents who have been kicking away from him. But he still is one of the Redskins' few big-play athletes. Giaquinto lacks Nelms' acceleration, but he has sure hands. And he says he's ready to play.
"Anything to get my hands on the ball," said Giaquinto, who has one carry and one reception this season. "I love return work, anyway. I think it's fun. I did it for four years in college and I don't care which I do, kickoffs or punts."
If the Redskins have only two wide receivers Sunday, Giaquinto could find himself playing on third-down passing situations, filling in as the motion man, the second tight end. Usually, Monk does that.
Cardinals guard Joe Bostic, brother of Redskins center Jeff, had an arthroscopic examination of his injured knee Monday and won't play Sunday. Nickel back Roger Wehrli, scheduled to play the final regular-season game of his 14-year career, injured a knee in practice. He faces surgery, and it appears his 18-yard touchdown run as holder on a fake field goal against the Giants last Sunday was his last hurrah. Safety Lee Nelson, who has missed the last two games, will start . . . The Redskins have been impressed with linebacker Stuart Anderson, the former Virginia star signed last week to replace injured Pete Cronan . . . This is an important game for the Cardinals. If they win, they will play host to a first-round playoff game.