Sometimes preseason games produce as many questions as answers. It's the kind of irritating thing that keeps the mind of Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs balancing on what he keeps calling "the ragged edge."
In Saturday night's 13-10 overtime loss in the preseason opener in Atlanta, questions zeroed in on reserve quarterback Bob Holly and starting punter Jeff Hayes, a pair of 23-year-olds, each of whom got married only weeks apart within the last two months and who would like to keep the jobs they now have.
Start with the ugly, but necessary quarterbacking supposition: what if Joe Theismann gets hurt this year?
True, Theismann is unusally durable and has missed only one start due to injury since he became the Redskins' starting quarterback in 1978 (Mike Kruczek quarterbacked a 10-6 loss to Atlanta in a 1980 game when a pulled hamstring reduced Theismann to holding for field goals and extra points).
Gibbs insists he feels content with his current reserves. Holly, who did not play one regular-season down last year, seemingly has established himself as the Redskins' No. 2 quarterback, in front of Tom Owen, entering his 10th NFL year, and Babe Laufenberg, the rookie with tendinitis in his throwing arm.
Evaluation of Holly has been difficult so far. He has played only with the Redskins' reserve offensive linemen, spending most of the time trying to avoid sacks. Holly was sacked five times in the second half against Atlanta and completed just nine of 21 passes for 117 yards.
Gibbs stands behind Holly, saying, "I think he has done well, considering."
Though he won't criticize his young linemen, Holly confesses, "If I get into the game with Joe Jacoby and some of the other guys (starters), I might appreciate it."
Likely, the Redskins will keep three quarterbacks. According to Redskins officials, the real battle now seems between Owen and Laufenberg. "Some people say the Redskins don't want to keep two young guys (behind Theismann). I hope that's not true," said Laufenberg. "I really don't know what they're thinking."
Does the Indiana quarterback, known as a "gunslinger" for his long-range, baseball throw-type passes, fear that he might get cut? "I know if there is a knock on my door at 7 o'clock in the morning, I wouldn't hear it," Laufenberg said, giggling. "I'm a heavy sleeper."
There are those Redskins officials who will say that Owen's disappointing training camp has turned him into a sleeper now, too. Owen is a 30-year-old, happy-go-lucky blond, who drives a nifty 1962 red Corvette, hangs out and laughs with fellow Kansan John Riggins and speaks happily, in near-lyrical phrases.
Owen is seemingly the eternal NFL reserve quarterback, having thrown just 349 passes since joining the league in 1974. "How old am I?" he will say. "I played behind Norm Snead once (1975 with San Francisco)."
Gibbs said today Owen will get his chance against Cincinnati Friday night at RFK Stadium. Owen, who has played eight games in the last six years, knows he has experience on his side. That, however, may be his only ally right now. "No, I don't think I will get cut," he said. "But, hey, it could happen. Just like interceptions can happen. But I do feel that I belong here."
The punting situation is a bit different, if equally as perplexing.
In Atlanta, Hayes had four punts for a 29.5-yard average. That included a nine-yard punt. "Disappointing," said Wayne Sevier, special teams coach. "Very disappointing."
"I kept asking myself Saturday night, 'What in the world are you doing? You never even punted this bad in high school,' " said Hayes, who came from the University of North Carolina to beat out incumbent Mike Connell last year. "I know the people of Washington don't think I'm a very good punter. But I know I have the ability.
"(Saturday night) was just one night where nothing went right. I couldn't kick a spiral to save my life. This is an important week for me, against Cincinnati. I have to prove to people that I am an NFL-caliber punter."
Hayes was the Redskins' starting punter last year. Also, his powerful kickoffs allowed the Redskins' to save Mark Moseley's right leg solely for field goals and MVP trophies.
Hayes' 38-yard punting average ranked 27th among the league's 28 starting punters (only Buffalo's Greg Cater's 37.9 yard average ranked lower). However, the key statistic for punters is net average (total punt yardage minus return yardage) and Hayes' 33.3 yard net ranked 19th in the league. Not great, but better than 27th.
"If our punting doesn't get better, we might have to look elsewhere. Jeff's got potential, but we can only wait so long for potential without a guy producing," Sevier said, noting that the hang time of Hayes' practice punts goes as high as 5.2 seconds and that it slipped to about 4.4 seconds in games last year. "We want 4.8," Sevier added.
Dave Smigelsky is still in camp, serving as Hayes' primary competition and motivator. Smigelsky, 24, was a punter of promise with the Redskins two years ago, but was cut in training camp. He went to Baltimore last summer, was traded to Atlanta, where he punted for the first seven games. He had a 38.5-yard average and a 33.9-yard net average in 26 punts. Then Smigelsky was cut.
Against Atlanta, Smigelsky had four punts for a 32-yard average. He, too, had a nine-yard punt. It came with 1:30 left in the fourth quarter, fluttering out of bounds at midfield with the score tied. It didn't help his chances.
"(Smigelsky) had two-three good kicks," said Gibbs. "Then, when you've got to have it, with a couple minutes to go, he kicks a 10-yarder. I think that speaks for itself."