Joe Washington walked into Redskin Park yesterday, a running back filled with optimism in his heart if not cartilage in his knees.

"I'm what you might call rejuvenated," he said, now three months beyond February, when both of his injured knees were operated on. "I'm looking forward to coming back. I believe in excellence and I'm looking forward to achieving it."

It was only two seasons ago, his first as a Redskin, that Washington was the portrait of excellence. He ran for 916 yards and caught 70 passes for 558. Voting after the season, his teammates spelled Washington's value to the team this way: "MVP."

But last year, as the Redskins marched to the Super Bowl, Joe Washington limped in his own little dust bowl.

"Spilled beans," Washington calls his knee injuries. "I don't even want to think back to them. Anytime you can't contribute, it's difficult. I didn't like it, but I wasn't ready to jump off a bridge or anything."

In the third game of the 1982 preseason, against Buffalo, Washington collapsed making an end sweep. He tore the cartilage in his left knee. Surgery was required. This is when John Riggins replaced him in the Redskins' one-back offense.

When Washington returned to the team after the players' strike, more than two months later, he developed pain in his right knee, too. In all, he would carry the ball just 48 times last season, just four times in the playoffs when Riggins was taking the handoffs and the bows.

"Forty-eight times?" said Don Breaux, the running back coach, a man eminently familiar with Washington's absence last year. "It seemed like less than that."

With his numbers down to 190 yards rushing and just 19 pass receptions for the regular season, Washington went through two operations in February. He had all the cartilage removed from his left knee in one operation and pieces of cartilage, floating about the swollen area, removed from his right knee in another trip to surgery.

As trainer Bubba Tyer said with a wry grin, "Now, Joe has to decide which leg to limp on."

During training camp, the coaches will watch closely every move of Washington, now 30 and in his seventh National Football League season. The coaches realize Riggins can't be expected to carry the ball 35 times per game, 16 games per year, without diminishing returns. They consider Washington vital, to run and to catch.

"We'll work Joe back easy, see how fast he can come back," Coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday. "If Joe comes back healthy, he'll be a great complement to John. If not, we'll just have to do the best we can."

"Joe is a very hard worker," Breaux said. "If anybody is capable of making good efficient rehabilitation, it's Joe."

If management is taking the wait and see approach, Washington is saying, "Wait, you'll see."

"I'd like to carry the ball 15 to 20 times per game this year. Maybe even 30 times every now and then," said Washington, his optimism running a post pattern. He will not work out with the team during this week's minicamp, but instead will continue to run and lift weights to rebuild his strength.

"The team expects me to do the same things I did the first time (1981). They expect me to be a runner.

"I will be ready by Monday night," he said.

Elaborating on the obvious, Washington said, "That's Monday night, Sept. 5. Dallas. The opener."

Defensive tackle Dave Butz, offensive guard Fred Dean, quarterback Tom Owen and cornerback Jeris White were the only veterans who did not report for their physicals yesterday. Both Butz and Dean, who is still unsigned, contacted the team and missed for personal reasons.

Owen still is considering an offer from the Denver Gold of the U.S. Football League. Though Owen could not be reached for comment, one Washington official said he appears to be leaning toward returning.

White, still unsigned, had told Gibbs last week he would not report to minicamp without a contract. He held to his word. "This is one of those unfortunate things you don't like going through," Gibbs said.

White did not return phone messages and a secretary for his southern California-based agent, Howard Slusher, said, "Mr. Slusher is not answering calls from the press. He is too busy."