A season and a struggle will begin anew today when the Washington Redskins play the Miami Dolphins at 1 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) before the 133rd consecutive sellout at RFK Stadium.
Perhaps it is coincidence that the Redskins will start against the Dolphins, the team they chase in the league history books. Back in the 1971-73 seasons, the Dolphins appeared in three consecutive Super Bowls and now the Redskins will try to duplicate that unequaled record.
"We have the chance to do something great," Coach Joe Gibbs has reminded his team, cautiously but pointedly. Gibbs holds a 30-11 regular-season record as he begins his fourth season in Washington, one more than former coach Jack Pardee (1978-80) was able to last.
Oddsmakers favor the Redskins by four points, but certainly this seems out of whack. Consider that the Dolphins' defense -- now filled with nine Killer B's with such surnames as Blackwood, Betters, Bowser and Bokamper -- is difficult to run against, even harder to pass against.
In Miami's 3-1 preseason, the Dolphins yielded an average of only 11 points per game. Remember that this defense helped Miami sky to 12-4 last year.
Furthermore, Miami quarterback Dan Marino, merely the league's third-rated quarterback as a rookie last season, has recuperated from a fractured index finger on his throwing hand and will start.
"There's still some swelling in it, but I can throw with it," he said this week. He played in only one preseason game and completed 20 of 38 for 203 yards in a 14-13 loss to Tampa Bay last week. His only scoring pass went the wrong way: intercepted by Tampa Bay's Hugh Green and returned 31 yards for a touchdown.
"(Against Tampa Bay) Dan showed signs of not playing in the preseason," Miami Coach Don Shula said. "He was rusty and he made some passes he shouldn't have. In practice this week, he appears to be throwing well and the finger doesn't seem to be bothering him."
Injuries have pestered both teams. Miami linebacker A.J. Duhe (knee and shoulder injuries) and kick returner Fulton Walker (thumb) have been placed on injured reserve. Duhe will be replaced by rookie Jay Brophy; Walker will be replaced by Vince Heflin, who will test the Redskins' special teams, about which their special teams coach, Wayne Sevier, said yesterday, "We haven't played well and I'm really concerned. Our kickoff coverage has been the thing we've done the poorest so far."
Also, Miami rookie running back Joe Carter, a preseason dynamo who was expected to spell Tony Nathan to keep him from being beaten to a pulp again this year, will be out for another week with a shoulder injury.
Miami nose guard Bob Baumhower, a four-time all-pro, and Redskins' defensive tackle Darryl Grant have injured knees that they will test in pregame warmups. Each is expected to be able to play some. Veteran Perry Brooks would replace Grant, should he be unable to play.
The Redskins had a quick workout yesterday and the mood seemed anything but tense. During stretching exercises, players playfully serenaded defensive end Dexter Manley, who was married in a ceremony held downtown earlier in the day.
Quite naturally, the jokes abounded as Manley told anyone who would listen about how nervous he was. "I figured out why I didn't get an invitation to the wedding," cracked offensive guard Mark May, kidding about how Manley seemed verbally to invite the multitudes. "They can only fit so many people in city hall."
Even Gibbs had to chuckle about the eve-of-the-opener day that Manley chose for his wedding. "I wanted to go, until I found out when it was," Gibbs said. He laughed and admitted of Manley's timing, "It is different."
Underneath the surface, though, there was a seriousness and perspective.
Today's opener will be the Redskins' first real game since that 38-9 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders in the Super Bowl and thereby will offer an escape hatch from empty conversation and emptier memories. Furthermore, it will provide a test for the Redskins' secondary -- with the return of strong safety Tony Peters and the disappearance of the nickname "Pearl Harbor Crew" -- to try to cover Miami's speed-to-burn receivers, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton.
Punter Jeff Hayes said, "We know we can't live in the past. That's how other teams have fallen."
And defensive tackle Grant, fully aware that the Redskins have won 31 of their last 35 games, added, "I'm quite sure that being up there with the best teams in history is in the back of everybody's mind. But it's a tough role and it gets tougher every year because other teams get better and they shoot at us. For us, it's like life accelerated."
The Redskins lost their opener to Dallas, 31-30, last year, then won 14 of their last 15. "We know certain things about Miami to be true," Gibbs said, looking somber. "They aren't going to make mistakes and they'll play smart. It's part of their history. There's never been a way to get anything easy off of Miami."