Benny Malone, the Washington Redskins' starting tailback last year, hardly looks or sounds like a man on his way out.
Malone, the muscular, 5-foot-10, 195-pound seven-year veteran, is in the option year of his contract and was given permission to deal with another NFL club during the offseason. He is now attending the Redskins' three-day minicamp for the veterans and participating in the workouts with all the fervor of a rookie.
"I know this could be my last year here, but I don't look at it that way," said Malone, following a 2 1/2-hour workout yesterday at Redskin Park. "I'm working here the same way I would if I was under a 10-year contract. I plan to do the same thing at camp (in July). I'm not making any judgments on the club's decision to try to get rid of me right now. I know I can still play, so I'm making no excuses.
"I know I didn't have the great statistical year running backs like to have, but to play on any team, you have to be able to do many more things. I tried to contribute in other ways. I'm not saying I'm the No. 1 tailback anymore, but I plan to work as hard as I can to play football here. If any changes come, they come."
Malone carried the ball 176 times for 472 yards and a 2.7-yard average in 1979. His longest run from scrimmage was 14 yards and he scored three times. He also caught 13 passes for 137 yards, including a 55-yard TD catch against Dallas.
"Overall, I felt I had a good year," said Malone, considered an excellent blocker. "I'd like to carry the ball more, naturally, but I can accept my role here. I'm fortunate I can block or there would be pressure."
While Malone might not admit it, there will be pressure on the former Miami Dolphin back to have a superb training camp. Buddy Hardeman, who was pushing Malone for the starting slot in 1979 before he broke his jaw, is stronger and quicker as a result of an off-season weight program.
If the season started this week, Hardeman probably would be the starting tailback.
"I'm very pleased with the backs we have," said Redskin Coach Jack Pardee. "We can play with the ones we have. Of course, if one became available, we might have to consider him. Our priority was to upgrade ourselves in the draft and if we didn't feel we could do that, we weren't going to draft just any running back."
"Benny is in a lot better physical shape than he was last year," Pardee said. "He has looked more comfortable out there, especially on the pass routes. Benny's a good, tough player and we feel he can still contribute. We'd like him to run for a better average and catch a few more passes. We weren't as disappointed in his year as other people were."
Another player zipping through the repetitious drills the last two days has been fullback John Riggins. The Redskins' leading ground gainer is in the final year of a five-year, $1.5 million pact and has previously indicated this might be his last season. He said yesterday the ugly feeling he had following the loss to Dallas last year made him want to return for another season.
"To think we were that close," Riggins said. "There was just no dominant team in the NFC last year and as far as I'm concerned, it's up for grabs this year. I'm actually enjoying this minicamp, where in the past I would not have. I brought my pup tent and fishing pole but it doesn't look like I'll get a chance to use them. These meetings and drills last almost an entire day. I guess that's why I won't retire anytime soon. I'd have to work nine to five."
Last year, seeking a renegotiation of his contract, Riggins staged a brief walkout just before the first regular season game.
Does he plan a similar strategy this season?
"I had a good year last season and in order to negotiate a contract, you have to have a good year," Riggins said with a smile. "I don't know about walking out again but . . ."
Riggins didn't hide his pleasure at the Washington front office's decision to use its draft choices to pick receivers and linesmen instead of running backs.
"When I saw the first few picks, I couldn't help but smile," Riggins said. "I have no complaints. We get a guy like Charles White, it could rob me of my final year or years of glory. No backs is good news. That's just one more person to take your place."
While Riggins has only talented Clarence Harmon, a fine clutch performer, looking over his shoulder, Malone sees running backs whenever he turns around. l
"I welcome the competition," he said. "When I was in Miami, Jim Kiick, Mercury Morris and some others were there and I did all right (gained more than 2,000 yards in four years and led the Dolphins in rushing twice). "I just try to fit into the system and do what I can. If I can't, then I might pursue another career. This could be my last year. But right now, I'm ready to roll."
Should Malone fail to impress the Redskin coaches, Hardeman is ready to step in. The two-year veteran from Iowa State was used mainly on third-down situations and kick returns last year before suffering a broken jaw in the Steeler game. Hardeman had 124 yards rushing on 31 carries and caught 21 passes for 197 yards.
"Our running back situation here is good," he said. "When you look at last year and the things that hurt us, you would see it wasn't the backs. It's tough for a guy to come in here and fit in right away. It takes time to learn our system.
"Sure, I would love to start and I'm working to earn that spot. Like Benny, one of my strengths is blocking. I've also gotten a little quicker and I'm stronger. Wherever I play, I plan to do what I can to help the club."