CARLISLE, Pa. -- Tight end Ron Middleton had an immediate reaction yesterday when he saw Don Warren on the ground after a routine running play.
"I thought he just got nicked," Middleton said. "[I thought] he was going to jump up. When he didn't, my heart dropped a little bit."
The Washington Redskins lost the heart of their offense when Warren, a dependable blocking tight end, broke his right leg during a practice session against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Trainer Bubba Tyer said Warren had a displaced fracture of the bottom of his right fibula. He'll undergo surgery today to have screws placed in the bone.
How long will be out?
"Right now, we're saying 10 weeks. We'll know more in a few weeks," Tyer said. Warren will be in a cast or a splint for two to three weeks. In 10 weeks, the NFL regular season will be in its sixth week.
But coach Joe Gibbs was more optimistic, saying Warren could be back in eight weeks, although Gibbs conceded Warren also could be sidelined for 12 weeks.
"I don't think he's going to be out 10 weeks. It's the best break you can have. We should have great repair on it," Gibbs said.
Warren, a 35-year-old veteran in his 13th year, has been an unsung player for the Redskins. He never has made the Pro Bowl or received much recognition, because he rarely gave interviews.
But he was possibly the key player in the Redskins' one-back offense, because his blocking made it work.
"We're missing a lot of our offense in one guy, and that's Donnie Warren," said tight end John Brandes. "I've watched all the tight ends in the NFL, and there isn't a guy who blocks the way he does."
Middleton, who'll inherit Warren's starting position, said: "You don't replace a guy like that. You just go in there and do your best and try not to lose too much. You're going to lose some. I'll tell you, it was a big shock. You never picture an iron man like that going down."
Warren, 6 feet 4, 242 pounds, was hurt during what the team calls a half-line running drill, in which the Redskins linemen go against the Steelers defensive linemen and linebackers Earnest Byner took the handoff on a running play when Warren's legs got rolled up from behind in the pile.
"The guy was trying to make a play and stuffed the hole and somebody was rolling him up from behind and Warren just got his legs caught underneath the guy," Byner said. "It's nothing against the guy. He was just playing football. This is the chance you take when you're out there."
The Redskins said they weren't sure which Steelers were involved. "They don't have numbers on their jerseys [for practice], and everybody looks alike over there," Middleton said.
Warren He missed just four games in the past seven seasons. Along with Monte Coleman and Sammy Baugh, he's one of three Redskins to play in three different decades. With 172 games as a Redskin, he's tied for fifth on the club's all-time list.
"I think he's a typical Redskin," Gibbs said. "He's No. 1 in the weight room, No. 1 as a leader. He's 35 years old and still plays and worries about his job. He's a conscientious guy. He's all those things.
Running backs come and go, but Warren has been a constant as a blocker. He blocked for John Riggins, George Rogers, Timmy Smith, Gerald Riggs and Byner.
"If the tight end can't make it happen, it's usually going to ruin the whole play. His job is to block people off the ball. If he doesn't do his job, the whole offense suffers," Middleton said.
With Warren out, Middleton, Brandes, who served as the long snapper last year, and rookie Dennis Ransom will have to carry on at tight end.
Middleton has played with four teams and been cut by all of them. When the Redskins cut him in training camp in 1989, he eventually signed on with the Cleveland Browns, who cut him once during the season and then left him unprotected on Plan B, thinking no team would be interested in him.
But the Redskins, deciding they'd made a mistake in cutting him in 1988 and 1989, paid him a $115,000 signing bonus to get him back.
He now wants to prove the Redskins were right in having confidence in him.
"They don't just give that to you. You earn it," Middleton said.
NOTES: Chip Lohmiller of the Redskins and Gary Anderson of the Steelers each kicked 4 field goals in the evening scrimmage that ended in a 19-19 tie before a standing-room-only crowd of about 16,000 at Carlisle High School. . . . Even though QB Stan Humphries completed 14 of 15 passes for 95 yards, Gibbs was pleased with his team's showing. "I thought we were kind of herky-jerky tonight, and we didn't look very smooth on things. I wouldn't pick out anybody who played extremely well," he said.