As the Washington Redskins' projected starters lined up for drills at Redskin Park yesterday, Tre Johnson was hunched over a stationary bicycle set up on an adjacent field, pedaling at a furious pace.
If Coach Norv Turner had his choice, Johnson would have lined up at right guard instead. But Johnson will miss the Redskins' eight-day minicamp that runs through June 10, just as he missed April's minicamp, in order to recover from surgery on a shoulder and knee.
Johnson has yet to play a 16-game season in five years with the Redskins. And he is well aware that he has been tagged with a reputation as a result. But when it comes to his recovery, Johnson is pedaling at his own pace.
"In the past, I got myself in the situation I am now physically from coming back from injuries too early, repeatedly, among other things," Johnson said this week. "That's not going to happen [any more]. I'm going to make sure I'm feeling spiffy before I step on the field."
After five NFL seasons, Johnson said he has concluded it's time to cut back on "brawler"-style football and focus more on the game's mental aspects. He also feels his body can't take multiple days of contact in practice during the season. As for reports that new Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder will take a hard line with players who are out of shape or overweight, Johnson, whose typically gains 25 pounds each offseason, said he welcomes it.
"I'm sure the new guys coming in will rattle things up," Johnson said. "I believe in a hard line. I believe everybody should be accountable. I've never missed a meeting. I'm never late; I'm always on time. I always do what I'm asked to do. My responsibilities are always taken care of. My mama raised me to be that way. . . . But I feel my abilities, when healthy, are right where they should be. They're among the best anywhere."
When healthy, Johnson is the Redskins' most valuable offensive lineman. At 6 feet 2, with a playing weight of 325 to 345 pounds, he possesses a rare combination of girth and grace that makes him difficult to defend. Despite his imposing size, Johnson is nimble, with quick feet and explosive moves.
But when he is sidelined by injury (he has missed 19 of 80 games since 1994), Johnson is sorely missed.
Said Turner: "On the offensive line, getting five guys playing together over and over again so they know what each other is doing is critical. And that has been a problem with us, with Tre, for the last couple years. He hasn't been able to have a consistent period of time where he's gotten not only himself in a good groove, but gotten a feel for the two guys playing on each side of him."
Johnson said that playing 16 games was his goal every season. "Of course I feel I've got 16 games," said Johnson, 27. "But this year it's going to be a situation of monitoring my body and how I'm feeling. Coming off the surgeries I've had the last couple years, it's time to take heed to things like that and not try to mash, mash, mash all the time. I can't play three games a week any more." (Johnson explained that "three games a week" was equivalent to one game and several days of practice in full pads.)
Johnson's mind-set and physical condition are critical to the Redskins because of his role on the offensive line and the unit's importance to the team's success -- or lack of it.
In the past two years, Redskins officials have pumped millions into upgrading the defensive line. But they've done little to retool the offensive line, aside from drafting Michigan's Jon Jansen. That means the unit that gave up a franchise-record 61 sacks last season returns with only subtle variations: likely Shar Pourdanesh or Joe Patton at left tackle, Brad Badger at left guard, Cory Raymer at center, Johnson at right guard and Jansen at right tackle.
Johnson said he and his linemates are acutely aware that they're considered the team's weak link. They post newspaper clippings to that effect in the locker room to motivate one another, he said.
Johnson said he is also aware of reports that Snyder won't tolerate players who are out of shape or overweight. Johnson said he hoped the message wasn't directed at him. While he admitted he is at least 20 pounds over the 325-pound playing weight team officials have set for him, Johnson said he'd put his overall fitness up against any player's at his position.
"I'm a big person," Johnson said. "Every year I've been in the league, I've put on 25 pounds in the offseason and lost it all. I have never missed a designated weight given to me. I have never been out of shape. I may have been heavy, but I'm never out of shape. I can run with anyone."
Still, Johnson's weight was such a concern this spring that team officials ordered a full physical and asked a doctor to propose a diet plan, according to trainer Bubba Tyer.
Johnson rejected the doctor's help, saying he'd rather lose the weight on his own. "I'm not going to starve myself," Johnson said. "I don't believe in dieting. You work it off: you lift harder, you run more, you do more things to burn more calories. But I'm not going to negate strength -- especially coming off of an injury -- to make it look pretty on paper. That's not me.
" . . . Only I know me. Nobody who hasn't been 6-2, 340, 335, 345-plus can talk to me about being that weight. Nobody who hasn't blocked Leon Lett can talk to me about blocking Leon Lett. That's why I'm glad I have [former guard] Russ Grimm as a coach. He understands."
Johnson said he fully intends to be ready to join Redskins workouts when training camp begins July 25. "I'm always open to debate any aspect of myself," Johnson said. "But I feel I'm right on schedule. There's a month-and-a-half left, and I'm going to take all of it and do the right thing to get back."
CAPTION: In five seasons with the Redskins, Tre Johnson has yet to play a full 16 games. "I'm going to make sure I'm feeling spiffy before I step on the field."