The Washington Redskins have sorted out their starting lineup, made it through the bulk of the preseason without calamitous injury and stand within one victory of their first undefeated preseason since 1985.
But when Washington hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tonight at Redskins Stadium in the preseason finale for both teams, Coach Norv Turner will be looking not so much for that 4-0 mark as for evidence of development. While winning has helped the Redskins build confidence, Turner and his players know that the real measure of their success comes Sept. 12, when they open the regular season against the Dallas Cowboys.
"What I'm really looking for in this game," Turner said yesterday, "is to continue to take another step in terms of progressing to be a good team. I want to see us play better than we have the last three weeks."
Added veteran running back Brian Mitchell: "The preseason doesn't really mean a thing. As soon as it's over, it goes back to 0 and 0. But we want to have a good showing [tonight] to show that it wasn't a fluke."
The Redskins starters are expected to play little more than the first quarter, or as long as it takes to get in 15 to 20 plays. After that, Rodney Peete, named backup to quarterback Brad Johnson this week, will take over the offense.
Wide receiver Irving Fryar, 36, is expected to make his debut. He came out of retirement Aug. 19 to become the team's third receiver. Tonight's work should demonstrate how close to game shape he has gotten in two weeks.
Tampa Bay should also give the Redskins' starting defense its toughest test yet. The unit has surrendered only three points in three halves of play, but the Buccaneers have what many consider the NFL's best backfield in running back Warrick Dunn and fullback Mike Alstott.
Tampa Bay, coming off a 45-14 victory over New England, is tied with Green Bay for most points scored this preseason (92) and ranks first in fewest points allowed (24).
Once the Redskins' starters, backups and kicking units are accounted for, only two spots remain open on the roster--assuming fullback Larry Bowie, who is expected to miss the first eight weeks with a broken ankle, is counted against the 53-player roster. Turner indicated yesterday that he preferred to reserve a spot on the roster for Bowie, but acknowledged that his plan would have to be adjusted if the team loses other players to injury after the season begins.
Redskins officials will make their final cuts Saturday, although teams have until Sunday to do so. After fifth-year player Joe Patton was cut earlier this week, starters and hopefuls alike are feeling the pressure.
"Everybody knows everybody is under the gun," said guard Tre Johnson. "The scrutiny, I think, is good. It gets the blood boiling. I think everybody is drawing deep within themselves. It's 'Prove it, or be out.' It's a great motivational factor, that fear." Against Tampa Bay, players projected as backups will be competing largely to establish how much playing time they will get.
"Guys who show they can contribute during the game will get an opportunity to do that during the season," Turner said. "It could be in short-yardage, it could be in goal-line situations, or third-down situations."
Roughly a dozen will be competing for those roster spots. Several seem to be on the bubble, with the final decision likely turning on their abilities on special teams.
Fryar's addition has crowded the competition among wide receivers, but former Canadian Football League player Nigel Williams will try to convince coaches he is worth keeping. It seems clear the Redskins will keep at least five receivers: Michael Westbrook; Albert Connell; Fryar; James Thrash, who Turner said has had "an outstanding camp," and Chris Thomas, who is valued on third downs and special teams.
"There are a couple other young guys I think have a future," Turner said. "We'll just see where we're at when we get down to the total numbers. At some point, those guys aren't competing against the receivers; they're competing against the [defensive backs], the linebackers and extra linemen."
The NFL trend toward playing four wide receivers argues for keeping plenty of cornerbacks, and that could help Tito Paul, recently acquired from Denver for his special-teams skills.
Tight end Kevin Pesak's bid for a roster spot has been hurt by an ankle sprain, which will keep him out of the final preseason game. The Redskins also will continue to evaluate linebacker Antwaune Ponds, and fullback Chad Dukes has drawn Turner's notice for his playmaking ability. Dukes had four receptions against Buffalo in the second preseason game.
"It's similar to what Larry Bowie did three years ago," Turner said of Dukes. "He was a long shot. They get in games and all of the sudden they're going fast and making plays, and they get your attention. It still comes down to playing well in games, and he has done that."
REDSKINS (3-0) VS. BUCCANEERS (3-0)
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Redskins Stadium.
Line: Redskins by 1 1/2.
TV/Radio: WRC-4; WJFK-FM-106.7, WBQB-FM-101.5, WKIK-FM-102.9, WFMD-930.