Benny Malone, heir apparent to Mike Thomas' running-back spot, walked out of Redskin training camp today after the club refused to renegotiate his contract.
Malone had sought a raise on the final year of his pact, which the Redskins inherited from the Miami Dolphins when he was traded to Washington last season. He now is paid in the neighborhood of $75,000 to $80,000 a year.
But Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard, a close friend of Malone's from their days together in Miami, told the veteran runner that the club "has a firm policy against renegotiation. If we start with one, it opens up a whole can of worms with a lot of other players."
According to Beathard, Malone said he was returning to his home in Arizona. Malone does not have an agent and Beathard seemed optimistic that the player would return to camp soon.
"Benny periodically comes in and talks about his contract," said Beathard. "He did it in Miami and when he was traded here, he asked right away to renegotiate and we told him we couldn't.
"Before, it was never a problem. But I do consider it a problem when he leaves camp. He first came to me lat night (Tuesday) and we talked. Then he told me at lunch today that he was leaving. It was that quick.
"The thing is, he isn't a troublemaker. He isn't a jerk. He is a really nice guy who is a pleasure to be around. He just feels this way about his contract. But we think it is a fair contract and we just won't renegotiate."
Malone has been troubled since his first day in camp by a pulled hamstring. He was starting to round into shape this week, according to Coach Jack Pardee, and had been projected for more playing time against Denver Saturday.
With Malone out, Tony Green moves into the No. 1 running back spot, backed up by Ike Forte and Louis Carter. Carter had been working more extensively at fullback this week so he would be familiar with both spots, but Pardee said now "he would begin concentrating on halfback again."
"I think everyone is surprised by this," said Green, who also is the club's No. 1 kick returner. "You can see where he is coming from. In this fame, your days are numbered and you have to get it (money) when you can. But you just don't expect it to happen, I guess.
"I'm just going to play the way I think I have to and let that take care of itself. What else can you say?"
The club was stunned by Malone's departure, mainly because he was not coming off a good season and he had yet to cement the starting spot this year. He had played sparingly in 1978 after coming from Miami in a three-way deal with Buffalo that involved draft choices and fullback Jim Braxton, who went to Miami. The Dolphins waived Braxton earlier this week.
But some players said today they felt that by staying in camp, Malone had no leverage in dealing with the team. By leaving, he could either force a renegotiation or a trade, presumably to a team that would give him more money.
Malone is the most tested halfback in camp. He twice led the Dolphins in rushing, gaining 797 yards in his best season. The Redskins regarded him high enough to trade Thomas to San Diego in the offseason.
Green has good quickness but there are questions about his size and endurance. Carter is solid but not especially speedy and Forte has not been a standout in three NFL seasons.
"Do you think," asked one player, "that they would go into the season without either Benny or without someone they pick up in a trade? I think he knows what he is doing."
Pardee, however, said he thinks Malone is going about the contract problem the wrong way. "This isn't the way to solve it. He had leg problems and he's not quite full speed now. I hope he reconsiders. I expect him to be back and have a good season.
"He needs to be here. If training camp isn't needed, no one would be here. We expect him back and fully concentrating on football and not worrying about his contract. This is not the orderly way to do this."
Pardee said there is a time to negotiate contracts and a time to play football. "He's missed time already because of the leg. Now you put in new plays and you are getting quarterbacks ready and new linemen and a lot of linebackers and it's hard to come back and get one guy ready. It's not fair to the others."
Malone is a quiet, friendly, deeply religious individual who is well liked by the team. His teammates said he gave no advance warning to them about his departure.
He even was interviewed by a couple of writers about an hour after he practiced this morning. He talked about his leg injury and his role on the team, giving no indication of what was about to transpire.
He has been troubled by leg injuries throughout his five-year career. He missed part of one season with Miami because of a hamstring pull and also has had a chipped bone in his ankle that required surgery. He finally lost his starting spot midway through the 1977 season (although he still led the Dolphins in rushing) and was considered expendable by the club last year.
He has one of the quickest starts in the league and his running style - reckless, hard-nosed and unbending - is unique. He can cut on his bow-shaped legs well enough to have rung up eight 100-yard rushing days in his career.
"Both sides need each other in this instance," said Beathard. "We don't want to trade him or anything. We want him here to play. I think Benny is happy here, I knew he wanted out of Miami and I knew where he wanted to go. Here.
"This is something he feels very strongly about. But we took a position we thought was just. I think any team hates to get into renegotiations. But there is nothing to apologize for with that contract. It is fair.
"Next year (his option year) we can negotiate. That's when you do it, not now."
Malone is being fined for every day he misses practice, but the Redskins can continue to carry him on their active roster until Aug. 28, the final cut-down date. They they have to decide whether to keep him or ask for a special classification from the league regarding his status.
Injured offensive linemen Dan Nugent and Jim Harlan are scheduled to be released from the hospital Friday after finishing treatments for spinal problems. Pardee said both probably would be in camp Monday to begin rehabilitation. He said they would most likely exercise in the Dickinson College pool to avoid putting undo strain on their backs "Then we will just have to see how they respond," he said.... Kicker Mark Mosely booted 62- and 63-yard field goals in practice today.... Tackle Greg Dubinetz resumed practice after a two-day stay in the hospital because of an infected foot.... If Malone's absence is prolonged, Clarence Harmon could be switched from fullback to halfback. CAPTION: Picture, Benny Malone