ASHBURN, Va. -- To be a cornerback in the NFL, it's not enough to have talent.
"There's a certain temperament you have to have to be a cornerback," said coach Richie Petitbon of the Washington Redskins. "You have to have a gunslinger's mentality. You have to have the ability to forget the last play. Cornerbacks are going to get beat. They all get beat. Guys who brood about stuff like that think themselves right out of a job."
Petitbon thinks that A. J. Johnson, who has stepped in for the departed Martin Mayhew, has that quality.
"He's got a cornerback's mentality," he said.
As the Redskins prepare for their final preseason game tomorrow night against the New York Jets, they couldn't be happier with Johnson.
Petitbon singled out the pass defense yesterday as one of the most positive elements of the team so far, and Emmitt Thomas, assistant coach in charge of the secondary, said: "Right now, I can't say enough good things about A. J."
The fifth-year player has only one hurdle to overcome: He has to prove he can stay healthy.
So far, he has passed that test. In fact, it's Tom Carter, the No. 1 draft pick who was supposed to challenge Johnson, who's off to the slow start because of injuries. Carter came back last week after breaking two bones in his back.
The coaches, though, still worry about Johnson's ability to stay healthy.
"That's a real concern for us," Petitbon said. "You have to be able to play 16 games and, until he does that, we worry about him."
It could be that Johnson has been unlucky, but Petitbon doesn't accept that.
"I just think [Johnson] tends to get injured," Petitbon said. "I think it has something to do with your parents. Some people have brittle bones. I hope it's just luck because we're a better football team when he's healthy. Next year, if we're standing here and he's gone 16 games, I'll say he was unlucky those early years. You just have to be leery of someone who's never done it."
Johnson's troubles started when he underwent reconstructive knee surgery in 1990 after playing in all 16 games (starting eight) in his rookie season in 1989. He was drafted on the sixth round that year.
Petitbon seems to have forgotten that season, perhaps because Johnson missed 11 games in 1990 while recovering from the knee injury. Or perhaps because in 1991, Johnson dislocated his wrist, started the year on injured reserve and lost five games.
Last year, he suffered a compound dislocation of the middle finger on his left hand in the fourth game.
"That was no problem," Johnson said. "It was a minor injury. They put it back together, sewed it back on, and I played the next week. It was nothing."
It was bad enough that he can no longer straighten the finger, but he brushes that off. He knows all about the injury rap and tries to minimize it.
"I've still got great hands," he said. "I can catch."
He also underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last year, but missed just two games (the 12th and 13th).
"I was on a mission," he said. "I had a goal set not to miss many games."
As it turned out, he was the team's healthiest cornerback. He stepped in for Darrell Green in the second week of the season on the right side when Green broke his forearm and moved to the left side in the 11th game when Mayhew suffered a similar injury. He wound up starting 11 games.
Still, he hears more than he wants to about injuries.
"We tease him about it all the time," said Thomas. "He just says it's behind him now and he's going to show us he can stay healthy. He thinks we label him injury-prone. He's just been in some freak accidents."
Johnson said: "You're never in control of injuries. If you get hurt, you get hurt. All I ask for myself and all I expect them to ask of me is that I play as hard as I can."
Although Johnson had no competition for the starting job once Carter was sidelined, he's quick to note that he has started before.
"I started my rookie year, too, and I started 11 games last year," he said. "It's not like I'm going to be out there and be shocked. I like to start. I'd rather be starting than coming off the bench."
Nobody doubts he has the cornerback's mentality that Petitbon likes. His trademark is his self-confidence that borders on cockiness.
"That's the only way to approach it [self-confidence]," Johnson said. "Like the coaches say, as soon as you think you're going to get cut, you're going to practice that way and you're going to play that way and you're going to get cut."
NOTES: DB Johnny Thomas (ankle) is the only player who's definitely out of the Jets game. . . . TE Terry Orr (back) is the only other player who didn't practice yesterday and is doubtful. DL Shane Collins, recovering from a shoulder injury, practiced again yesterday and is likely to play for the first time in the preseason. . . . The Redskins will have their "Welcome Home" luncheon today. It was at that luncheon six years ago that owner Jack Kent Cooke announced he was going to build a new stadium in Washington, but he still needs final approval. Cooke isn't scheduled to attend today, so there apparently will be no stadium update.