Charlie Brown has heard the whispers and he says he doesn't like them. He is the Washington Redskins' two-time all-pro wide receiver and nobody is questioning his ability.
Rather, there are those in the Redskins organization who privately have questioned his toughness. By his estimation, Brown has participated in only 10 or so plays over the last two games because of what team doctors term a "mild strain" of his left knee.
The opponents in those games were Dallas and St. Louis, and the Redskins' season was on the line. The question around Redskin Park for two weeks was, "How does an all-pro player, such as Brown, allow a 'mild strain' to keep him from playing in such high-stakes games?"
Coach Joe Gibbs has stood steadfastly behind Brown. "If Charlie can play, I know that he will," Gibbs has said again and again.
Yesterday, Brown reiterated himself: "My only reaction is that I can't play because I am hurt. If I was 100 percent and if I wasn't producing, then what people are saying is true. But I'm not 100 percent. I'm struggling with a knee injury, one of the worst injuries you can have. Every injury is different. I've worked hard."
At one moment, Brown says he "chuckled" when he read a recent newspaper story that noted that members of the Redskins' organization had expressed doubts about his toughness and desire.
But later Brown admitted that the reference bothered him. "I just don't like it," Brown said, "for what the public might think." He said he will talk to Gibbs about the matter when the season is over.
"There are too many other things going on for me to bother him now," Brown said. "I just don't know why anyone in this organization would say things like that. I thought they all respected me so much because of the type of person and the type of athlete that I am.
"I've played games when my ankle was hurt and I played entire games, too. I messed up my fingers against the Cardinals last year and I came back to play the game against the Packers the next week. I think I work hard. I think I worked harder in this past offseason than I've ever worked before.
"What I would like to say is this," Brown said. "Charlie Brown is definitely not that type of player. Charlie Brown has the biggest heart in the NFL. He can play hurt and has played hurt in the past. So that statement is false, whoever made it."
Similar doubts were raised about Brown earlier this season. He missed three midseason games because of what was thought to be a sprained ankle. "I was getting treatment and rest and I wasn't seeing any progress. I started worrying," Brown said.
"Then, after a few weeks, I went in for another X-ray and they found a stress fracture (in his right fibula). That set me back a few more weeks."
Brown missed seven games because of that stress fracture. In all, he has missed the equivalent of about 10 of the 16 games this season because of injuries to his hamstring, ankle, fibula and knee. Last season, Brown and wide receiver Art Monk combined to catch 125 passes. This season, Brown and Monk have combined to catch 124.
But there's a big disparity there. In 1983, Brown caught a club-record 78 passes, Monk 47. This year, Monk has caught 106, Brown 18.
Furthermore, when Brown first injured his ankle, in early October, General Manager Bobby Beathard made what might become regarded as the league's finest trade of the year: he swapped a fourth-round pick in the 1985 draft for wide receiver Calvin Muhammad of the Los Angeles Raiders.
In nine subsequent starts, Muhammad has caught 42 passes for 729 yards and four touchdowns. He has almost made it seem like Brown never left, that he simply changed his jersey number, from No. 87 to No. 89.
Muhammad's speed has allowed him to produce an average of 17.4 yards per catch with the Redskins. Is it a coincidence that in Brown's first two all-pro seasons with the team, he, too, averaged 17.4 yards?
"I think Calvin is a great athlete. I think the Redskins organization did something great when they got Calvin. You have to respect him with all of the big plays he has made," Brown said. While Brown also said, "Calvin will give us greater competition at the wide receiver position," he was also sure to note, "I think I've been replaced temporarily."
Perhaps the most unyielding thing about Brown is his confidence and pride. That, more than anything, is what Brown feels keeps him one step and one leap beyond most defensive backs.
"I think I can be the best receiver in this league. Nobody can take that away from me. That's something I will always know. I will always have that," Brown said.
Brown says that he has been lifting weights this week to strengthen his knee. He said he felt he was on the brink of full recovery from his stress fracture after his first game in two months, a 41-14 victory over Buffalo Nov. 25 at RFK Stadium. He caught four passes for 68 yards, including an 18-yarder for a touchdown, in that game.
But the following week, against Minnesota, brought the knee injury, which resulted when he hit the Metrodome's artificial surface after an unsuccessful dive for a pass.
Brown says that, yes, he does have undying desire, that he hopes to be 100 percent by Dec. 30 when the Redskins will play a first-round playoff game against either Chicago or Los Angeles at RFK Stadium.
"This year, I could have just said, 'I won't play anymore since the Redskins are doing well without me,' " Brown said. "I could have just sat back, collected my salary and sat on my behind. But I haven't done that. I have pride. I want to play."
Rookie tight end Anthony Jones suffered a "severe sprain" to his neck in the Redskins' 29-27 victory over St. Louis Sunday and doctors have advised that Jones not play in the postseason, team trainer Bubba Tyer said yesterday.
It seems likely that Jones will be placed on injured reserve. Gibbs said last night that the team will re-sign running back Rick Kane to fill Jones' roster spot. Kane, primarily a special teams player, had been released more than three weeks ago.
Team practices will resume Friday . . . The Redskins announced that "a few good seats" are still available for the playoff game at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 30, at RFK Stadium. Tickets will go on sale today at 8 a.m. at the Redskins' box office at RFK.