One year after his nine interceptions led the National Football League and led him to the Pro Bowl, Washington Redskins free safety Mark Murphy is in a strange sort of limbo, practicing with the scout team.
In the second week of the season, Murphy strained a knee ligament against San Francisco. Two weeks later, he was placed on injured reserve, for a minimum of four weeks.
Now, the bottom line is this: Murphy is eligible to return to the roster and trainer Bubba Tyer says, "He's ready to go."
And Murphy, who was leading the defense with 26 tackles after two games, said yesterday, "I feel as though I can play . . . (But) that's out of my hands now. It's a coaching decision."
At this point, the Redskins are not reactivating Murphy.
"The overriding thing is how you can help the team the most," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Being an all-pro doesn't have anything to do with it. It's what helps the team the most . . . We're so critical on injuries right now that I think our (roster) moves have to be really calculated from here on out and it has to be for the right situation."
Several factors complicate an immediate reactivation of Murphy. First, league rules stipulate that a team may reactivate only five players from the injured reserve list during the regular season (plus a sixth in the postseason). The Redskins have already reactivated tight end Clint Didier and strong safety Ken Coffey, meaning they have three reactivations remaining.
Wide receiver Charlie Brown, another all-pro, is eligible to return to the active roster in three weeks and is considered vital for the team's stretch run.
That leaves two reactivations. Running back Joe Washington also is considered important. Although Washington, 31, is eligible for reactivation immediately, he seems far from recovered.
In fact, Tyer said fluid was drained from Washington's knee Sunday, five weeks after he suffered the injury at New England. No one seems certain when Washington will return, although the running back talks positively about his recovery.
Also, top draft pick Bob Slater, a defensive tackle, and defensive end Todd Liebenstein, a starter in the opener, could be reactivated now. Of course, Gibbs and the defensive coach, Richie Petitbon, say they are reluctant to add a defensive lineman now, with the line playing so well.
Perhaps the most crucial factor in keeping Murphy in limbo is that coaches have been impressed with the play of Curtis Jordan, Murphy's replacement.
Although Jordan, 30, has a broken thumb that has kept him from playing in most passing situations over the last month, he has played well against the run and has performed the defensive signal-calling shrewdly. Many in the organization feel, in fact, that Jordan has played at least as well as Murphy had been playing.
Finally, the Redskins fear reactivating one player, then having one at a different position suffer an injury. In that event, the team might not be able to replace the injured player as the playoffs approach.
So, the Redskins do not want to reactivate a player who would only sit on the bench. And that is precisely what Murphy would do if he were reactivated today. Free safety belongs to Jordan.
So Murphy keeps practicing with the scout team, wondering when or if he will be reactivated. The reality hurts more than the knee.
"With the limited moves they have, they are in a situation where they want to make 100 percent sure that when I come back I'll be able to stay (and not get reinjured) and play," said Murphy, voted a captain by his teammates the last three years. "And also they are worried about injuries in other positions . . . I guess I'm in a unique position."
"I'd love to have Murphy back," Gibbs said. "He means a lot to the team. He's a leader and he was an all-pro last year. (But) we only have three moves left. (Free safety) is a spot where we're not really hurt at now . . . From here on out it's going to be tight. We might, for instance, have to (reactivate) someone who can help us on special teams."
If that were the case, the logical choice would be linebacker Stuart Anderson, a talented special teams player who is among the 11 players who have been placed on injured reserve since the 49-man roster was established.
Anderson has recovered from a groin injury and has been practicing with the team for about a month. Of course, the Redskins have the choice of exposing Anderson to waivers (which they did earlier this season, successfully retrieving him by procedural recall) and thereby reactivating him without losing any of their three reactivations permitted without waivers. So many decisions.
"All I can do is what I'm able to do. I can't play in the games, so I'll just keep practicing hard," said Murphy.
Over the years, he has been criticized for lacking speed. And even though he has led the team in tackles (197 in 1981) and has had 27 interceptions in his eight-year career, Murphy has been told that, by design of the Redskins' defense, the free safety should produce at least that much and probably more.
Murphy said he does not view his current situation as a slap at his credibility.
"There are so many things involved, that I don't think you can isolate it that way," he said. "There's my injury, how the team is playing, how the secondary is playing, just so many things involved."
Murphy, who was among the most vocal of player representatives during the players' strike two years ago, has been around the game and the scene long enough to know the way these things work.
"Sure it hurts me," he said. "But there is nothing that I can really do about it."
Three players did not practice yesterday: tight end Don Warren (thigh bruise), special teams' standout Otis Wonsley (sprained knee and ankle) and linebacker Monte Coleman (shoulder). Warren and Wonsley are listed as questionable (50-50) and Coleman is probable.
Also, left guard Russ Grimm (groin pull) limited his workout . . . Special teams captain Pete Cronan, on injured reserve since the preseason, returned to practice for the first time.
Strong safety Tony Peters, who rested his lower abdominal pull last week and, according to Tyer, received a shot of cortisone to relieve the pain, practiced yesterday and impressed Petitbon. Said Petitbon, "It's the best I've seen Tony look in months."