Transition. That word that has come up often around the Washington Redskins the last few months. The most visible signs may soon be in the construction of a new Redskin Park and owner Jack Kent Cooke's plan to build a 74,000-season football stadium across the street from RFK Stadium.
But the transition is visible in several other areas. For instance, in the general manager's office, where Charley Casserly has taken over for Bobby Beathard. It's visible in the offensive line, where youngsters Ed Simmons and Mark Schlereth are moving in for veterans Russ Grimm and Joe Jacoby.
It's visible up and down the roster. Doug Williams and Neal Olkewicz are gone, but the NFL's Plan B free agent system has brought in guys named Brad Edwards, James Wilder, Kevin McArthur and Ron Middleton. The Redskins have spent a lot of this summer wrestling with how to fit the new and old faces together and they are still considering options a week and a half before the season starts.
Coach Joe Gibbs has warned that his team could be exciting, but that at the moment few people know how the parts are going to fit together.
What seems clear is that, while the Redskins want to squeeze another Super Bowl out of this group, they also know that a transition has begun. That was never clearer than this year: They have resisted all sorts of urges to give up next year's first-round draft pick in exchange for some much-needed help at cornerback.
The Redskins haven't had a No. 1 pick since 1983 and they believe they can do only so much when they continually enter the draft late in the second round. Casserly said flatly the time "has come to draw the line on the draft pick."
He points to other teams, like, for instance, the New York Giants, who've hung on to their first-round picks and kept a steady supply of young talent coming in. This doesn't mean there won't be arguments. Gibbs is adamantly opposed to trading veterans, the players he calls "good Redskins."
Gibbs, more than many coaches, wants to keep his players. He emphasizes that they live in Northern Virginia and work at Redskin Park year-round and when a player makes sacrifices for him, Gibbs wants the player to be part of the family.
"It's also a matter of team chemistry," Gibbs said.
Instead, Gibbs has preferred trading draft picks. That's how the Redskins got Gerald Riggs, Wilber Marshall, George Rogers and others.
But the philosophy may be different now because the situation may be different. The Redskins have used the Plan B system to restock their team the last two years and as Casserly said, "Where would we be without those guys?"
Even with those players, the Redskins have been out of the playoffs two years in a row and a lot of signs say their circumstances haven't changed. By almost any gauge the Redskins this season hope to end what has been a severe decline in a lot of areas. Against their NFC East rivals, the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, the problems have been particularly sharp. They've lost seven of their last nine games to the New York and three of the last six to Philadelphia.
Worse, they've gone 8-8 at RFK the last two years, an amazing fall for a team that was so dominant at home (47-11) during Gibbs's first seven seasons.
"The one thing we've got to do is play better at home," veteran center Jeff Bostic said. "The one thing we always did so well was defend our home turf. I don't know the reason that has changed, but we have to work on getting that back."
This will be an odd season in other ways. For one thing, they open by playing seven of their first nine games against NFC East opponents. Beginning in Week 5, they play the Giants and Eagles four times in a five-week span and don't play any of their NFC East opponents at home after the Eagles Oct. 21.
The Redskins were upset enough about that schedule to complain to the league office and suspect the schedule was drawn that way to put some of the best games on during the fall sweeps. That particuarly angers Gibbs. "Don't we have a good enough product without trying to create something artificial for television?" he said. "I mean, come on, aren't the television ratings there anyway?"
Having filed their complaints, the Redskins now have to live with the schedule and should have a lot of their season settled by Week 9 -- Nov. 12.
"We haven't been a very fast-starting team," quarterback Mark Rypien said. "We'd better change that this year or we're going to be in trouble. By Week 9, we may know what kind of season we're going to have. You can't make up a lot of ground when you're not playing conference opponents."
Still, for all their worries, the Redskins believe they're capable of getting back to the Super Bowl. That's one reason why a lot of people suspect that if some team offered a star cornerback for next year's No. 1 pick, the Redskins would jump at the offer and let the philosophy of not trading the top pick wait until next year.
They still have not settled on who their everyday running back will be and how the offensive line will shake down. But those positions are deep and it may only be a matter of finding one positive over another.
