Take a pitch and run towards the left side of the Washington Redskins' defense and, right now, you'll confront two uncertainties.
Really, these uncertainties are not brought about by a player's injury or absence. They are brought about by competition, the kind of fight-it-out motivator that management in all occupations insists is good for the workers' souls.
The positions in doubt are left end--is it Mat Mendenhall, last year's starter, or Todd Liebenstein?--and left linebacker. There, training camp roommates Mel Kaufman and Monte Coleman are trying to figure out if they'll alternate against the run and the pass, as they did at the end of last season, or if one man will toil in every game situation before getting hurt, as Coleman did at the beginning of last year.
Ask Lavern (Torgy) Torgeson, the defensive line coach, who the Redskins' starting defensive ends would be if the season opener against Dallas came tomorrow, rather than on Sept. 5, and you get this response: "Dexter Manley and I don't know."
If rosters are raised, as expected, from the current 45 players to 49 in the league vote Tuesday, the Redskins likely will keep seven defensive linemen, Torgeson said, four of them ends. Besides Mendenhall and Liebenstein, the defensive ends in training camp are 13-year veteran Tony McGee, Manley, and rookie Charles Mann, a third-round draft choice.
At least one of these five players won't make the team.
Because the coaches like McGee's pass rushing (he has 100 career sacks and still possesses functional speed, they say) and Mann's solid special teams play and seemingly bright future, the uncertainty falls on Liebenstein, a second-year player who was drafted in the fourth round, and Mendenhall, a third-year player drafted in the second round.
Both play best against the run. Liebenstein, 6 feet 6, 245 pounds, plays special teams and Mendenhall (6-6, 255) does not. Such versatility gives Liebenstein an advantage. Some team officials feel even though Mendenhall started at left end in every game last season, he is the vulnerable man.
"I suppose that would be the realistic view. I guess things just depend on what happens in the next two (preseason) games," Torgeson said. "Nobody has really outclassed anybody else yet."
"It's kind of a scary feeling," Liebenstein said recently. "Some of us sit around and talk about it. We're not really sure what's going to happen."
The left linebacker situation is slightly different. At the start of last season, Coleman was the starter. But in the first team practice after the players' strike, he suffered a separated shoulder. He missed one game and when he returned, Kaufman played against the run and Coleman played in passing situations.
Kaufman ran into trouble, in the form of tight end Clint Didier, in the first practice of training camp. He collided with Didier during a drill and suffered muscle spasms and a pinched nerve in the back of his neck. Today, Kaufman returned to participate in his first contact practice since then. He has a lot of time to make up.
Coleman has played both preseason games and Larry Peccatiello, the defensive coordinator, graded him this way: "Monte has played pretty well. We'd just like him to play the run a little better.
"Coming into camp, we felt it was Mel's position and Monte would be the nickel (passing situation) linebacker," Peccatiello said. "I would say if Mel comes back now and plays well, things could revert back to last year."
Translation: Kaufman (6-2, 218) against the run, Coleman (6-2, 235) against the pass.
"My goal is to become a full-time player. I don't think you can get in the rhythm of the game when you have to keep coming out," said Kaufman. "But coaches go on what they see and with me being hurt, they haven't seen anything from me. It's been very hard these past few weeks, having to sit back and watch."
"As of now, there is still some question about the position, I guess. We both want to be starters," said Coleman.
Both players admit to frustration in not being full-time players.
"It bothers me," said Kaufman.
"I think they are doubting me," Coleman said.
Peccatiello said, "I don't think it's a knock to either of them that they aren't playing all the time. I think it's a tribute to them. They are both good enough to play in the NFL.
"One just plays better against the run, the other plays better against the pass. As long as that's the case, we'll probably continue to deploy them that way. With Dallas only three weeks away, the key now is for Mel to get some game preparation."