Soon after he was named coach of the Atlanta Falcons in February, Dan Henning had a meeting with Eddie LeBaron, the team's executive vice president.
"Just wanted to let you know," LeBaron said, "that you open (the preseason) with Washington."
Henning laughed, and he still can laugh about it. Of all the teams he might have chosen to play in his head-coaching debut, the Redskins would have been his last choice.
Before taking the Atlanta job, Henning was the Redskins' highly regarded assistant head coach and chief confidante of Coach Joe Gibbs. Henning was influential in formulating both the use of personnel and the technical intricacies of Washington's innovative offense.
Now he has a team of his own, the inconsistent Falcons. He's openly molding them in the image of the Redskins, complete with a one-back offense and similar approaches to training camp and game preparations.
"It will be like looking in a mirror," Henning said yesterday about what awaits the Redskins in Saturday's preseason opener at Atlanta. "You believe in something, so it's logical to stay with it. But there will be differences that are dictated in large part by differences in personnel."
Henning assembled an excellent staff of assistants and then set about running a "teaching and instructional camp." The Falcons haven't even scrimmaged against another team, and he admits his players "are getting tired of hitting each other." But he's convinced they've responded to his organized, meticulous ways.
"After the last minicamp, they weren't in the kind of shape we thought they had to be in," he said. "We told them they'd better shape up to run the kind of camp we were planning. Ninety-five percent of them responded the way we wanted. Of 90 guys, we've dropped 1,000 pounds since the minicamp. All our testing times and other measurements have improved, too. It was very encouraging."
There is a major difference in the situation confronting Henning now and what faced Gibbs and Henning when they took over the Redskins three years ago. Washington was considered a team in flux; the Falcons are considered a team of untapped talent. Every season in the recent past, they have been expected to be a title contender, yet they've usually found a way to self-destruct.
Henning's first task has been quarterback Steve Bartkowski, a former Pro Bowl player who apparently lost his confidence last year. "People have misconstrued his temperament for giving up or not trying," Henning said. "That's not true. He's very even-tempered, which I think is an asset. He's responded very well and he's done everything we've asked. Last year, despite everything, he was No. 3 in the NFC in passing percentage."
Talented William Andrews will be the one back in the Falcons' backfield, and he'll be helped by a quality line and good receivers. A new defensive philosophy could help that unit gain some consistency. But it would also help if three holdout players decide to return to camp.
Those holdouts have served as Henning's welcoming committee to the head-coaching ranks. Although the three are stars (tackle Mike Kenn, guard R.C. Theilmann, linebacker Joel Williams), Henning has clearly established himself in management's corner.
"It's critical that the team comes first," Henning said. "If people sign contracts and then try to renegotiate them before the contract is finished, it will open a Pandora's Box . . .
"I've told everyone here that it isn't a distraction for me. It might have been if we had been here and knew these players better and had developed personal relations with them. If they don't come back, we will just go ahead and play with the people we have."
Henning says he doesn't feel any pressure in playing the Redskins in his debut. Instead, he says "it will give me a chance to see the 40 or 50 people in the organization that I have't seen since the Super Bowl. Everything happened to me so fast after that game that I haven't had much of a chance to visit or thank them. Now, I have that opportunity."