Quarterbacks: Rypien finished hot last season and was rated the NFL's fifth-best quarterback. The negative is that he was at his best against five non-playoff teams after the Redskins were all but out of the playoff chase.
That may mean nothing. The Redskins point out that he's big, strong and smart, and seem to believe he's more than capable of taking them to the Super Bowl. However, they're also very high on Stan Humphries, and Rypien knows that a long dry spell could open up playing time for his backup.
"We think a lot of Mark," Gibbs said. "He showed last year that he has great instincts and can make big plays. Now, the only question is how far he can take us. This is an area we feel real good about."
Running Backs: The Redskins feel real good about this area too. Earnest Byner has held the starting job all summer and some team sources prefer him, saying the offense is more diversified with him in there.
At the same time, Gerald Riggs was the starter last season before he got hurt and could turn out to be the heavy-duty ball carrier Gibbs once had in John Riggins and has not had since.
Riggs has had injury problems the last two seasons and must now prove his body can hold up an entire season. The Redskins were uncertain enough about this to bring in Wilder, the Tampa Bay veteran.
The positive is that all of them have been No. 1 backs at one time in their careers, the negative is they're no longer kids. What do they have left? Gibbs has said several times this summer that running back is one of the strongest areas of his team.
Offensive Linemen: The strongest area of the team, the line is a mixture of young and old players. Veterans Grimm, Jacoby and Jeff Bostic are back for another season, and youngsters Simmons, Raleigh McKenzie and Schlereth have proven they deserve to play. Left tackle Jim Lachey has shown that he's simply one of the best in the game.
There's also a crowd at the H-back-tight end position, where veterans Don Warren, Terry Orr and Jimmie Johnson along with Plan B signee Middleton have created another strong position.
Wide Receivers: No one has three better than Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, and the signing of Plan B free agent Walter Stanley from Detroit, where he led the league in punt returns, has made this position even stronger.
Defensive Linemen: A problem caused by injuries. Left tackle Charles Mann had another Pro Bowl year in 1989 and has had a terrific camp. Youngsters Tracy Rocker and Fred Stokes are being counted on to play as they did last year and Markus Koch will be a pass-rushing specialist. Veteran Darryl Grant reported to camp late because of a contract dispute, but will be back at his usual right tackle spot.
After that, there are questions. Plan B signees Milford Hodge and Pat Swoopes are competing for backup spots and another Plan B player, Jumpy Geathers, is rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee. If he can play as expected, by October, he could be a valuable inside pass rusher. He had 26 sacks in six seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
Linebackers: Another problem area. Marshall is one of the best anywhere and veteran Monte Coleman is a valuable specialist on passing downs. Ravin Caldwell and rookie Andre Collins have had solid camps. Middle linebacker Greg Manusky hasn't played as well as had been hoped and Kurt Gouveia, if he stays healthy, could win the job.
Defensive Backs: Another big problem area. Safeties Todd Bowles, Clarence Vaughn, Alvin Walton and Edwards are very solid, but cornerback is another story. If Darrell Green stays healthy, one question will be answered. Martin Mayhew will start opposite him and he too is solid. After that there's not a proven commodity and the Redskins have talked to several teams about trading for cornerback help.
Their big hope is that Brian Davis will recover from his thigh problems and give them a solid year. If not, the Redskins could be playing a lot of 42-38 games.
Kicker/Punter: The Redskins were so happy with kicker Chip Lohmiller and punter Ralf Mojsiejenko that they didn't bring in any training camp competition.
Overall: Like a dozen other good teams, the Redskins believe they can get back to the Super Bowl if they're not eaten up by injuries. That's especially true in the secondary and on the defensive line, where a series of injuries -- or even one to a key player -- could ruin all of those hopes.
Is Rypien the quarterback to lead them into the '90s? Can Riggs have another big-time season? What's the offensive line combination?
"We've had good hard work in camp," Gibbs said, "and now we just have to hope we make the right evaluations about our people. I don't think anyone would pick us real high because we have more questions than others."