Gardner starting to catch on

Renewed focus has helped 'Skins top wide receiver meet higher expectations

Pro Football

September 13, 2002|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - That's a different Rod Gardner running routes for the Washington Redskins.

Physically, the wide receiver is the same - standing 6 feet 2 and weighing 217 pounds. He still possesses the hands and the speed that made him an attractive No. 15 pick out of Clemson by Washington in last year's NFL draft.

The key has been Gardner's growth in the mental approach and maturity. He knows that even though he is playing in only his second season, a lot is expected of him as the team's anointed deep threat.

"I'm taking the responsibility," said Gardner, 24, who started all 16 games as a rookie. "Coach [Steve Spurrier] got me started, and he gave me the opportunity to go out there and play the majority of the game. So I've got to be the one to get it done."

Gardner turned in an eye-opening performance in Sunday's 31-23 season-opening win against the Arizona Cardinals. His career-high seven receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown gave Gardner his second career 100-yard game.

That effort will be critical for an offensive scheme that emphasizes the passing game and stretching opposing defenses.

"Rod Gardner had probably his best game ever as a Redskin," Spurrier said. "He caught everything he touched. He had guys hanging all over him several times, too."

A year ago, defensive backs would've been content on hanging back and letting Gardner make a play for the football.

Although he finished his rookie season with 46 catches for a team-high 741 yards and four touchdowns, Gardner developed a penchant for following seemingly improbable receptions with excruciatingly easy drops. Those dropped passes earned him the playful moniker "50-50" from defensive end Bruce Smith.

Throw in an 0-5 start and the burden of being only the fifth wide receiver selected by Washington in the first round and Gardner said the expectations were high.

"It's tough coming into the league, and then being put in that role as one of the five best receivers coming into the league as a rookie and playing to form," he said. "It was just a typical young player's syndrome of not trying to make mistakes and mess up."

Cornerback Fred Smoot, who was drafted 30 slots behind Gardner, knows what it's like to line up against Gardner, whose Clemson team faced Smoot's Mississippi State squad every season.

"Rod's a big guy that can run, and that will surprise people," Smoot said. "They're like, `Yeah, I got this big guy. He ain't going to tear up my cushion that bad.' But once he gets up on you, he's going to run."

Gardner is more likely to compare himself to big receivers like Terrell Owens of the San Francisco 49ers and David Boston of the Cardinals, who use their size and strength to outmuscle defenders.

Gardner gave Redskins fans a glimpse of his strength on his touchdown catch last Sunday. Running a post route toward the center of the end zone, Gardner outleaped Arizona cornerback Duane Starks and hauled in the pass to give the Redskins a 24-16 lead with 6:28 left in the third quarter.

That play impressed quarterback Shane Matthews.

"That touchdown that I threw to him, it wasn't a very good throw," said Matthews, who was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his 28-for-40, 327-yard, three-touchdown effort against Arizona. "But he made it look really good because he went up for it and bodied the DB and came down with it. He catches it very well in traffic."

Gardner's progression will be tested Monday when he matches up against Philadelphia's Bobby Taylor or Troy Vincent, who is listed as probable with a bruised knee.

But Gardner said he isn't too concerned that the Eagles' secondary will place a target on his No. 87 jersey.

"If they watch film of me, they should be concerned," Gardner said. "They know we're going to throw the ball and we're going to throw it deep and get opportunities to make some big plays. That should be in the back of their mind. If not - because they think they've got a better defense and corners that can handle me - more power to them."

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