Up until today, the Washington Redskins' strike has been played out on picket lines and practice fields, in conference rooms and in news conferences. Today, it moves to familiar turf, RFK Stadium.
While one team of Redskins pickets outside, the other team of nonunion replacements will try to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals and give the collective Redskins their second victory of this strike-torn season.
This will not be easy. It might even be impossible. After all, the Cardinals, who are 1-1 just as the Redskins, will have 11 strike-breaking regular players on their 45-man roster. The Redskins will have none. It's a mismatch of talent, experience and know-how.
What the 35,000 to 40,000 expected fans and curiosity-seekers will see today at 1 p.m. at the stadium is anyone's guess. It might be part "Twilight Zone," part "Laugh-In." Or, it might look mysteriously like something the fans missed last weekend: namely, pro football.
Simply put, today the Redskins will find out if their acclaimed scouting and coaching juggernaut can win them a football game.
Gibbs has called this game "one of the great challenges in sports." In 10 days, he has put together a team of players looking for another chance, or men who were good college players but didn't quite make it in the NFL. Until now. St. Louis Coach Gene Stallings was working under the same constraints until 14 of his veterans broke the picket line and came back, among them all-pro wide receiver Roy Green, strong safety Leonard Smith and defensive end Curtis Greer, who leads the NFC in sacks with three and expects more today off new offensive left tackle Mark Carlson. Stallings still is working with rookie quarterbacks, as is Gibbs, so that's a wash.
"For the people who look at football deeply, it's an interesting time," said Redskins backup free safety Danny Burmeister. "You get to see a lot of the players who were close to making teams. You get to see how some players who didn't make the last cuts will play."
The replacement Redskins will be running the plays the regular Redskins run, only today it will be quarterbacks Ed Rubbert and Tony Robinson throwing to wide receivers Derrick Shepard and Ted Wilson and H-back Craig McEwen, who caught five passes for 87 yards and one touchdown this preseason.
"It will be a vanilla offense," McEwen said. "For me, it's been easy to pick up because I have not had to learn anything new. We've had to keep it basic so everyone can pick it up."
It will be obvious by late this afternoon if the replacement Redskins can beat the mix-and-match Cardinals. But could the new Redskins beat Oklahoma, the top-ranked college team, McEwen was asked.
"Yes, definitely," he said. "Oklahoma has some of the best players in college, but we've got most of the best. We don't have the Art Monks and Gary Clarks, the really great players, but we have size and some pretty talented players."
Eight of the Redskins' expected starters on offense and six of the defensive starters spent at least one training camp with the team. They appear to be a close-knit group. Gibbs and his coaches have been able to build themselves a team, at least in spirit, in these two weeks.
There could be troubles at any position, but the Washington offensive line might be the team's weakest spot, and the defensive secondary is going to be severely tested by Green and J.T. Smith -- if quarterbacks Shawn Halloran and Sammy Garza can get the ball to them. Expect to see both zone and man-to-man defense by the Redskins.
"I'm hoping it keeps raining," starting free safety Skip Lane said after a soggy practice yesterday. "That might slow Green down to 4.4 speed and give us a chance to catch him."
Rubbert will start at quarterback for the Redskins, but Robinson might play quite a bit. His style of play is made for this game. He is tall (6 foot 3) and rangy and he runs very well. This game figures to be on the wild side, with little time in the pocket and lots of scrambling and improvising. If Rubbert doesn't get the team moving early, Gibbs just might put Robinson in to see what he can do.
"I just don't know what to expect," Gibbs said yesterday. "It's hard to say what will happen in this game."
It's hard to imagine the Washington placement kicking game being any worse than it was at Atlanta two weeks ago, when three bad snaps by Jeff Bostic cost the Redskins a potential four points in a one-point loss. The kicker will be left-footed Brendan Toibin, a rookie from Richmond, where he once kicked a 52-yard field goal. Punter Jack Weil, who played six games with Denver last season, will hold, and linebacker Eric Wilson, from Maryland, will snap on placements.
There undoubtedly will be many bizarre moments today. There will be strange plays, unstoppable blitzes, missed coverages, spectacular catches, unknown heroes. The Redskins have a potential crowd-pleaser in big Joe Caravello, who played at Tulane and was a free agent with Atlanta the last two seasons. Caravello, who is 6 feet 3 and 270 pounds, is a first-team tight end and a second-team defensive tackle.
Most interestingly, it all counts in the standings and record books, the NFL owners have said. If running back Lionel Vital gains 207 yards, he breaks George Rogers' single-game rushing record by a yard. If Green catches 15 passes, he would break a record for most catches by a Washington opponent, set in 1940 by Philadelphia's Don Looney (14).