Defensive tackle Dave Butz doesn't look an ounce over 297 pounds, which obviously has the Washington Redskins mildly concerned.

Butz, who says he hasn't been this svelte since 1975, was released Wednesday from Arlington Hospital, where he spent much of the last four days fasting. Tuesday, nurses finally gave him hospital food, which he gobbled up.

"People say, 'How can you eat hospital food?' but it was great," said the 37-year-old Butz, who returned to lunch and to practice yesterday at Redskin Park. "I didn't care what it was. I guess the medication threw my taste buds off."

Butz's system was originally thrown off last week when -- according to trainer Bubba Tyer -- he drank contaminated water on a hunting trip. Early last week, he repeatedly vomited, so he figured he'd better stop eating. He kept getting sick, so he figured he'd better tell Redskins doctors.

He had lost 21 pounds by last Saturday, and he checked into a hospital that day. You know the rest. He got out of bed Sunday morning, showed up at RFK Stadium and sacked the Jets' Ken O'Brien late in the game to ruin a New York scoring drive.

Afterward, his teammates presented him with a game ball, even though he could hardly lift it. He checked back into the hospital Sunday night, where he's been in seclusion ever since.

Until yesterday. "Butz is back!" said several of his teammates, as he walked in wearing a sailor's cap and camouflage vest. Pumped up with fluids, he stepped on the scale and weighed 297 pounds, though he's normally about 310. His clothes are fitting a little loose, so he ate whatever he could. He found some pretzels and a fish sandwich, not exactly health food.

"We don't want him to eat greasy things," Tyer said. "He ate a McDonald's fish sandwich? I didn't tell him to. That's his doing."

Butz said he was glad to be back in fresh air again.

"I was in {the hospital} so long, the leaves changed on me," he said.

The Redskins would like him to put on some pounds, but Coach Joe Gibbs said that should come in time. Gibbs is more concerned that Butz starts feeling better again, because the consensus is that he is their key to stopping the run.

"When he plays well, so does the rest of the defense," said defensive tackle Dean Hamel, who, at 290, for a while was heavier than Butz.

And that's saying something. On a normal 310-pound day, Butz wears a size 16 jersey (tied with tackles Joe Jacoby and Wally Kleine for largest on the team). Just so you know, Butz also has the biggest head on the team (a size 8 1/4 helmet, and the average is about 7 1/2), and the widest feet on the team (a size 12 shoe with a 7EEEEEEE width).

"You're not much different at 300 or 320 pounds," Gibbs said yesterday. "I don't think teams will be shoving him around just because he's lost 20 pounds."

As far as Hamel is concerned, Butz is having an all-pro season, and Butz admits Sunday's sack was the most important of his career.

"Of course, it was the 72nd of my career, and your memory has a tendency to blend them all together," Butz said.

According to his coaches, he's had several all-pro seasons, but he's visited only one Pro Bowl (1983) and probably goes unnoticed because he doesn't have a mouth as wide as his feet. His strength is run support, not sacking the quarterback, and that's another disadvantage. No one notices you when you stop a dive up the middle. So what can you do?

A commercial?

So that's what Butz did. He and Walter Payton of the Bears did a recent cereal commercial, and it's clear Butz is out to change his speak-softly image. In the commercial, he growls a lot, and his hair stands on end.

"That's not the real him," said defensive line coach Lavern (Torgy) Torgeson. "{The punk hairdo} must have been part of the deal."

But that was the real him last Sunday, running around in the Jets backfield. One minute, he was sacking out in a hospital bed; the next, he was sacking a quarterback.

But Tyer says the Redskins have had similar experiences in the past: quarterback Billy Kilmer leaving the hospital with a stomach disorder in 1976 and playing well against the Vikings in the playoffs and defensive tackle Bill Brundige coming out of sick bed to get an important sack against St. Louis in 1973.

"There's something about coming out of a hospital bed," Tyer said. "Maybe it's because you concentrate more, but guys seem to play great."

Butz did say yesterday that he's still on medication, and though the Redskins expect him to play Sunday, they'll keep force-feeding him (pretzels or anything else fattening) so his clothes will fit again.

Redskins Notes:

Coach Joe Gibbs said running backs George Rogers (toe) and Kelvin Bryant (hamstring) practiced well yesterday. Rogers still is expected to start Sunday . . . Gibbs also said there could be "one or two changes" on special teams, but he indicated that Eric Yarber and Keith Griffin likely would continue to return punts and kickoffs, respectively. He said the changes would come in kick coverage . . . Tight end Joe Caravello's sore back is improved, according to trainer Bubba Tyer, but Gibbs said he didn't think Caravello would be activated for Sunday's game.