D.C. ready for some football

Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2003

LANDOVER, Md. Britney. JetSkins. Prime time in the nation's capital.

The Olympics might be the biggest spectacle in sports, but no one puts on a show like the NFL.

In another example of supreme marketing know-how, the country's most popular sports league is launching its season again on a Thursday, featuring stars singing in front of national monuments on the Washington Mall, two marquee-city teams that tussled over players in the offseason and a lightning rod owner the country loves to hate.

''Marketing is a big part of any league,'' Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier said. ''And the NFL's done it better than anybody else.''

The game between the Redskins and the New York Jets is the second annual Thursday night opener. The New York Giants hosted San Francisco last season in what was billed in part by commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a tribute to the city that endured the Sept. 11 attacks. Washington, also a target of the attacks, was the natural choice this year.

Thursday's game nearly gets swallowed up in the hype of the three-hour Britney Spears-Aerosmith-Mary J. Blige-Aretha Franklin concert the last hour gets live network coverage. The game this year is on ABC; ESPN had it last season.

''It's ratings. We're crazy if we don't think that's what it's about,'' New York coach Herman Edwards said. ''It's about how many people can you get to watch the game. It's like a soap opera. You can write about that all week other than that we have to play the game between the lines.''

Last year's overwhelming success demanded a sequel, and the NFL couldn't have chosen a better matchup. There is a new animosity between the teams after the Redskins snatched four free agents from the Jets in the offseason.

After smarting from the loss of wide receiver Laveranues Coles, guard Randy Thomas and kicker John Hall, the Jets accused Redskins owner Dan Snyder of overpaying for players. Then an arbitrator who happens to be a Redskins season-ticket holder awarded Chad Morton to Washington after New York tried to stick in an extra clause in his contract when they tried to match it.

Just to rub it in, the Redskins this week mailed the Jets their stadium parking passes featuring color photographs of Coles in his new burgundy and gold uniform.

''A lot of people I know that didn't know about football have been drawn to 'What's going on between the Redskins and Jets?''' said Morton, one of the so-called JetSkins. ''It's a good publicity thing for the NFL. They're good at that stuff. Smart move.''

And, of course, there's Snyder, the young, brash owner who has only mediocrity to show for his frequent coaching changes and the millions he's spent on star players and coaches. Snyder likes his team in the spotlight, but it hasn't done well there: The Redskins are 1-7 in non-Sunday national TV games since he bought the team in 1999.

Beyond the obvious motivation of the ex-Jets quartet wanting to prove something to their old team, the game has its share of subplots. No. 1 is whether New York can survive the loss of quarterback Chad Pennington, who gives way to soon-to-be-40 backup Vinny Testaverde.

Edwards says yes. All he needs is the football equivalent of a lug wrench.

''You don't invest that much time to say, 'You have a flat tire, so your car doesn't work.' You get a new tire, one of those little spares, the little skinny ones you can drive on,'' Edwards said. ''You're only supposed to drive a couple of hours, but some people drive for a whole month on it.''

An obvious strategy would be to put the game in the hands of running back Curtis Martin, especially considering that the middle of Washington's defensive line has been hurriedly patched together. Tackles Jermaine Haley and Bernard Holsey will get tested early in their Redskins debuts.

For Spurrier, this is the unveiling of a faster, younger offense that should allow him to stretch the limits of his aggressive game plans. The preseason reviews were mixed, and the coach this week downplayed expectations of a high-scoring bonanza.

''We've been trying, but we've been sputtering around quite a bit,'' Spurrier said. ''We still have confidence, but we need to go prove it.''

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