Here's a very iffy pick: The Redskins will unseat the Cowboys as champions of the NFC East. These are the ifs:

--If the Skins can stop the run.
--If their rookies come through on defense.
--If they can figure out what's wrong with Michael Westbrook.
--If Alvin Harper can get deep.
--If the team doesn't fold down the stretch.

Washington finished 28th in the league in total defense in 1996,
last against the run. Still, the Redskins were there, fighting
for a playoff spot. Then Dallas hit them for 201 yards on the
ground while rolling to a 21-10 victory on Thanksgiving, and 10
days later the Bucs socked them for 209 rushing yards in a 24-10

Why couldn't the Redskins stop the run? Well, 303-pound tackle
Sean Gilbert was hobbling on a sprained knee and held up by a
succession of double teams. The other tackle, Marc Boutte, had a
sore knee too. It is crucial this year that this twosome be
intact, especially since middle linebacker Marvcus Patton is new
to the position, having moved from the weak side. In other words
they must sign Gilbert, who was a holdout as of Monday, and
Boutte has to stay healthy. The pass rush is in good shape, with
Ken Harvey flying in from one wing and Rich Owens, whose 11
sacks were the most by any Redskins lineman since Charles Mann's
11 1/2 in 1991, coming off the other.

Coach Norv Turner wrote off his team's defensive collapse to
"poor tackling, injuries, sometimes just bad luck," but five
days after the season ended, he shook up his staff, replacing
defensive coordinator Ron Lynn with the Giants' Mike Nolan. He
also devoted his draft to defense, using six of his eight picks
for players on that side of the ball. Top pick Kenard Lang of
Miami is a solid run-stopping end, and the next two
selections--speedy linebackers Greg Jones of Colorado and Derek
Smith of Arizona State--should help fill Patton's outside spot.
Turner's most important free-agent pickups were defenders, too:
Oilers cornerback Cris Dishman and Chargers end Chris Mims.

Turner could focus on his defense because his offense is in
decent shape. When it's clicking, it's a pretty thing to watch,
with running back Terry Allen banging behind one of football's
best lines and Pro Bowl quarterback Gus Frerotte lighting it up
through the air. But as dangerous as the Redskins' passing game
has been, it often seems that there aren't enough receivers to
go around.

One missing person has been Westbrook, whose two-year dossier
includes 22 games in, 10 out because of injuries. When the team
made him its first-round pick in '95 he was supposed to be a
game breaker. But so far he has been more of a
jawbreaker--witness his ugly assault on teammate Stephen Davis
during practice last week. Westbrook's future with the team
remains in question. (He was fined $50,000 last Saturday, and
there were suggestions from the Redskins' brass that the matter
might not be settled.) Prophetically, Turner fortified his
wideout corps in June when he claimed Harper off Tampa Bay's
discard pile.

Turner was the offensive coordinator in Dallas from 1991 through
'93, for the first three of Harper's four years with the
Cowboys. Harper was Troy Aikman's deep threat, but in two
seasons with the Buccaneers, he rarely went long. "It almost
seems like those two years down there didn't happen," he says.
"Being back with Norv? Well, it's like a reunion."

The feeling here is that Washington's ifs will work out. Look at
it this way: In three years under Turner, the Redskins have won
three games, then six, then nine. According to that progression,
they will finish 12-4 this season, right? We'll say 11-5.


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO The Redskins' defense needs more hits like this one by free safety Stanley Richard (24) for the team to continue to improve.

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