The sun hasn't come up most mornings when Dana Stubblefield pulls into Redskin Park to run and lift weights with workout buddy Rod Milstead. Except for a few weeks' vacation, Stubblefield has followed this ritual, which dawns at 6:30 a.m., nearly every weekday since February.
As a result, he is stronger than at any point in his six-year NFL career and, by all accounts, as serious about reestablishing himself as a top defensive player as Daniel M. Snyder, the Redskins' new owner, is about restoring the team's playoff glory.
After signing Stubblefield to a $36 million contract in February 1998, Redskins officials barely saw their prized defensive tackle again until July, when he returned shortly before training camp well over his playing weight of 315 pounds. Despite slimming down and firming up, Stubblefield ultimately fell short of expectations -- as did the Redskins.
With Stubblefield in the lineup, the Redskins went 0-7 in a stretch of football he recalls as "just miserable." At that point, he decided to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his knee. In Stubblefield's absence, the Redskins won six games but finished 6-10, no closer to the playoffs than they had been the year before.
"On my part, yes, I have failed -- because of the knee injury, because of not finding that zone where I felt comfortable with the defense and could start playing ball," Stubblefield said in a recent interview. "I just never got there."
In some ways, expectations were unrealistic from the start. After the 1997 squad finished 8-7-1, the thinking was that the Redskins were only a defensive stop or two shy of a postseason berth. So, with the blessing of team president John Kent Cooke, General Manager Charley Casserly left little to chance, acquiring not only Stubblefield but also Cincinnati defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson. Overnight, the Redskins became favorites to win the NFC East.
Of course, no one anticipated the loss of starting defensive end Rich Owens in the preseason, or that quarterback Gus Frerotte would be benched in Game 1 or that the first victory wouldn't come until November. Similarly, few would have predicted that Stubblefield, the NFL's 1997 defensive player of the year, would follow a season in which he recorded a career-high 15 sacks with 1.5 sacks over seven games.
Looking back, Stubblefield said he underestimated how long it would take to adapt to new teammates, a new defensive scheme and a streamlined role, in which he covers one gap instead of the two he had handled for years in San Francisco. Today, he faults himself for not spending more time at Redskin Park before camp opened -- not just getting in shape, but getting to know people.
"I knew it wasn't going to be an easy thing to do, to transfer from one organization to the next just like that," Stubblefield said. "I wanted it to happen right now; I mean, right now! I wanted to be able to fit in with the guys, with the team -- everything. It just didn't happen when I wanted. It took a little longer. And that has been a mistake on my part -- not spending more time in the offseason here last year. I didn't think I needed that."
Of the 60 players on the Redskins' last Super Bowl team, 53 lived in Northern Virginia and trained at Redskin Park in the offseason. Longtime strength coach Dan Riley believes there is a link.
"With the successful teams we've had, chemistry didn't just develop because we won," Riley said. "I believe chemistry was part of the reason we won. If you wait until you win to develop chemistry, it probably won't happen. Chemistry, I really believe, begins to develop when players are here in the offseason, spending time in a non-football environment, working hard together, seeing how hard the other person is working and developing relationships through spontaneity."
Stubblefield agrees. He won't make the mistake again.
"Once you get to Frostburg [for training camp], everything is happening real fast, and you really don't have that time to say, `Well, I'm done with the meetings, I'm going to go down to Kenard's room and hang out,' " he said. "Or, `I'm going to go up to Big Daddy's room or [Marc] Boutte's room and just see what's going on, get to know these guys.' You're so tired, you don't want to do it. You think: `I'll get to see him tomorrow; I'll do it then.' It just didn't happen. And I think that was one of the things we were lacking last year."
Surgery only underscored the distance he felt from his teammates.
Some NFL teams isolate injured players, for fear they will be an emotional drain on healthy players. The Redskins aren't among them. So Stubblefield attended every game after his surgery, mingling on the field before kickoff, then watching from the stands or a box.
From that vantage point, he watched the defense make huge strides. "I saw Dan Wilkinson getting to where he was comfortable with everything," Stubblefield said. "He was getting in that zone of, `Here we go! It's time to play football!' He turned it around in the second half. He really picked up the slack for me, and I told him that. He really poured it on the last half of the season after that seven-game stretch, especially when I went down."
But during the week, he felt a gulf between himself and his teammates. They would be on the field practicing; he would be indoors on the treadmill.
"You kind of are an outsider," he explained, "because you're not going through what those guys are going through. Even though I was making progress on the rehab and in the weight room, it's nothing for me to brag about because I wasn't going through the physical abuse that they were going through."
While defensive coordinator Mike Nolan doesn't second-guess the decision to have the arthroscopic procedure, he believes Stubblefield would feel differently about last season, as would his teammates, if he had been able to play all 16 games.
"He missed a huge chunk of the season," Nolan said, "and that's the biggest obstacle he needs to overcome. When it got rough, he kind of disappeared. And his teammates want to know they can count on him if it gets rough again."
Stubblefield was among the first players to return to Redskin Park for offseason workouts this winter. His upper body is massive, and he estimates his knee is 97-98 percent recovered.
Looking to the fall, he said he feels great about the defensive line, composed entirely of former first-round draft picks. Pass-rushing specialist Charles Haley may join their ranks if Redskins officials outbid Carolina and San Francisco for his services.
Stubblefield applauds the addition of Rubin Carter to the defensive coaching staff. He also likes the tough talk from Snyder, who set exacting standards in his first visit to Redskin Park earlier this month.
"Expectations are high," Stubblefield said. "The front office, the coaching staff, the locker room -- everybody in this building is expected to do their best. He made a point of telling people. A lot of stuff is going on with Mr. Snyder coming in. I kind of see it as us being in the same boat because I still haven't put a full year in. I still feel like I'm a new guy because I haven't gone through a full season with these guys."
CAPTION: "I just never got there," says Stubblefield of 1998; he had only 1.5 sacks in 7 games played.