The Washington Redskins finished their annual roster dance this week. Terry Orr and Clarence Vaughn were waived and brought back. Stephen Hobbs and Jon Leverenz were waived, brought back and sent to injured reserve.
The Redskins held onto all their prized offensive linemen, kept five talented receivers and appear to have their defense in the best shape possible barring the arrival of a Pro Bowl cornerback. They have no serious injuries.
The question then is what have they created and how much different is it from the team that went 10-6 and missed the playoffs a year ago? The answer may be that the Redskins are significantly better, although September roster moves don't always translate into January victories.
A year ago, the Redskins also felt good. That was before a lead over the Giants slipped away and one against the Eagles was fumbled away. Those were devastating enough but almost trivial compared to what happened when the Dallas Cowboys came to RFK and left with their only victory.
General Manager Charley Casserly calls that 13-3 loss "our day of infamy" and Coach Joe Gibbs ranks it as one of the darkest days of his career. A victory in any of those games would have sent the Redskins back to the playoffs, so when Gibbs talked yesterday about the fallibility of plans and potential, he spoke from experience.
"It doesn't do any good to talk about a lot of things," he said. "I can't speculate on it. I'm as much in the dark as anyone about this stuff. You have to go out and make the plays. It's when you jell, that kind of thing."
The Redskins didn't walk away from last season believing they needed a major overhaul. What they needed was to fine tune a bit, add depth (and competition) here and there and hope it was enough to push themselves past the Giants and Eagles.
The Redskins are 4-4 against NFC East opponents the last two seasons, and they've gone 0-4 against the Giants, losing the four games by a total of 14 points.
"It comes down to winning games," Casserly said. "Seven of our eight division games were decided in the fourth quarter last season, and when it gets down to it you have to make it happen. You can say you lost because it was bad luck or whatever, but that's the kind of thing you want to hear the other team saying. You go out and win games."
Gibbs has said it would be silly to pick the Redskins to finish ahead of the Giants or Eagles and has emphasized that in what he calls "an era of transition" they could end up in Super Bowl XXV or miss the playoffs a third straight year.
That era of transition began at midseason last year, and when the 1990 regular season opens against the Phoenix Cardinals Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium the Redskins will have changed seven starters from their last opening day.
Their 47-man roster has nine new faces -- one acquired via trade, one signed as a veteran free agent, two draft choices and five from the quirky Plan B system of free agency.
The changes in the starting line are reflected in several areas, especially the offensive line, where youngsters Mark Schlereth and Ed Simmons have, for the moment, replaced Joe Jacoby and Mark May. Top draft pick Andre Collins will start at outside linebacker, becoming only the third rookie to start an opening game for Gibbs.
(Ed Simmons, subbing temporarily for May in 1986, and Darrell Green, winning a job outright in 1983, where the last two rookies to start an opening game.)
Overall, though, the changes are more subtle. The Redskins believe they may be better for other reasons. Quarterback Mark Rypien, about to start his second straight opener, is another year older and wiser.
Kelvin Bryant's return gives them potentially the best third-down back in the game and Plan B signee Walter Stanley led the league in punt returns for Detroit last season.
"There are so many offensive weapons that it's just a matter of getting all the parts to fit together," Rypien said. "There's no doubt that it's a talented group. As talented as any."
Their special teams have been the stars of training camp, with kicker Chip Lohmiller going eight for eight on field goals, rookie Brian Mitchell running a kickoff back 92 yards and Joe Howard returning a punt 84 yards. In four preseason games, the Redskins averaged 11.9 yards per punt return, while allowing 7.7 yards per return. They averaged 30.4 yards per kickoff return and allowed 18.8 yards per return.
"Special teams are going to have an impact on this football team," Casserly said. "They're going to win some games for us."
The Redskins are less sure about their defense. Tracy Rocker and Fred Stokes became starters late last season and their continued development will be watched closely. Veterans Darryl Grant, Charles Mann and Markus Koch have been consistent performers and the Redskins like what they've seen of newcomer Tim Johnson.
They're less happy with the play at middle linebacker (Greg Manusky and Kurt Gouveia) and extremely nervous about cornerback. Darrell Green is a proven commodity, and Martin Mayhew played well after being promoted to the starting lineup last season.
He's likely to be tested frequently this season and third cornerback Brian Davis, who has star qualities if he's finally over a pulled quadriceps that has sidelined him three times in four seasons, could emerge as an important performer.
Overall, the Redskins have about as many reasons to smile as anyone in the NFL. But there's the matter of injuries, bad bounces, winning close games, etcetera.
"No one knows," linebacker Wilber Marshall said. "That's the thing about the first week. We don't know that much about ourselves because we really haven't been tested. We don't know that much about the other team because they haven't played a real game yet. You just go out and hope they run what you're prepared to stop."
It would be impossible to underestimate how important Rypien is to all of this. He's surrounded by the best personnel this side of Candlestick Park, but he still has to make good decisions and throw good passes. He still has to prove he can take the Redskins to the playoffs.
Rypien accepts this burden good-naturedly, saying a lot of things go into making a good team, but quarterback certainly is one of the factors.
"You look around at the people and you have to smile," he said. "But how well is it going to work together?"