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For Gardner, a Mixed Reception

Wideout Has Played Well, But Has Subpar Numbers

By Nunyo Demasio

Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, December 20, 2003; Page D01

When the Washington Redskins handed wide receiver Laveranues Coles the richest contract in franchise history, Rod Gardner acted as if he were getting a share.


'It's been frustrating because of the type of player I wanted to be this year with' Laveranues Coles, said Rod Gardner (55 catches for 567 yards).

Instead of feeling like he was being displaced as Washington's top wideout, the 6-foot-2, 213-pounder envisioned having his best season in the NFL alongside his former high school rival. Coles was the uber-fast receiver who would stretch the field, allowing Gardner to exploit single coverage and improve on a breakthrough season that came despite playing alongside not-ready-for-prime-time wideouts.

The third-year wideout even concocted a nickname -- Thunder and Lightning -- to match the pair's expected status as one of the best tandems in the NFL.

Although Coles flourished enough to be named a Pro Bowl alternate, the neat story will end with Gardner likely having his worst statistical season in the NFL.

Nonetheless, the Redskins say they have been pleased with Gardner's performance. Indeed, Gardner will likely receive a slightly higher grade than last season, when he set career highs in catches (71) and receiving yards (1,006) while snagging a team-high eight touchdowns.

"Rod and Laveranues have done very well together," said wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. "For the most part, Rod has done everything we've asked him to. He hasn't gotten as many opportunities as he'd like to have.

"But in some areas, Rod has played better. He plays until the whistle blows a bit more than last year."

Despite his gaudy numbers last season, Gardner occasionally infuriated coaches because of lackadaisical play. (Coach Steve Spurrier even benched Gardner in Game 6 against the Green Bay Packers, causing the wide receiver to miss his first NFL start.) During his rookie season, Gardner had a penchant for following a spectacular catch with a drop, causing defensive end Bruce Smith to dub him "50-50" -- as in the odds of a catch. This season, Gardner actually has less drops than Coles, who is known for his sticky fingers. Gardner -- selected No. 15 overall in the 2001 draft -- has also runs crisper routes and improved on his blocking.

"It's been frustrating because of the type of player I wanted to be this year with" Coles, said Gardner, who has 55 catches for 567 yards, an average of just 10.3. " But I know I did good things this year compared to last year. And I'll keep pushing."

Coles's maniacal work habits have apparently spurred Gardner to become more of a professional. Unlike last year, Gardner has been more attentive in meetings and puts in extra time. During a 20-17 victory against the Patriots on Sept. 28, Gardner hustled to make a key fumble recovery. "Last year, he wouldn't have been near that," Spurrier Jr. said, chuckling.

Like the Redskins' offense, Gardner peaked early. When Washington defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 33-31, in Week 3, Gardner caught nine passes for 118 yards while Coles set career highs in receptions (11) and receiving yards (180). It was the first time since 1999 that a Redskins wideout tandem each amassed at least 100 yards. At that point, the offense resembled a juggernaut featuring two explosive wide receivers. Gardner was on track for 83 catches, which would have been more than any Redskin since Art Monk reached 86 in 1989.

"Things didn't go well for anybody on this team, including Rod," said Coles, who this week revealed that he has played with a right foot injury since Week 3. "Look at our record. Give us another year to work together."

But will Gardner be back?

During the offseason, the Redskins could use Gardner as trade bait to address issues on the defensive line or at tailback. But the downside to such scenarios would be finding a replacement -- Gardner's stats still make him one of the top number two wide receivers in the NFC.

According to a Redskins source, the club is leaning against trading Gardner, especially with the struggles of rookie Taylor Jacobs, who has only three catches. The former Gator -- selected in the second round -- never got into the groove after suffering from a freak abdominal accident in the exhibition finale. At that point, Darnerien McCants had beaten out Jacobs for the number three wideout spot.

While Gardner's numbers have dropped, McCants has sparkled in a limited role.

McCants leads the team with six touchdowns despite just 24 catches. Scoring on one-fourth of his receptions isn't a statistical fluke. McCants drew NFL attention during his senior season at Delaware State after 16 touchdowns on 32 receptions. This season, McCants has exploited his size and athleticism against single coverage. I guess they see me the way I was in college," said the 6-3, 214-pounder. "They use me as almost a tight end."

McCants lacks the quickness that Spurrier prefers in wide receivers -- Gardner has deceptive speed -- so McCants is suited for the number three spot. McCants was on the bubble for a roster spot because an injury prevented him from playing in most of the exhibitions. But after the season, McCants will likely draw interest as a restricted free agent.

The coaching staff wants McCants to return -- "absolutely," Spurrier Jr. said -- but management must decide what he's worth. If the Redskins tender the minimum of roughly $600,000 for someone of his status, another team can sign McCants by giving up a fifth-round pick. Washington can virtually lock up McCants with a tender of $1.3 million, which requires a first-round pick from another suitor. But the Redskins will probably consider that too pricey.

"I haven't really thought about. I'm just trying to get a couple of more touchdowns," McCants said, smiling.

Redskins Notes: Daryl Terrell is expected to start at left tackle in place of Brandon Winey (knee) and Chris Samuels (knee). Samuels will test his knee before the game to see if he can go after missing three starts. . . . Redskins vice president Pepper Rodgers will be inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Rodgers, an Atlanta native and former Georgia Tech head coach, will join the likes of Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and Bobby Jones. . . . Jacobs (foot) won't play, meaning Patrick Johnson and McCants will get more minutes. . . . Safety David Terrell (knee) is expected to play despite being listed as doubtful.

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