Jags' McCardell a real catch Jacksonville receiver likes showing Ravens what they're missing

October 30, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

He was considered too small and too slow to get much notice from the pro scouts when he came out of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1991.

He lasted until the 12th round of the NFL draft -- there are now only seven rounds -- before the Washington Redskins took a flier on him as the 45th receiver selected.

He spent his first year on injured reserve with a knee injury and then went to Cleveland, where he was cut three times in 10 weeks in 1992.

That is not the usual ticket to stardom in the NFL.

Unless you're Keenan McCardell.

"I'm a very persistent person," said the 6-foot-1, 186-pound receiver.

He was so persistent that he overcame all the rejections and became a Pro Bowl receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Along with teammate Jimmy Smith, he now forms one of the best wide receiving combos in the league, and they have one of the best quarterbacks -- Mark Brunell -- throwing to them.

He's also one of the reasons his former Cleveland team -- now the Ravens -- has yet to beat the Jaguars.

One scout for an NFC team went back to his 1991 files this week to check out his report on McCardell. "I must confess to not being tuned in to how good he was going to be," the scout said.

Even by 1994, the scout said his reports had upgraded McCardell only to a third-down player, although by then he liked his competitiveness, hands and instincts.

It turned out he had even more.

"He's got good hands, good ball adjustment and he's a little faster deeper than we thought," the scout said. "He's a very smooth guy, he runs great routes and he has good body control in and out of cuts. He has tremendous concentration, knows how to work defensive backs and he can take a hit. He really knows how to give the quarterback a target and he's real quick after the catch."

The result is that he's third in the league this year with 40 catches. He's behind only Cincinnati's Carl Pickens, who has 44, and Detroit's Herman Moore, who has 43.

Noting he's only 16th in the league in receiving yards with 500, the scout said, "He's still not an ideal deep guy. He's a big-play guy who doesn't make big plays by making long plays, but by making important catches."

McCardell still seems sensitive to the suggestion that he lacks speed.

"I'm not a fast guy? Believe it or not, I'm behind a lot of people. You can say what you want. Game speed, whatever. I get open. It's an art. Put it like that," he said.

"You don't have to be a blazer to win in this league. There are a lot of great receivers who aren't blazers. You have to know coverages and know where the holes in the defenses are going to be."

McCardell said all the doubters early in his career helped to spur him on.

"All the things they said, it just made me work harder to show people I can play," he said.

McCardell got his first break when the Redskins drafted him and he got to learn from such receivers as Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders while spending the year on injured reserve.

"I learned the NFL game," McCardell said. "I learned how to play at that level. I learned leadership from them. They always told me the players play the game, not the coaches. You have to go out there and make plays."

Still, it took him several trips to the waiver wire in Cleveland and a brief stop in Chicago until he finally got noticed in 1995, when he caught 56 passes in the Browns' last year in Cleveland.

But the Browns already had Andre Rison, Derrick Alexander and Michael Jackson. McCardell was the odd man out and didn't even get a contract offer from the Browns.

"I can understand their situation. It was a business deal. I had to find a better place for me," he said.

Rison and Alexander are now gone, but McCardell said: "I never second guess anybody's business decision."

Ozzie Newsome, Ravens vice president of player personnel, said: "I had a good relationship with Keenan and told him to get his best offer and give us a call. His agent did, but we barely had enough cap room to draft that year and we already had a tough time getting those other three [Rison, Alexander and Jackson] on the field. We had a problem with playing time, and there were some unhappy campers."

Several teams were interested in McCardell, and he visited Chicago and Carolina before the Jaguars sold him on their future. He then canceled three other visits and signed a four-year, $5.8 million deal in 1996. Last year, he got a $15.5 million extension.

He caught 85 passes in each of his first two years with the team and is on a pace to do it again this year. He's been particularly effective against the Ravens, catching 12 passes in two games against them in 1996, 13 in two games last year and eight more in the Jaguars' 24-10 victory on Sept. 20.

That's 33 catches in five games against the Ravens, and McCardell is candid enough to say he enjoys burning his former team, even if it has changed cities.

As one scout for an AFC team said: "Deep down inside, he knows what they thought of him."

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