SAN DIEGO, JAN. 27 -- "Ali is the kicker," Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs announced today, to which Ali Haji-Sheikh replied: "Oh."

In essence, what the Redskins have held these last couple weeks was a kicking duel between Haji-Sheikh and Haji-Sheikh.

"From what {Gibbs} told me all week, as long as I didn't fall on my face in practice, he wouldn't make a change," Haji-Sheikh said today.

Jess Atkinson, the other Redskins kicker out here, had been preparing for the worst, so all is not lost for him. He went over to the nearby Miramar military base the other day to see the Top Gun pilots do some kamikaze-type flying manuevers, and he wondered out loud where Tom Cruise was. His sense of humor not lost, Atkinson's having a swell time here.

As for Haji-Sheikh, he never looks like he's having a swell time, but that might just be the perfect attitude for this Super Bowl. Having missed five of his last eight field goals, Haji-Sheikh could be a jumble of nerves right now, but he isn't. Having just been named the Redskins kicker, he could have leaped jumping-jacks, but he didn't.

"I've been preparing myself as the kicker all along," Haji-Sheikh said today with a straight face, though he also has several gray hairs at age 27.

"Oh, that runs in the family," he said of the gray. "My mom was premature gray."

On the other hand, it's even money he won't be on an even keel come Super Bowl Sunday, at least if Denver kicker Rich Karlis' experiences mean anything.

Last year against the New York Giants, Karlis missed the shortest field goal in Super Bowl history, a 23-yarder in the first half. Later, a 34-yarder with 13 seconds left in the half might as well have been a 74-yarder, because he pushed it wide, too. Instead of leading, 16-9, the Broncos led, 10-9, and eventually were walloped, 39-20.

"I was in too big of a hurry," Karlis said today, explaining. "For some reason, my heart was racing last year, and that hadn't happened in any game since my first year."

Karlis made a 48-yarder in last year's Super Bowl, but that was after the Giants called a timeout because they had an extra man on the field. Karlis used his chance to regroup.

Kicking in a Super Bowl is no day at the beach. Today, Karlis compared last year's nerves to the feeling he had on his wedding day, except maybe the wedding was worse.

"Kicking lasts 1.3 seconds," he said. "Hopefully, a marriage lasts a lifetime."

Kickers get kicked around a lot. Karlis mentioned Jim O'Brien of the Baltimore Colts, who made the winning field goal in Super Bowl V and was cut before the next season. Karlis is often called "Rich Careless" in Denver, and has been known to have a love-hate relationship with the people of that city.

Between 1984 and 1985, Karlis had a nine-game stretch in which he hit the left or right upright with six field goals. Two of those misses could have sent games to overtime, and he needed to be escorted by armed guards out of Mile High Stadium after the first miss against Seattle.

After the second miss against Kansas City, a local restaurant put up a sign on its marquee that said, "Rich Karlis doesn't eat here," which the owner thought would boost sales. Instead, people boosted up picket signs at the front door, as Karlis became a sympathetic hero.

Actually, Karlis stayed on a pretty even keel after the Super Bowl. "I could've gone off the deep end," he said.

Instead, he visited a Vietnam veteran named Sung Cho five times a week over the summer to learn martial arts. He'd rise and shine every morning at 5:45, ride a bicycle through a 12-mile course, then visit with Sung Cho. Every time he didn't feel like doing it, he'd think about the 23-yarder he shanked against the Giants.

Karlis said the martial arts improved his leg strength. He gained 10 pounds, and he says he's kicking better than ever. On the season, he made 18 of 25 kicks. He's three of four in the playoffs.

At 28, Karlis considers himself one of league's veteran kickers, which is why he has "adopted" several others. Whenever Miami's Fuad Reveiz or Chicago's Kevin Butler get in slumps, Karlis calls and delivers pep talks.

In the early '80s, Karlis went out to try a game winning kick against San Diego, and his buddy, Rolf Benirschke, gave him the thumbs up sign. Karlis nodded, made the kick and Chargers owner Alex Spanos hit the roof, wondering why Benirschke would root for the opponent.

Karlis says kickers stick together everywhere. In fact, there's a North American Pro Kickoff every summer where the league's kickers compete in contests ranging from best field goal kicking to best onside kickoffs.

It's getting big-time. The first year, it was held in Ottumwa, Iowa, but now they hold it in Hawaii, which is definitely a step up. Mike Lansford won the inaugural event, but Reveiz has won the last couple, Karlis said.

Apparently, it's not BYOH -- Bring Your Own Holder. These kickers are finicky, and a good holder can make all the difference. Karlis didn't like his current holder, Gary Kubiak, at first, but they're great together now.

If you want to trace Haji-Sheikh's troubles, it might be best to start with his holders. In his rookie season with the Giants, he had one of the all-time greats, Scott Bruner. That season, Haji-Sheikh set an NFL record, making 35 field goals, 14 of which were inside 30 yards.

His second season, he made only 17, but he had a new holder (Jeff Rutledge) and a new snapper (Rich Umphrey). Karlis and Haji-Sheikh say never underestimate the importance of a good snapper. Haji-Sheikh has been through three this year (Jeff Bostic, Darryl Grant and David Jones), and he likes Bostic best. So Bostic will snap in the Super Bowl.

Haji-Sheikh said today Jay Schroeder has been a decent holder, but perhaps has been thrown off by all the different snappers.

"Let me tell you," Haji-Sheikh said, "if you can get the snapper and the holder to work well together, the easiest thing in the world is kicking a field goal."