For the first time in his NFL career, Chad Morton was sidelined long-term with a knee injury and was forced to watch teammates play most of the football season without him. The injury, a torn ACL suffered in Week 8 last season, was a humbling experience.
He missed playing the game.
"It put a lot of things in perspective for me," Morton said. "You don't realize how great an opportunity it is to play in this league until you're away from it. It's funny, everyone complains about training camp and coming back for offseason workouts, but when you haven't played in a while, it's the greatest thing. Just to be tired again is a great feeling."
Since undergoing surgery on his injured knee last December, Morton has thrown much of his energy into rehabilitation. Prior to the start of offseason workouts at Redskins Park last week, he took part in a rehab program in Florida. He has become meticulous about training, spending hours working out in the weight room and making sure his diet supplements his body.
Morton believes he's ahead of schedule in his rehab and has targeted being back at full speed by the start of training camp.
"I'm about halfway through my rehab process," he said. "I've been lifting and running a little bit--just straight-ahead running. I can do a lot of different drills like shuffling and lateral movement, but not full-speed cutting. I feel pretty strong for just starting off on workouts.
"How I approach training my body--I just view it differently now that I'm coming back from an injury," he said. "I'm a lot more serious now. I see how crucial every aspect of training is and how important it is to get your body right."
Morton, entering his sixth NFL season, joined the Redskins in 2003 and has been a solid return specialist in both punts and kickoffs.
In 2003, Morton appeared in 15 games and started two for the Redskins. He posted 44 kickoff returns for a 23.4-yard return average, good enough for sixth-best in the NFC, and had 19 punt returns for a 9.9-yard return average. In a Week 13 game against New Orleans, he returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, the fourth of his career.
Last year, prior to his injury, Morton returned 13 punts for a 6.2-yard return average and 16 kickoffs for a 22.4-yard return average.
Morton believes the Redskins' coaches got only an abbreviated look at his skills last year. He feels that he must work hard this offseason to impress the coaching staff.
"You know, I feel like I'm a rookie all over again," he said. "I want to show these coaches what I can do. They've only seen a little bit, and there's a lot more for me to show."
With the addition of wide receiver and return specialist Santana Moss to the team on March 10, Morton is approaching this offseason with a degree of uncertainty.
Last season, Moss was the New York Jets' primary punt return specialists. He returned 27 punts for an 8.3-yard return average, with a long of 46. Moss saved his most dramatic return for the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he brought back a punt 75 yards for a touchdown.
Will the Redskins use Moss in that role? That's uncertain at this point. The Redskins also have James Thrash and Antonio Brown, who shared duties on punt and kickoff returns when Morton was sidelined with the injury. Ladell Betts also has experience returning kickoffs.
Asked recently if Moss would be used as a return specialist, Gibbs replied: "If there's a guy who can help us back there and run back a touchdown, great. Between Antonio and Chad and other people on the team, we'll have a real specialist back there. I love that. But as far as the weapons on your team, you're always ready to use somebody back there who can hit a home run for you."
As for Morton, he recognizes that there will be strong competition for his job.
"I don't know what they have in store for me," Morton said. "I don't even know if I'm going to be playing here. But I definitely welcome the challenge. I hope we can all go out there in the preseason games and whoever has the best return average gets the job. If they want to go with someone else, that's fine. But I'm going to show what I can do.
"Competition is always exciting. That's why I'm really pushing myself. I don't know how much I'm going to miss this offseason and in training camp. If I end up practicing late in camp, I've got to show coaches what I can do pretty fast. I've got to be in great shape."