- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Somewhere among the concerts and the franchise feuding, the circus on the Mall and the endless promos on television — note to ABC: “Laveranues Coleslaw” kind of loses its zest the 27th time you’ve heard it — there is a football game to be played tonight.

Considering all the hype surrounding the Washington Redskins-New York Jets season opener at FedEx Field, you might have a hard time remembering that.

Rest assured, the Redskins and Jets have their heads right. And although it would be tempting to buy into the frenzy and get sidetracked by the peripheral distractions, players young and old on both sides say they just aren’t going to do it.

“I don’t get caught up in it, to be honest with you,” said Patrick Ramsey, Washington’s second-year quarterback. “I focus more on what I need to do on the field and what we need to get done in order to win the game.”

Added Vinny Testaverde, New York’s 39-year-old quarterback: “With the media coverage, it seems to make it a bigger game. From a player’s perspective, it’s not. It’s an opening-season game for us; it’s an opening-season game for the Redskins. I’ve been through 16 of them. … Is it the most important game of the year? No. But, it’s an important game.”

There are no shortage of story lines in this one. The bad blood brewing between the two teams since the Redskins snagged four of the Jets’ prize free agents during the offseason. Steve Spurrier’s attempt to get the Redskins moving after a disappointing NFL debut. Testaverde’s sudden promotion to starting quarterback after Chad Pennington broke his left wrist two weeks ago. Champ Bailey kicking off what amounts to a contract year after the Pro Bowl cornerback and the Redskins cut off talks about an extension this week.

Perhaps most importantly, though, tonight’s game offers both teams an opportunity to start the season on a positive note — and, conversely, the threat of stumbling out of the gate.

“This is the season opener. This will set the standard for the year,” Redskins receiver Rod Gardner said. “We need to go out there and perform well as a team.”

Of course, success in Week1 doesn’t always translate into a winning record come Week16. Local fans were in a tizzy after Spurrier made his Washington debut with a 31-23 victory over Arizona last September. The Redskins proceeded to lose four of their next five games en route to a 7-9 season.

But given Washington’s daunting early schedule — seven straight games against teams coming off winning seasons — it appears all the more imperative that the Redskins look sharp in the opener.

“It’s important to start off positive and be 1-0,” guard Dave Fiore said. “There are teams that go 8-8 and make it to the playoffs. If you win, you’re one game closer.”

Before they can even begin to ponder a playoff run, the Redskins first must try to put together one complete effort on all sides of the ball. That happened once in four preseason games, a 24-3 thumping of Baltimore in the third week. Washington’s other performances ranged from inconsistent to downright awful.

If there was an encouraging sign, it was that the Redskins showed significant improvement from week to week, with the exception of last Thursday’s finale for which a host of key starters never even dressed.

Washington’s first-teamers, especially on offense, are ready to see what they are capable of over a full 60 minutes.

“The preseason, it runs on a little bit,” tackle Jon Jansen said. “You’re there for a couple of weeks before you even play, and then you have four preseason games. You never really get a chance to go the whole time in a game. It’s just a frustrating process. Now that we’re finally here, I think everyone’s excited.”

Despite their hit-or-miss preseason and the fact that they are coming off a losing season, the Redskins are 3-point favorites tonight. Few are expecting much from a New York team that saw its promising 9-7 team from a year ago dismantled by free-agent losses and one gigantic quarterback injury.

The Jets can’t do much about the one-by-one exodus of Coles, return man Chad Morton, guard Randy Thomas and kicker John Hall to Washington, but they aren’t cringing at the notion of Testaverde as their starting quarterback for eight to 12 weeks. Testaverde, after all, is 32-18 as New York’s starter, and he is the ninth most prolific passer in NFL history with 39,558 yards.

The Redskins’ defensive players aren’t taking the Jets lightly, and anyone who did this week was quickly corrected by a teammate or coach.

“We know not to look at it that way,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said. “Vinny Testaverde isn’t exactly a fall-off quarterback. So we have to go out there and approach it just like we did from day one. It’s been stated a few times, but it’s definitely understood: You can’t ever take anybody for granted.”

You certainly can’t when you’re coming off another frustrating season and want to make the most of a rare moment in the national spotlight.

“The last time we were on a national TV game [a Week 2 Monday night blowout at the hands of the Eagles], we were pretty bad,” Spurrier said. “But that’s last year’s team. This year’s team will have a chance to show the country if we’re a pretty good team or not. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”

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