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Opportunity Knocks, Briefly, for Doug Williams

September 20, 1987|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — To strike or not to strike. For which culmination should Washington Redskins fans devoutly wish?

True, if the NFL players union goes out after this week's games, then about 17 members of the embattled Dullesville 4,077th could mend their battle wounds. If the sport came back in a month or so, their little boo-boos would feel much better. When the NFL had a 57-day strike in 1982, the Redskins went on to win their only world title since World War II. Seemed like a fair deal then. Surely, as he falls asleep counting injuries, Joe Gibbs remembers.

However, what ardent follower of Redskins lore would want to miss the next month, even if it contains an ugly final score or two? Surely the chance to see Doug Williams, and perhaps Babe Laufenberg, play quarterback is enough reason to endure the pain of watching Ali Haji-Sheikh learn to play H-back. It is all very well to have a big blond hoss pass for 4,109 yards without mussing his uniform, but how often do we get to root for two underdog folk-hero quarterbacks at the same time?

If Gene Upshaw and Jack Donlan want to negotiate round-the-clock, then Babe and Doug will work shifts to bring them coffee and danish. Oh, puuulease, work out a new contract.

It's not fashionable to smile openly at Redskin Park these days. We're in even more of a red-alert, gut-check, total-paranoia crisis 'round here than usual.

"It's been pretty busy," said Williams Wednesday, granting yet another interview. "But when you're hot, you're hot." And off he went to do another TV standup, bare feet and all.

When you've waited five years between starting assignments in the NFL, you appreciate being hot again. Sure, Williams made his fortune by jumping to the USFL. But now, at 32, he still has time to show his greatness on the only stage that matters. Think his stock isn't atop the NFL Dow after his 272-yard showing against the Eagles Sunday in relief? A few more weeks of teaming up with new buddies like Art Monk and Gary Clark and he could have a whole new reputation: the Jim Plunkett of the '90s. If so, either the Redskins or somebody else will have him at starting quarterback in '88. Bet on it.

The NFL always wondered what he'd do with a big line, real backs, prime receivers and a coach. Well, let's see. Heck, the man threw 75 touchdown passes and took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs three times with unimaginative offenses.

Will the Redskins have to change their attack for Williams? No way. He and Schroeder could hardly have been more alike. "Couple of studs," said Hall of Famer Charlie Taylor, the receivers coach. "Not enough difference between them to even bother the receivers. Jay puts a little more air under the ball."

"It's not like this is Alabama and Bear Bryant using the wishbone," said Williams, chuckling. This offense will do fine. And it's not as though Williams fears the reins of authority. "Once you become the quarterback, you are the leader," said Williams.

Too often, athletes don't get rewarded by circumstance even though they might deserve to. Many people believe Williams deserved this chance, but he has always known the score here. In fact, he still says Schroeder owns the job.

"I'm excited about playing," Williams said, "but I'm not doing cartwheels or jumping up and down. I guess (that's) because it's a bitter-sweet situation. It's all sugar right now, but it's going to turn to a lemon in a few weeks."

However, when you don't make claims for yourself, others tend to do it for you. Graciously, Schroeder said Gibbs will have an "interesting" decision "if Doug gets on a roll.". "Jay is No. 1," Gibbs said, adding that, basically, he wants the freedom to see how this scene plays out.

The real loss when Schroeder returns probably will be Laufenberg, the divine Babe, the greatest Redskin who never had a line in the NFL record book. "Hey, maybe they oughta just to keep me on retainer," said Laufenberg, the hero of four Redskins exhibition wins in four different preseasons (44 for 75, 620 yards, four TDs, one interception).

Yes, Babe's back. His hair is long, his eyes look like trouble in paradise and if he finds Curtis Jordan's old earring laying around somewhere he's odds on to wear it -- in his nose. On his tomb, they'regoing to chisel a pair of earphones, or maybe an on-deck circle. Will somebody give him a turn at bat?

"So many careers are created by a break -- no pun intended," he said, intending a pun. "In my career, I've been a NFL backup for 18 games." (That includes four different teams over five seasons, including three seperate tours as a Redskin.) "You know, I've never gotten a chance (to throw even one pass). You can just count on anybody in front of me staying healthy.

"Then," he added, "every time I watch the Bears play, they use five quarterbacks."

The world needs a quarterback who says, "I can take you into either end zone." But it's not likely to get one. Laufenberg thrives on chaos -- the broken play, the inspired audible, the crazy crowd-inciting comeback. NFL coaches hate chaos. Everything conspires against the Babe. Why, even when a play breaks in practice, they blow a whistle for fear that someone like Laufenberg will improvise a better play than the staff drew it. "I hate that," Laufenberg said.

Come Sunday in Atlanta, Williams will have his eye on the prize. And Babe will have his eye on Williams. Nothing personal but, as Laufenberg said, "Just once in my career, I'd like to get a shot. See what I do."

What both Williams and Laufenberg hold in common is the hope that their adventure can run its natural course, even if that only give them an extra week or two of lovely dreams. But Sept. 22 looms ahead of them.

"Just because I'm playing," Williams said grimly, "doesn't mean they're going to change that strike date."

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