Once again, Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs has been furrowing his brow and speaking of the pressure of winning a game his team is supposed to win. Quarterback Jay Schroeder has been firing practice bullets to wide receiver Art Monk as if they never missed a day of work. New York Jets' strike-busting defensive end Mark Gastineau has been glaring across the line in workouts with a look that seems to say the game really matters to him again.
Football, at least as we knew it a month ago, is back today at RFK Stadium. The real Redskins play the real Jets at 1 p.m. In many ways, it's like the season is starting over.
The Redskins, healthier than they have been since early August, exited last month as a 1-1 team and return today as NFC East leaders with a 4-1 record. They probably were the NFL team that was helped most by the strike. The Jets, 2-0 when they went on strike, are now 3-2 and regrouping quickly after 10 veterans crossed their picket line.
Ask both coaches, Gibbs and the Jets' Joe Walton, what they expect today and they will say they just don't know. Players have said they feel rusty. The timing between both teams' quarterbacks their respective all-world receivers, Monk and Al Toon of the Jets, is likely to be off a tad. And no one knows how teammates will react to teammates and how the fans will feel about what they are watching.
"You're concerned about a lot," Gibbs said yesterday after the last practice of the week at Redskin Park. "There's been such turmoil, you don't know what is going to happen. There's more pressure, because it's like you're starting over."
Before we were so rudely interrupted last month, the Redskins were fighting injuries to starters at 11 of 24 positions (including kickers). Today, seven of those 11 players will start. Only running back George Rogers, middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz and cornerback Tim Morrison will not start, but they are expected to play. The other is kicker Jess Atkinson, who will be out for at least another month with a dislocated left ankle.
Some things never change. The Redskins running back situation was in disarray because of injuries before the strike, and it's in the same shape now. Keith Griffin, Gibbs' trusted reliever, will start as he did against Atlanta in the last game before the strike. Rogers, Kelvin Bryant and Timmy Smith will all play, Gibbs said, depending on the situation. If it's third down and inches, expect Rogers, who still has a sore left big toe. If it's second and seven, expect Bryant, whose latest nagging injury is a hamstring "twinge." If it's first down and Griffin is tired, expect Smith, a rookie who, if anyone remembers, played well in preseason. If fans are confused, imagine how Gibbs feels.
"I thought we would have been more settled than this," he said.
This game is a test case for the theory that a team that stuck together during the strike will be rewarded for its dedication after the strike. The Redskins represent union solidarity at its best; not one player crossed their line. The Jets represent union splintering at its best; Gastineau was spit on by teammates on his way to work one day, while team leaders such as defensive linemen Joe Klecko and Marty Lyons and backup quarterback Pat Ryan crossed, too.
"Things will never be the same," Toon said. "Everything's changed. People are in a different frame of mind and they have different thoughts in their mind. Hopefully, that won't get on the field . . . But you can't forget what's happened."
The Redskins will have only one former replacement player on their 45-man roster: H-back Craig McEwen, one of the heroes of the replacement team's 13-7 upset of Dallas. (Tight end Joe Caravello's sprained back will keep him out of this game.) McEwen will be the third-string H-back behind Clint Didier and Terry Orr and will be a backup on special teams. It's possible he might never get into the game.
"If I don't get in, that means everyone's healthy and playing well," McEwen said. "That would be fine with me. If I do get in, I don't think anyone will make a big deal about it. If fans do notice, that would be very nice. It would feel super if they showed what they felt about the replacement players."
The Jets are expected to have two ex-replacements on their roster: offensive tackle Ken Jones, an 11-year veteran who is likely to start, and nose tackle Scott Mersereau.
The Redskins hadn't heard that Jones might start. He is expected to line up at right tackle in place of Dan Alexander, who is moving to right guard to replace injured Joe Fields. Ironically, Fields pulled a hamstring on the second play of practice on the day he crossed the picket line. Defensive end Charles Mann will play opposite Jones. Dexter Manley, playing on the other end of the Redskins' line, will make his first start since the NFC championship game.
"We have a lot of pressure on us," Mann said. "But I can't really sit and worry about how the fans will react, if we will get booed, whatever. I'm excited to be back. My body feels fresh. My legs feel good. I've got my wind. It's great to feel this good this late in the season."
Some veterans were not activated for this game, including quarterback Babe Laufenberg, tight ends Glenn Dennison and Cliff Benson, linebacker Kurt Gouveia and offensive linemen Rick Kehr and Dan McQuaid.
The Jets are the only NFL team Gibbs has never faced. The last time these teams played was in 1978. The Redskins have won all three meetings between the two teams.