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How strange must it have been for Keenan McCardell to make his Redskins debut yesterday 16 years after the team drafted him? McCardell doesn’t even have to tell you how old he is (37). All he has to say is, “I got taken in the 12th round.”

As any Kiper knows, the NFL Draft hasn’t been 12 rounds since 1993. Saying “I’m a 12th-rounder” is like saying “my first car was a Gremlin.” It immediately dates you.

Had McCardell managed to get on the field in 1991, when he was first in the Redskins’ employ, he would have made his debut at RFK Stadium, a crud-covered old ballpark that, on a good day, could squeeze in 55,000 partisans. But here he was, in Week 5 of the 2007 season, staring up at stands that extended almost to the heavens — and comfortably seated more than 92,000 when full. Welcome to the Roman Colosseum West, kid.

Anyway, McCardell was standing on the sideline late in the first half, watching the Redskins get ready to score their second touchdown against the Lions, when Antwaan Randle El came off the field and said simply, “That’s it.”

“What?” McCardell replied, not exactly sure what the words meant.

“My hammy.”

Randle El, who had just turned a quick slant into a 37-yard gain to the Detroit 1, had pulled his hamstring in the process. He was out of the game — and perhaps next week’s game, too, depending on his powers of recuperation. This wasn’t good news for the Redskins, who were already short at receiver because of Santana Moss’ groin injury.

With its top two wideouts out of action, the offense was down to 32-year-old utility man James Thrash, McCardell, Reche Caldwell (who had just gotten off the bus at Redskin Park) and Brandon Lloyd (who has fallen so far out of favor that you’d need a GPS system to find him). Not that McCardell was worried. If there’s one thing 861 catches, 11,117 yards, 62 touchdowns, two Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl ring give a receiver, it’s supreme confidence — in any circumstances, even yesterday’s Code Red emergency.

“OK,” he said to himself. “Better get loose. It’s my time.”

Less than five minutes into the second half, McCardell ran a “4” route — a deep “in” — right into the heart of the Lions’ secondary. He was open, and Jason Campbell hit him for a 20-yard gain to the Detroit 48. Alas, the drive petered out at the 30, and Shaun Suisham’s field goal try veered wide.

“Jason and I kinda jelled a little bit in practice, especially on those ‘4’ routes,” McCardell said. “We knew that route would be open; we saw it on the films when they played other teams. [Campbell] knew just where I was going to be. All he had to do was throw it.”

Later in the third quarter, McCardell ran the same route for a 19-yard pickup to the Detroit 44. But that scoring chance, too, was wasted, this time by Clinton Portis’ fumble at the 14. Still, the Redskins were thrilled with their new receiver’s contributions. As Campbell put it, “What [more] can you ask for from a guy who’s only been here for a week?”

What more, indeed — two catches, both of which put the ball squarely in opposition territory, for 39 yards … after just four days of practice. Professionalism, thy name is Keenan McCardell.

So often receivers will hang on in pro football past the point of usefulness — because the money’s still good, because the cheers remain addictive, because they might inch up a few more spots on some all-time list. We saw it in Washington with Andre Reed in 2000. It can be hard to watch, knowing how great a wideout once was.

But McCardell still seems to have something to give — that is, if this first game wasn’t an optical illusion. Just two years ago, after all, he grabbed 70 balls and scored nine touchdowns for the Chargers. Clearly, he can still shake a defender. Clearly, the hands are still sure.

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