CARLISLE, Pa. -- Wearing a custom-made brace on his ailing right knee and a determined look on his face, Charles Mann promised yesterday that he's going to come back better than ever.
"I want to be the best defensive end in the NFL. That's my goal," Mann said as he talked with reporters for the first time since training camp opened.
After being outfitted with the brace and wearing it in non-contact drills yesterday, the nine-year Washington Redskins veteran said he plans to start hitting teammates today.
"At this point, I'm kind of champing at the bit. I want to hit somebody," he said.
Mann said the Redskins decided to get him the brace so he could start working even though the knee "right now is anywhere from 75 to 80 percent."
"There's no pain. The brace is there for added security because my [right] knee isn't as strong my other knee. I'm playing at a deficit right now," he said.
But Mann said he's made "vast improvement" since he came to camp 10 days ago, and "I really feel I'm going to have a 100 percent recovery."
He said he hopes to be ready for the season opener Sept. 1 against the Detroit Lions.
"I mean ready. I don't mean come out, here's a couple of practices and say, 'OK, I think I can do it.' We want to start fast this year, and we want to finish fast. One thing we haven't done is we haven't started fast around here," he said.
Mann's optimistic attitude was good news for the Redskins, because they have only two other veteran defensive ends, Fred Stokes and Markus Koch, in camp.
Coach Joe Gibbs couldn't savor Mann's upbeat remarks, because Gibbs was annoyed at the way the team practiced.
"It'd be great if he could come back and have a great year," Gibbs said.
But the coach sounded more concerned about the Redskins' lackluster practice. He said he tried to change the pace with the kind of practice the team has during the season, only to find out the players didn't react well to the change.
"We stunk," Gibbs said. "Last [Wednesday] night was very good. Today was awful. It was a changeup for them, and they really didn't understand what we wanted, I think. That's my fault."
Mann's return, though, is likely to brighten Gibbs' mood in the future -- especially if Mann can return to his form of 1987-89, when he made three straight Pro Bowls.
Last year, his play fell off, apparently because his knee was bothering him, but he doesn't say that.
"I don't like using excuses. I don't want to get into that kind of a mode. I just didn't get the job done last year. My peers saw it, and I didn't go to the Pro Bowl.
"I think you can grow from experiences like that. I'm not going to sit back and say, 'OK, I've lost a step. I've had it. I'm through. It's over.' I'm not that kind of a person. I'm going to go out there when my back is against the wall, and I'm going to come out fighting," he said.
Mann underwent his sixth arthroscopic surgery on his right knee rTC on Feb. 3, and he was surprised at how damaged the knee was. He said he usually walks out of the hospital after arthroscopic surgery. This time, he was on crutches for two weeks.
"To be honest with you, I thought I was going in for a little routine cleaning," he said.
He said he thought he had torn cartilage on the outside of his knee, but the doctors also found damage on the inside of the knee and a bone fragment deep in the back of his knee.
With all that removed, he was able to extend his knee completely again, but he's needed the past six months to strengthen it. He's not worried he's going to have permanent damage.
"I don't think it's a situation where I'll be walking around with a cane or a gimp or something like that," he said.
He said he hopes to get a reading on his progress in one-on-one drills today.
"I've been hitting a sled that can't fight back. I need to feel the pressure of another man pushing me while I'm pushing. We'll then look at them on film and [the coaches can] say, 'OK, I see where you're [playing] a little gingerly here' or 'I can see where you're doing this' or 'Hey, man, you look like you're ready to roll,' " he said.
He's not sure when he'll go full-time in practice, but he doesn't plan to wear the brace all season. He said it'll give opposing players a target.
"I don't want to spend a lot of time picking myself off the ground," he said.
Meanwhile, Mann can't wait to get started.
"I've very encouraged. I'm not discouraged about anything that's happened since I've been in training camp with my knee," he said.
NOTES: DB Sydney Johnson is out for at least a week after suffering a separated shoulder. . . . TE Ron Middleton returned to practice despite bruised ribs. . . . The Redskins, whose lease at RFK Stadium expired at the end of last year, have renewed it on an interim basis. They'll continue to play at RFK until their new stadium is constructed.