Danny Copeland has abandoned his dream of playing running back in the NFL, but he hasn't given up the idea of running to daylight.
"The most fun you can have in football is running with the ball," said Copeland, a Washington Redskins' safety. "It doesn't matter where it comes from, whether it's a kick or a pass."
Copeland signed with the Redskins last April as a Plan B free agent primarily because they offered him a chance to play running back. The grand experiment was short-lived, however. A back injury slowed his indoctrination period during mini-camp. Soon after, he realized the obvious: if he was going to contribute to the Redskins, it wouldn't be on offense.
Now Copeland simply wants to make the team any way he can. And if his niche is as a special teamer, then why not combine it with his one unfulfilled passion? "Next week I'll ask for a [chance to return a] punt," he said, looking ahead to Saturday's game against the New York Jets in Columbia, S.C.
In Kansas City, where he spent the past two seasons as a nickel back, Copeland led the Chiefs in kickoff returns with an average of 17.9 in 1989. But catching a punt and getting up field is another matter.
Might it mean the difference in Copeland's making the Redskins?
"If I break one it might," he said.
Copeland got a lot of playing time in the secondary in Friday's 24-21 overtime loss to Cleveland. He went in at strong safety in the second quarter after Alvin Walton sprained his left knee. He also took a few turns at cornerback.
On a night when Washington's secondary was shredded by backup Browns quarterback Todd Philcox, Copeland did not necessarily distinguish himself. He had one tackle and recovered a Cleveland fumble.
"I did not have a good game overall," he admitted. "I'm still trying to get a feel for the system. A couple of times, if I'd played the tendencies of down and distance, I'd have been in position. I'm still thinking about things, and that gets me behind some times."
Copeland, 6 feet 2 and 212 pounds, doesn't think his time spent trying to play running back put him behind as much as the knee injury he sustained in Carlisle, Pa. That cost him two weeks of work. As it stands now, Copeland, 25, must beat out Clarence Vaughn, who is 27, for the backup safety spot behind Walton. Vaughn played Friday and broke up one pass.
"I want to play with these guys somewhere," Copeland said. "They've got some of the best athletes in the NFL."
His short-term motivation is to make the team. Long term, he wants to prove he can play more than special teams.
With a roster reduction to 60 due tomorrow, Copeland isn't taking anything for granted. "Clarence is a good football player," he said. "I hope I get another chance next week. You never know what's going to happen."
Second-year quarterback Cary Conklin may have blown his shot at being Mark Rypien's backup with a spotty 6-for-15 performance. It was his fumble at the Washington 28 in overtime that enabled Cleveland to slip away with the win. Neither Stan Humphries nor Jeff Rutledge played. Rypien (10-for-18 for 143 yards) engineered all three Redskins touchdowns . . . Gerald Riggs looked good rushing for 52 yards, but set up a Cleveland touchdown with a second-quarter fumble . . . Running back John Settle, another Plan B acquisition this year, saw his first game action and averaged 4.4 yards on eight carries . . . Chip Lohmiller missed a 37-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would have clinched a win for the Redskins, now 1-2. "It tells everybody what kind of team we have," coach Joe Gibbs said. "We lost two out of three and haven't looked good doing it."