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When the Bills line up against the Redskins here today, they will not be dealing with any lame duck coach.

Joe Gibbs, who turned down an extension of his coaching contract a year ago, is about to re-enlist with the Redskins and their cantankerous owner, Jack Kent Cooke.

There was some speculation that Gibbs would avoid signing a contract so that he would be free to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for whom he worked as an assistant coach a decade ago.

Gibbs' decision to stay in Washington further muddles what is a puzzling coaching situation in the NFL.

Three teams are definite about hiring new head coaches: Cleveland, Tampa Bay and New England.

Put Minnesota in the "possible" category.

It is not unusual for a team to present a surprise vacancy after the season ends. San Diego is a dark horse here, since neither General Manager Bobby Beathard nor owner Alex Spanos is a committed Dan Henning man. Henning was hired by the departed GM, Steve Ortmayer.

In a separate status is Philadelphia. Buddy Ryan says he's "99 percent sure" he'll return. The Eagles, however, have been 100 percent silent about offering him a new contract.

Both Cleveland and Tampa Bay say they want someone with head-coaching experience. The Browns' last three coaches -- Bud Carson, Marty Schottenheimer and Sam Rutigliano -- came up from the ranks of assistants.

The ranks of viable candidates in the category of head-coaching experience will be thinned by Gibbs' decision.

"Bill Walsh won't be available either," says a source at NBC. "He's going to sign a new contract with us."

Art Modell, the Browns' owner, is said to be interested in John Mackovic, the University of Illinois coach and athletic director. But the Patriots are hot after Mackovic, too. New England's new head man, Sam Jankovich, was friendly with Mackovic when Sam was athletic director at the University of Miami.

If Mackovic goes with the Pats, where does that leave the Browns? Possibly with Howard Schnellenberger, highly successful at the University of Miami and now Louisville, but before that head coach of the Baltimore Colts.

Modell says he'll do the selecting, yet General Manager Ernie Accorsi is staying, so it's expected he will have at least some input. Accorsi and Schnellenberger worked together on the Colts.

NFL assistants with previous head coaching experience would qualify.

Ted Marchibroda, the Bills' offensive coordinator, falls into that category, especially because of the fine job he did with Jim Kelly, and particularly with Buffalo's no-huddle approach.

When Marchibroda took the Baltimore Colts from dead last in the NFL to a division championship in 1975, Accorsi also was a member of the organization.

It is known that Accorsi has been impressed by Marchibroda's work with the Bills.

The ex-head coach category includes others besides Marchibroda, among them Mike Shanahan of Denver, who was squeezed out of the Raiders job by the team's Old Boy network.

There are at least three wild cards involved in the scramble.

One is Dennis Erickson of the University of Miami. If Mackovic backs out of the Pats' job, Jankovich could turn to his old coach. Erickson worked for Jankovich at Washington State. When Jankovich moved to Miami, he hired Erickson after Jimmy Johnson left to become head coach of the Cowboys.

The second is Bill Parcells.

When the Giants won the Super Bowl after the 1985 season, Parcells was stopped from jumping to Atlanta for a huge contract. Another opportunity may come up again for Parcells in Tampa Bay.

Admittedly, Parcells is a long shot. "Bill's not going anywhere," says a member of the Giants organization. "His agent may be floating his name around, but he's a Jersey guy and he already has the job he wanted all his life."

The third wild card is Lou Holtz.

Notre Dame is getting uncomfortable about Holtz's involvement in the University of Minnesota's scandal and subsequent accusations about improper recruiting by the Irish. The Golden Domers are proud of their clean record. Not even a coach as successful as Holtz would be welcome to stay if he slipped below the school's standards.

Holtz was interested in Tampa Bay, but two college coaches, John McKay and Ray Perkins, failed with the Bucs. Tampa wasn't that interested in Holtz.

If the Vikings can straighten out their ownership dispute in time, Holtz could end up with them.

Expansion talk cools

NFL expansion, once considered a certainty, will be explored at an important meeting of the expansion committee in February. The owners will take a hard look at the finances, tax ramifications and the current economic impact on the existing teams.

The moguls will not discuss expansion at the annual winter meetings. Each of the expansion hopefuls has been told, in effect, "there is no need to come to Hawaii."

The original target date for expansion was 1993, but as one high league official says, "the current economy doesn't help and there never was an outright commitment to expansion."

Knox keeps fire burning

Seattle owner Ken Behring is said to look upon Chuck Knox with new respect.

The Seahawks began the season by losing their first four games. They were the last team to win a game. Since then, they have gone 8-3 and are assured of at least a .500 season.

Knox is still a fire eater. The television cameras caught his body trembling during an argument with veteran referee Jim Tunney in the victory over Denver last Sunday.

College talent a muddle

The college draft remains a web of contradictions.

The National Scouting Combine listed Florida linebacker Huey Richardson as the second-best prospect among college seniors.

A veteran AFC player personnel director, a man not given to extreme statements, was asked what he thought of Richardson.

"I think he (expletive)," was his answer.

The National combine picked Notre Dame cornerback Todd Lyght as the top prospect as of the end of the regular college season. Linebacker Kanavis McGhee of Colorado was the No. 10 man. The Buffs' other outside backer, Alfred Williams, didn't make the Top 10, yet the Dallas Cowboys indicate they will use one of their three first-round picks to take Williams.

The Cowboys are a member of Blesto, the other scouting combine.

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