Washington Redskins linebacker Monte Coleman has been healthy from start to finish this season, which is something of an upset.

For the first time in his nine-year career, Coleman has started every nonstrike Redskins game and is somehow living up to that insurmountable nickname of his -- "Superman."

In the past, it hasn't been Kryptonite, but hamstring, thigh and shoulder injuries that have slowed him. A 1979 11th-round pick out of Central Arkansas, Coleman always looked more impressive in body suit than uniform, one of the few linebackers ever to run a 4.4 second 40-yard dash.

Naturally, the Redskins ended up using him on punt and kickoff coverage early in his career and even ran a reverse to him on a kickoff return. Used so much, however, Coleman would inevitably get hurt.

But yesterday, Coleman sat stretching his healthy hamstrings and said: "My build isn't the same as it used to be." Nine years later, it seems the Redskins know just how much to use him and how to keep him healthy.

"We've watered down a lot of things we've asked him to do," said defensive assistant Larry Peccatiello. And because he's healthy, Coleman and Peccatiello agree this season has been Coleman's best.

In a way, it could be the Redskins' best defensive year ever under Coach Joe Gibbs for the same, simple reason -- everyone's been relatively healthy.

Linebacker Rich Milot and safety Clarence Vaughn have been bothered by ankle injuries, while linebacker Neal Olkewicz and defensive end Dexter Manley have dealt with knee injuries, but that's about it -- unless you count cornerback Darrell Green's rib injury or cornerback Barry Wilburn's broken index finger or defensive tackle Dave Butz's parasitic infection, and none of them missed a game.

The injuries to Olkewicz and Manley probably were the worst ones, but both may be playing their best football of the year right now.

So, the relative injury-free season has helped the Redskins' defense, as has a continued rough-house intensity. Take Manley, for instance, who's getting riled up again.

"No, I generally haven't been as up emotionally as I was in 1986 {when he was named all-pro}, and I really don't know why," Manley said yesterday. "Certain games, I was able to get up and perform. Other games, I was just there. But the last two games, man, I've been up there like a rocket, and my performance has been up there. So that's what I thrive on. I'm an emotional-type player, and if I don't play with a lot of emotion or enthusiasm, I'm an average guy.

"If I'm not in a whole bunch of plays, I don't {get riled up}. I don't know if that means I'm a frontrunner, but I've got to be the playmaker. That way, I'm into the game. If I'm not, then I feel like, 'What am I doing out here throwing my hands up in the air for? I didn't do anything? That's being a hot dog.' "

The key for Coleman -- who plays directly behind Manley on the right side -- is not being emotional, but just being there.

He had injury-free seasons in 1979, 1980 and 1984 (10 1/2 sacks), but he wasn't a full-time starter then. Of course, everyone was expecting him to start when they saw his biceps.

"When I got here," Peccatiello said, "it was very unfortunate, but Monte had a lot to learn about playing linebacker. Yet everyone was ready to make him into something bigger than life, and they put a lot of pressure on Monte by saying he's a 'potential this' or 'potential that.' And, really, they just didn't let the guy develop as a player."

Coleman disagrees slightly, saying he has never felt pressure.

"I never called myself 'Superman,' " he said yesterday. "Pressure comes when you label yourself. I never labeled myself."

The hamstring injury has been the biggest nuisance, considering he pulled the muscle in both 1985 and 1986. He hardly had any fat on him, yet he was always hurt. He consulted doctors and was told it wasn't a weak hamstring muscle that was causing it, just muscle fatigue.

So, less was best for Coleman, who didn't enjoy all the running, anyway.

"I kind of hate running," he said. "That's a job to me. That's work. When I was 150, 160 pounds, it was fun to jog. No more."

But he always wanted to play a full season, and now he has. In a game this year against Dallas, he got a scare when he hit someone and injured his ribs. He lay there motionless for some time before stepping gingerly off. The surprise was that he came back later and played.