Head Coach Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins says his team has something to prove this season. ''That wasn't the real Redskin team that the L.A. Raiders beat in the Super Bowl,'' Gibbs explained. ''We're better than that.''
Joe is probably right - and in any case the Redskins certainly figure to win their division again, after which they should have a good shot at becoming the second team in National Football League history to reach the Super Bowl three years in a row (Miami did it in 1972-73-74). But of course there are a lot of teams out there with other ideas as the season gets under way this weekend.
Here's how the races shape up in the National Football Conference's three divisions (the AFC preview ran Thursday):
East - The Redskins still have quarterback Joe Theismann, power runner John Riggins, and most of the other key players who led them to their 1983 Super Bowl win over Miami and into the game again last season. The evidence says they'll be hard to keep away from Palo Alto, Calif., on Jan. 20, 1985: in their last 35 games their only losses have been to the Packers, Raiders, and Cowboys.
In Dallas, the much-publicized quarterback battle has been resolved for now, with erstwhile backup Gary Hogeboom getting the opening game nod over veteran Danny White. Meanwhile, the Cowboys got a defensive boost when veteran tackle Randy White, one of the biggest names among this year's holdouts, signed a new contract. More pressing than any of this, however, is getting more youth on a team that seems to be growing old.
Jim Hanifan, now in his fifth year as head coach in St. Louis, has worn out more brooms than the little old ladies who clean up Moscow's Red Square. Only nine players predate his 1980 arrival, meaning that he has finally achieved the balance of youth and experience he set out to create.
Marion Campbell's first season as coach in Philadelphia didn't produce much of a positive nature. In fact, the Eagles were the lowest scoring team in the NFL. But Campbell says injuries destroyed the team's overall continuity.
Seldom has a coach entered a season with his job more in jeopardy than Bill Parcells, whose New York Giants were 3-12-1 last year. Although everybody says the Giants had a strong draft, most of those first-year players will need a season or two just to get their feet on the ground.
Central - The Detroit Lions, whose division title last year was their first of any sort since 1957, are convinced they can do it again. For one thing, they aren't apt to start out 1-4, as they did in '83.
Chicago won five more games last year than in '82, but the Bears made no move to extend coach Mike Ditka's three-year contract, which expires this season. It seems management is quietly telling Mike to win his divison or get out.
New Green Bay coach Forrest Gregg, who played for the Packers under Vince Lombardi, says he won't just be asking for more production, he'll be demanding it. ''I've discovered that the more a player is pushed, the more productive he becomes,'' says Gregg, who won one conference title in four years at Cincinnati.
The Minnesota Vikings without Bud Grant as head coach for the first time in 18 years - you've got to be kidding? As opposed to Grant's tremendously successful low-key approach, new coach Les Steckel, a former Marine, will go heavy on discipline and conditioning.
''There are always reasons why you lose, but really no excuse for losing,'' explained head coach John McKay, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 2-14 last season. However Tampa Bay did have a tremendous number of injuries in 1983. Although McKay keeps saying he's satisfied with Jack Thompson as his starting quarterback, why then did the Bucs go out and get Steve DeBerg from Denver?
West - ''When Washington beat us 51-7 in the playoffs, I learned the difference between operating on a playoff level and a championship level,'' says Los Angeles Rams' coach John Robinson. ''Our goal this year will be to raise the quality of our play so that we can handle the veteran teams better.'' The Rams had the league's top rusher in rookie Eric Dickerson, who logged 1,808 yards. LA's best off-season move was getting all-pro cornerback Gary Green from Kansas City.
San Francisco had a busy off-season, picking up nose tackle Louis Kelcher from San Diego, linebacker Frank LeMaster from the Eagles, and defensive tackle Manu Tulasosopo from the Seahawks, among others. They also signed linebacker Todd Shell, the team's No. 1 draft pick, to a multi-year contract.
''We have so many good players who are still only second, third and fourth-year guys that I don't think you'll see many changes in our personnel this season,'' said New Orleans coach Bum Phillips. He'd like to put more points on the board, though, and thinks he may have the man who can do it in quarterback Richard Todd, acquired from the New York Jets.
Atlanta coach Dan Henning's game plan calls for fewer turnovers plus more emphasis on stopping the run. The Falcons hope their No. 1 draft pick, Oklahoma tackle Rick Bryan, can bolster the defense. Offensively they'll miss all-pro running back William Andrews, who is out for the season following knee surgery.