Petitbon sends runner Ervins a message Holdout told two want starting job PRO FOOTBALL


CARLISLE, Pa. -- It didn't take long for Richie Petitbon to send his first blunt message to a player.

Petitbon opened his first training camp as head coach of the Washington Redskins yesterday with only one player -- running back Ricky Ervins -- holding out, and the outspoken coach wasted no time giving him a warning.

"If he can count, I wouldn't stay out too long," Petitbon said of Ervins, who is facing stiff competition from two other young running backs, Brian Mitchell and Reggie Brooks.

The coach said he hasn't talked to Ervins, but seemed confident he'd get the message even though the two sides remain far apart and failed to close the gap in talks last night.

Petitbon, though, said, "I don't think it's going to be a problem."

Ervins' absence and a strained groin that will sideline wide receiver Desmond Howard for the first and maybe the second scrimmage were the top two developments as Petitbon held his first meeting last night and prepared for today's first workout.

It was quite a contrast to last season, when four key players -- quarterback Mark Rypien, cornerback Darrell Green, offensive lineman Jim Lachey and top draft pick Howard -- were holding out when Joe Gibbs opened what turned out to be his last camp as head coach.

This time, with Ervins the only absent player, the Redskins even delayed the signing of three veterans (Todd Bowles, Monte Coleman and Guy Bingham) and gave them the week off because they would put the team over the 80-player limit.

"I think it's a tremendous asset [to have all but one player in camp]," Petitbon said. "I think in the past when we've had all our guys in camp, we've had good years. Holdouts kill you."

General manager Charley Casserly said: "I like to think the four players who weren't here last year did not play at the level they played [in the past] whether it was injuries, lack of performance or experience, whatever."

One of those players, Howard, will again miss the start of camp -- this time because of injury. Casserly said he hurt the groin muscle in an off-season workout and apparently aggravated it when he tried to come back too fast.

Howard will miss the first scrimmage against the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday and is questionable for the scrimmage the following week against the New York Jets.

Casserly tried to downplay the significance of the ailment.

"Keep it in perspective. You've got four preseason games after that," he said.

Howard was scheduled to get extensive work in camp as a

starter in the wake of the demotion of veteran Art Monk, but he has time to get healthy for the exhibition opener Aug. 9 against the Cleveland Browns.

Even though Howard caught only three passes last year and separated his shoulder in the regular-season finale, his first start, Casserly said he's not worried that the former Heisman Trophy winner might be prone to injury.

"He was never hurt in college. We're not concerned about that," he said.

Petitbon, meanwhile, addressed several topics head-on.

On the question of whether free agency was like college recruiting, he said: "The recruiting part was who had the most money. I never recruited in college, but I guess it works out there, too. Everybody said we'd have a great advantage having [new] Redskin Park. Redskin Park and $4 to $5 million is great. Money talks."

On departed linebacker Wilber Marshall: "Wilber is Wilber. I wish Wilber were a different-type person, but he's not, so we're not going to dwell on that."

On when he'll start concentrating on the Dallas Cowboys, the team's foe in the regular-season opener: "About four months ago."

NOTES: Two free-agent rookies, RB Greg Manior of North Carolina State and TE Alan Cross of Iowa, and LB Ted Rogers, who was injured all last year, were waived to get the number of signed players down to 79. The Redskins are holding a spot open for Ervins. . . . QB Cary Conklin has swelling on his knee after off-season surgery that may limit his work.

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