Stephen Davis will be the starter at tailback ahead of Skip Hicks when the Washington Redskins open the preseason Friday night at New England, Coach Norv Turner said today.
Turner said when training camp began that Davis and Hicks would compete for the first chance to succeed Terry Allen, who was released after last season. But most people in the organization assumed that Hicks, who rushed for eight touchdowns last season as a rookie, would emerge as the starter.
Turner stopped short of saying Davis has won the job for the regular season opener, Sept. 12 against the Dallas Cowboys. Still, Davis's assignment Friday night indicates which way the coaching staff is leaning at this point.
"They've both had good camps," Turner said. "The way Stephen practiced against Pittsburgh [during a joint workout with the Steelers on Tuesday in Latrobe, Pa.] gave him the edge right now."
Friday night brings the unveiling of the Redskins' new starting quarterback, Brad Johnson, and a pair of highly regarded rookies, tackle Jon Jansen and cornerback Champ Bailey. Jansen already is the starting right tackle, and Bailey could start Friday night.
Veteran cornerback Darrell Green dislocated the middle finger of his left hand during Tuesday's practice with the Steelers, and might not play against the Patriots. If the Redskins use caution with the 39-year-old Green, Bailey would start along with Darryl Pounds. The Redskins will be missing another of their defensive regulars, with tackle Dan Wilkinson sidelined by a sprained ankle.
This will be the first test of whether the Redskins' rebuilt offensive line can protect Johnson. It also will be a first look at veteran newcomers such as fullback Larry Centers and defensive end Marco Coleman. It will be a preview of whether Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell give the Redskins enough of a threat at wide receiver, and whether the team's new trio of starting linebackers -- Greg Jones, Derek Smith and Shawn Barber -- can succeed.
The Redskins may have more than the usual preseason emphasis on winning. New owner Daniel Snyder has made it clear he enjoys victories, even in scrimmages and preseason games. Last year, a flat preseason carried over into an 0-7 beginning to the regular season.
"I'm putting more emphasis on the preseason myself, and I think everyone else around here is doing the same thing," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said today. "We're not going to make the same mistake again. We're going to come ready to play from the first preseason game. We're not going to say, `Oh, he won't make that same mistake during the regular season.' We want to play well in the preseason, and have it carry over right into the regular season."
Turner traditionally has used his starters for about a quarter in the preseason opener, but says he may go with his first units for as long as a half Friday night. He says he plans to use backup quarterbacks Rodney Peete and Casey Weldon, but likely will use only two place kickers from among Cary Blanchard, Brett Conway and Jeff Hall. One of the kickers needs to have a solid preseason to win the job, for Turner has threatened to cut all of them and sign someone else.
The Redskins are proceeding cautiously with Bailey rather than just handing him a starting job ahead of Pounds. On the offensive line, Keith Sims has moved ahead of Brad Badger at left guard, but veteran free agent signee Andy Heck has not played well enough to supplant Joe Patton at left tackle.
The Redskins must depend on Davis and Hicks now that Barry Sanders has retired and Jamal Anderson has signed a new contract with the Atlanta Falcons, narrowing the trade possibilities for a running back. Hicks has big-play capabilities, but the coaches -- at least for now -- seem to prefer Davis's ability to grind out yards between the tackles. Davis, a fourth-year pro, started 11 games at fullback last season after Larry Bowie got hurt.
Johnson has shown during training camp that he's a big-time quarterback with a strong, accurate arm and the sort of swagger the team has lacked at the position in recent seasons. But he also has limped at times on a surgically repaired knee. The Redskins need to demonstrate that they can block well enough to keep him healthy. And they need to find reliable downfield receivers as a complement to Centers and tight end Stephen Alexander.
On defense, the Redskins will be debuting what they promise to be a more aggressive approach. Team officials hope safety Sam Shade, who was signed as a free agent during the offseason, will make a major difference. Coleman has been one of the team's best players during training camp, and the Redskins are optimistic Stubblefield will play much better than he did last season.
"I'm anxious to see our football team," Turner said. "We know we have a lot of work to do. We need to use every minute of the preseason to get better. We have a lot of new people we have to get on the same page. We're not going to treat it like a regular season game. But we're going to do enough things to give our guys an opportunity to make plays. . . . We're going to try to play these games as close to a real game as we can."