CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 13 -- With Coach Joe Gibbs nervously watching and trainer Bubba Tyer keeping an eye on someone he says is "not only a hard worker and outstanding player, but a real good guy," the Washington Redskins welcomed an old and familiar friend back to practice today.
Tackle Joe Jacoby, sidelined since tearing up his left knee in Week 10 last season, said he never doubted this day eventually would come, not even during eight months of sometimes grueling rehabilitation.
Not even when he was at his lowest emotional point last winter -- when a doctor removed a cast from his left leg and allowed him to see that it had atrophied so badly it was now a gruesome couple of inches smaller than the right one.
Jacoby said he believed he'd eventually be back even while undergoing a therapy process that had him at Redskin Park five and six days a week to attempt to bend a leg that seemingly wouldn't bend and to break surgical adhesions that seemingly were ripping his leg apart.
"That's not the way I was going to go out," he said of the injury. "I want to go out on my own terms. I'm at the point where I feel I can still play. And I love the game too much."
That knee injury has left him with an uncertain future. Not only has he had major knee surgery but, at 31, he is returning to an offensive line that was revamped last season after injuries also sent Russ Grimm and Mark May to the sideline.
This summer, the Redskins want to find a way to keep youngsters Mark Schlereth, Ed Simmons and Raleigh McKenzie in the lineup while allowing the veterans to continue to contribute. Grimm has proven during this camp he's still capable of playing, and today Jacoby took the next step in what has been a remarkable recovery.
Grimm is starting at right guard, but in Saturday's 31-27 loss to Atlanta, the Redskins used several different combinations. At the moment, Jacoby probably will split time with Simmons and Jim Lachey at the tackle spots.
Jacoby's continued recovery the next few weeks will dictate how he's used, but Gibbs has left little doubt he'll be used somewhere. He calls the offensive line "the deepest part of our football team" and admits that some tough roster decisions may have to be made at the end of camp.
They'd probably be willing to trade a lineman for a cornerback or defensive lineman, but Gibbs shrugs trade rumors off, saying, "We've only made a handful of trades in all the times I've been here. The guys you'd like to have are usually not going to be available."
After three weeks of spending his camp working with trainers, Jacoby put on the full uniform and took part in most of the scheduled drills.
He won't take part in full-bore one-on-one drills for at least a few more days, and Gibbs doubted Jacoby would play in Friday night's preseason game against Pittsburgh at RFK Stadium.
"It'll just depend on how confident he feels," Gibbs said. "He'll do as much as he feels he's ready to do. The doctors say he's had a perfect recovery. There hasn't been one hitch."
There certainly wasn't today as the only indication he'd had trouble was in the two large braces, and that Tyer occasionally bit his nails while watching.
"You can see he's getting back into it," he said. "He's gong to have to be hit a few times before he really feels comfortable with it."
His recovery has gone so smoothly that the Redskins believe he may play in the final two preseason games, then be ready for the Sept. 9 regular season opener against the Phoenix Cardinals at RFK Stadium. Until then, he'll "take it a step at a time."
"It was time to move it up," he said. "I felt like I could get back out there and I wanted to. I'll see how it responds this week and go from here."
He said the practice had left the knee "tired. The whole leg feels tired. But that's to be expected. It's a challenge, but it was a challenge 10 years ago when I came in here."
His career has been amazing on a couple of levels. He arrived in 1981 as an undrafted free agent just a few weeks after the Redskins had turned their head coaching job over to a slightly anonymous NFL assistant -- Gibbs.
Over the next decade, Gibbs established himself as one of the league's best coaches and Jacoby -- a 300-pound four-time Pro Bowler -- became one of the anchors of pro football's most solid offensive lines.
Incredibly, he had escaped serious injury until "getting my leg caught and rolled back" while blocking for a field goal against the Philadelphia Eagles last Nov. 12.
"I felt it go," he said. "I couldn't get it over from under me. I guess it was my turn after nine years. It something else you have to deal with. It's a mental thing more than a physical thing. It's getting back out there and getting used to being hit on the knee. That'll take awhile. You take a chance everytime you go out there."
When the cast came off, "it was hard to think about playing again. I knew I'd be back, but I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Most of us are at Redskin Park lifting every day anyway, so when I was out there, I was around the guys. That would be something you'd miss, probably more than anything, if you weren't part of it anymore."
The next questions will be how quickly he can return to top playing condition and how well he plays. He certainly appeared on his way to another Pro Bowl last season after being shifted from left tackle to right tackle.
He had reported at a relatively light 300 pounds -- he swore off pizza for a few months -- and was having a terrific year until the injury.
"I think I've still got some years left," he said. "It was just a matter of being able to get back on the field and push some people around."
Gibbs has talked of rotating perhaps as many as eight linemen to give everyone work. That would be different from anything Jacoby was done in the past, but he said: "I can live with anything. That's up to Coach Gibbs and the staff. I just want to get myself ready and take it from there. I want to be able to play the way I like to play and I think I can do that."