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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) _ It took Kevin Mawae no more than 20 minutes to get into a midseason mindset. And into a fight.

The New York Jets' All-Pro center, sidelined since May 9 by rotator cuff surgery, returned to practice on Saturday. He didn't last long on the field, although the injury had nothing to do with his early departure.

The tenacious veteran, entering his ninth NFL season, and third-year defensive end Shaun Ellis got into a tussle during a running play. Ellis shoved Mawae from behind, even though the play had passed them by. Mawae responded by throwing punches.

``He gave me a little extra push at the end of the play that was not necessary,'' Mawae said Monday between practice sessions. ``I retaliated. I don't let anyone push me around, even a teammate.

``It's over. What happens on the field stays on the field.''

Coach Herman Edwards, who does not tolerate fighting in any manner, sent Mawae and Ellis off the field. Considering the near-100 degrees temperature and high humidity, it wasn't exactly like being sentenced to Devil's Island.

``Herm threw us out of practice, which to me is pretty sweet,'' Mawae said with a sly smile. ``Punish me by standing and watching practice?''

Edwards was livid about the incident on Saturday, but he was in a jovial mood when addressing it Monday.

``You don't fight and then practice, that's a rule, and that's the first time it was implemented in 1 1/2 years,'' he said. ``I don't anticipate too many fights. That wasn't much of a fight.

``I told him, `If you want to get out early, just tell me. You don't have to do all that, raise a ruckus.' ``

Actually, Mawae can use the work, and he expects to play much of Saturday night's game against the Giants. Edwards knows there is no holding back Mawae once he gets on the field, though, so the coach wants to be careful about how much work his star center does in the game.

``Mawae will play. He wants to try to go the whole game, or three quarters. We will see,'' Edwards said.

``Kevin is a very tough guy mentally, and what I don't want him to do, because he's so mentally tough, is go out there and have it bother him and not say anything. Because he'll play that way.''

The Jets are in a difficult position concerning Mawae. They need continuity on the offensive line, particularly after losing two starters _ tackle Ryan Young to Houston in the expansion draft and guard Kerry Jenkins to Tampa Bay as a free agent _ off what was a solid unit. If Mawae isn't on the field, it usually means starting left guard J.P. Machado moves to center, forcing rookie Jonathan Goodwin into the lineup.

But they don't want to overdo it.

``These guys did a pretty decent job, but I'm back now and I want to get the line solidified,'' Mawae said. ``We got three weeks to get things ready and I think we will be fine.

``But it'll be tough. What we had last year was a pretty special unit. This is the NFL, and you've got to fill those holes.''

And you have to re-sign your key players. Mawae is in the final year of his contract, and he's looking for a new salary befitting the top center in the game and one of the Jets' key leaders. Mawae counts $5.4 million against the salary cap, with a base salary of $3 million in 2002.

He and agent Mark Bartelstein have an offer to the Jets on the table.

``We didn't say there is a hard-core deadline, but my preference is to not go into the season without a new contract,'' Mawae said. ``It's in their court. You look at the market and see how I stack up against the others, what I've done and what others get. All of that comes into play.''