- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

When the NFL released its schedule last spring, many believed the Washington Redskins would be lucky to go 3-4 during what appeared to be an imposing opening stretch.

Funny how outlooks change once games are actually played.

A 3-4 record would no longer be cause for optimism in Washington. Quite the contrary: It might set off widespread panic.

The 3-3 Redskins team that faces the Buffalo Bills today at Ralph Wilson Stadium is in a highly volatile state. After a surprising 3-1 start against what has proved to be a less challenging schedule than originally thought, Washington has lost two straight and now faces the possibility of entering its bye week with a losing record.

That might have been acceptable before the season began. It’s not anymore.

“I think we’re all frustrated,” quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. “Because we know we can play so much better, and we could have won a lot of the games we lost.”

Strange as it may sound, the .500 Redskins are an underachieving bunch, and they’re running out of time to turn things around. A loss to the Bills (3-3) would raise some serious doubts about this team’s progress. And with next week off, it would inevitably lead to 14 days of overanalysis, second-guessing and speculation heading into the Nov.2 road game against surprising Dallas.

A win, however, would at least momentarily result in a calmer, more positive mid-season hiatus.

“It would certainly help us to get this game and be in decent shape within our [NFC East] division,” coach Steve Spurrier said. “We’re in second place within our division, so we’re not the only team struggling out there. But this is a crucial game for us.”

It’s a crucial game on several fronts. The Redskins need to prove they can rebound from losses to Philadelphia and Tampa Bay and beat a Buffalo team that has struggled.

They also need to prove they have shored up some problem areas that have haunted them all season: namely, penalties and blown assignments on defense, and the offensive line.

“If we’re going to lose a game, let us lose a game because a team was better than us that day, not because of mistakes we made,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said.

Finally, Washington must prove it can overcome its first significant injury hurdle of the season. Four starters from last week’s loss to the Buccaneers (running back Trung Canidate, tight end Robert Royal, nose tackle Jermaine Haley and cornerback Fred Smoot) are out this week. That list doesn’t include left guard Dave Fiore, who started the first three games but has been out since with a knee injury and will miss at least another three weeks after arthroscopic surgery Friday.

“We have a few [injuries],” Spurrier said. “We have plenty of players who are ready to step in there. Every team has injuries, so we’re not that bad off.”

Sure enough, the Bills are dealing with a couple of key injuries themselves. Wide receiver Eric Moulds, their lone proven outside threat, is still recovering from a groin injury that sidelined him last week against the New York Jets. It shouldn’t be surprising that Buffalo’s offense struggled without Moulds, producing a scant three points against New York. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Sam Adams has a sprained ankle and his availability, like that of Moulds, will be a game time decision.

While these players are battling minor bumps and bruises, Bruce Smith will be suiting up for the 270th time in his NFL career. It figures to be one of the Redskins defensive end’s more memorable games, combining his return to Buffalo for the first time since he left the Bills in 2000 with his continuing quest to break the NFL’s career sack record.

Smith, who spent the first 15 years of his Hall of Fame career in Buffalo and is 1 sacks shy of Reggie White’s all-time mark of 198, has been anticipating this homecoming for some time.

“I never had an opportunity to really see the fans and say ”bye,’ or ‘see you later,’ or ‘farewell,’” Smith said. “It’ll be nice to go back to Buffalo, but I have to keep myself focused. I’ll have time after the game’s over to visit.”

Smith’s return coincides with the honoring of one of his favorite former teammates, linebacker Darryl Talley, who will be inducted onto the Bills’ Ring of Honor before today’s game. By day’s end, Smith could be the one being honored as the NFL’s new sack king.

“We hope he gets the record,” Buffalo coach Gregg Williams said. “We just hope he doesn’t get it this week.”

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