One month and one day before the season opener against Dallas, the doubts and the holes in the Washington Redskins' secondary continue to spread wider and wider.
With Jeris White, a 10-year cornerback, continuing to hold out for an estimated three-year, $1 million contract (including incentives and bonuses), rookie Darrell Green, the first-round draft pick from Texas A&I, will likely take his starting spot.
Now, as the shock waves caused by Tony Peters' arrest Wednesday on a cocaine trafficking charge continue to hit with the force of a linebacker, Peters' starting strong safety spot will be taken in Saturday night's preseason game at Atlanta by Ken Coffey, a 23-year-old Texan who spent his rookie season last year on the injured reserve list.
Peters is a veteran entering his ninth year who started in the Pro Bowl last season.
"It seems our team has been best when dealing with adversity," Coach Joe Gibbs said today. "This team has had the ability to rise above it all."
"We have to be realistic about all this stuff," said Richie Petitbon, assistant head coach/defense. "Nobody said this was going to be easy."
Asked if Peters' absence will affect White's contract situation, General Manager Bobby Beathard said, "It doesn't affect it at all."
While most of the attention last year was focused on Riggo drills and the offensive line's Hogs, the defense was yielding the fewest points in the league (128) during the regular season. In the Super Bowl, Miami quarterbacks David Woodley and Don Strock did not complete a pass during the second half, so competent was the Redskins' secondary.
"Our defense is as complex as most of the offenses we play against," said linebacker Neal Olkewicz. "We didn't want any nicknames on the defense last year. We were kind of 'just leave us alone and let us play.' "
Now, however, many problems seem unwilling to leave the Redskins' secondary alone. "We'll take a long look at Ken Coffey. Hopefully, he'll be ready," said Petitbon. "If he's not, we'll possibly move (reserve free safety) Curtis Jordan over to strong safety. Then, there is always the possibility of a trade."
Beathard said today an immediate trade for a strong safety is unlikely. "We went into training camp better off at safety than 90 percent of the teams in the league. I think we're going to have to do it with what we've got here," Beathard said.
What the Redskins have in training camp, really, is only one honest-to-goodness strong safety on the 85-man roster. That is Coffey, the six-foot, 190-pounder from Southwest Texas State who suffered a blood disorder last year caused by an allergic reaction to quinine, which was given to some Redskins to combat the heat in a preseason game at Tampa Bay.
"It's tough to step into a starting role, but I really don't think all eyes are on me now," said Coffey. "What people aren't seeing is how good our defensive team is as a whole . . . It's an awful thing that happened to Tony and I was shocked by the news. But then again, it's a good opportunity for me to step in and start."
There are five free safeties on the roster: starter Mark Murphy, the man responsible for giving the verbal and hand signals to the secondary; Jordan (a seven-year player); Greg Williams (second-year player currently out with a knee injury); Tom Deery (first year), and free agent rookie Vic Vines.
A strong safety defends against the run and covers the tight ends; the free safety is the last outpost of defense, helping out on pass coverages.
"The biggest problem we have now," said Larry Peccatiello, the defensive coordinator, "is working with young guys who have no playing experience in the NFL."
"You can't substitute for experience," said Jordan, who came to the Redskins in 1981 after starting 33 games at Tampa Bay (23 at left cornerback, one at right cornerback, five at free safety, four at strong safety).
"It takes two to three years, I think, to learn the defense here. I had a hard time picking it up. I think (right cornerback) Vernon Dean picked it up faster than any rookie I've ever seen last year . . . It would only take me a couple days to make the move to strong safety."
Jordan, 29, played safety last year in third-and-short and goal line situations. He is a free spirit who often wears red-and-white checkerboard sneakers ("So I can take them off and play checkers or chess on airplanes," he said, laughing). He told Gibbs in the offseason that if a team wanted to trade for him to make him a starter, then please let him go.
"It's not that I'm unhappy here. I love Washington. I just have career goals. I want to break into the (starting) lineup," Jordan said.
At the Redskins' minicamp in May, Peters had talked of the difficulties for a young player starting in the secondary: "It's hard for a rookie like Darrell Green to pick up the signals that either me or Mark Murphy are giving. During the game, I'm speaking with a mouthpiece in my mouth, I don't speak that well to begin with, and there are 60,000 people screaming in the stands. So it's hard to hear.
"There's so much movement that, sometimes, it's hard to see the hand signals, too. An experienced player can pick up the signals because he just knows. It takes time with a rookie because he is always thinking about so many things."
Consequently, there is concern that continuity and mutual understanding in the Redskins' secondary might be lost. There is the further concern that Green, only 5 feet 8 and 170 pounds, and Coffey do not hit with the force of White and Peters.
"Last year, this secondary got the reputation for hard hitting," said Jordan. "It's so important that when a wide receiver comes into a game that he knows his head will be rapped. It's a psychological thing that once you've established it on the defense, it's a real asset."
Coffey said today, "I'll just have to do as well as I can. Any time I get the chance to start and play, it's exciting."