- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

The Marty Schottenheimer era begins today with questions for the Washington Redskins.

Will heavy player and coaching turnover help them improve on last season's disappointing 8-8 mark? Has quarterback Jeff George's shoulder tendinitis healed? Will the offensive line plug interior holes with two unexpected starters? Can the defense regroup with four new starters following the loss of coordinator Ray Rhodes?

The biggest question as the Redskins open the season today in San Diego is whether a 1-3 preseason was an aberration or an ugly harbinger?

"A lot of people are concerned about us," offensive tackle Chris Samuels said. "We're anxious to show we are a good team."

Schottenheimer dismissed preseason results as meaningless. His rugged training camp was intended to peak the team for opening day. The rest is background noise.

"I didn't have any sense where we needed to be," he said. "Had we been 4-0 and played really well, you might say we're ready to go and then [we could] lay an egg."

Opening against the Chargers, 1-15 last season, originally seemed a kind gesture by the schedule maker, but now San Diego is a 2?-point favorite. Instead of gaining an easier chance to work out a myriad preseason problems that left the offense virtually grounded and the defense beaten by questionable quarterbacks, the Redskins suddenly face a competitive opponent. Fortunately, injuries to defensive end Bruce Smith, cornerback Champ Bailey, running back Stephen Davis, Samuels and George have healed, but neither offensive nor defensive lineup worked together during August.

Players seemed rejuvenated during recent days after the lackluster preseason. Perhaps it was surviving the draining, twice-daily training camp practices that caused players to forget the poor preseason and look ahead. Many believe the opener could dictate the season's outcome.

"The veterans are very excited about the point we're at now," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "We did a lot of things that were very good [during the preseason]. We did some bad things as well. We must eliminate the mental mistakes."

Schottenheimer and the rawest rookies face the opener with a sense of anticipation. The coach was an ESPN studio analyst just eight months ago. Now he's rebuilding an organization that was hampered by salary cap problems and few draft picks.

Schottenheimer doesn't expect many emotional moments in his first regular-season game since he left Kansas City after the 1998 season. He didn't feel any tugs on his heart when the Redskins visited the Chiefs in the preseason opener Aug. 12.

"I don't know if there will be anything different other than I am delighted to be back in the fray," he said.

Today's game marks the debuts of first-round receiver Rod Gardner and second-round cornerback Fred Smoot. Both earned starting roles in the final days of the preseason.

"We're both in prime situations to do great things," Gardner said. "We let each other know we have to get this done. We need to grow up. Hopefully, we can get that first good game out of the way so during the season we can go on and expect big things to come out."

The Redskins will face former coach Norv Turner, who became the Chargers' offensive coordinator this season after being fired by Washington owner Dan Snyder in December. Defensive players openly said they expect Turner to challenge them, but they don't want to outthink themselves trying to anticipate Turner's play-calling.

"We cannot get into a guessing game," Wilkinson said. "We have to leave it up to the coaches to try to decide what he's going to do."

Instead, the Redskins will be guessing how to contain elusive Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie. The scrambler bedeviled Washington while leading Buffalo to a 34-17 victory in 1999. Washington wants to jam Flutie inside where he can't see over the linemen rather than letting him creating plays while scrambling outside.

"He can evade the rush and make big plays on the run, which a lot of people can't do," said defensive end Marco Coleman.

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