- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

Washington Redskins rookie wide receiver Rod Gardner believes he's having a "good season," that he hasn't hit the rookie wall, that his blocking has been very solid and that he is treated by other offensive players as a "peer," not a rookie.

So everything's fine, right? Not quite. There's one subject that makes Gardner's head fall in frustration and roll back and forth between his shoulders.

Dropped passes.

"They keep coming," Gardner said this week. "Week by week, I don't worry about it. I just keep going out there and playing. If it happens, it's just me not concentrating on the ball as much as I need to. It's my fault. Drops shouldn't happen."

Drops have been the one flaw in an otherwise solid debut season by Gardner, whose 33 catches lead all NFL rookies and whose 531 yards trail only the Miami Dolphins' Chris Chambers (604 yards). Among Redskins, Gardner leads in yards and lags Michael Westbrook by one catch.

But those drops. Early on, they plagued the first-round pick out of Clemson, who was dubbed "50-50" by teammates for the apparent odds of him catching a given ball. Then he seemed to eliminate the drops. They returned Nov. 18 at Denver, when he muffed three passes in nasty winter conditions.

Last weekend Gardner had one drop that could have been considered a break-up by the defensive back. On Sunday at Arizona, he hopes there won't be any.

"It will stop, I promise you," Gardner said. "But just as long as I go out there and make up for it, I'll be all right."

That's been the other problem in recent weeks. Since being NFC offensive player of the week for his six-catch, 208-yard day against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 21, Gardner has caught 11 balls for 114 yards in five games. The drops have been more noticeable because he hasn't been putting up big numbers.

But Gardner remains on track for 48 catches and 772 yards, which would challenge Art Monk's franchise rookie marks of 58 catches and 797 yards. And coach Marty Schottenheimer considers Gardner's production more than adequate in a limited passing scheme the coach bluntly called "a work in progress."

"I'm comfortable with the direction that Rod is moving," Schottenheimer said. "He continues to progress."

But why the drops? When asked about the difference between catching an NFL pass and a college pass, Gardner said there are unique difficulties at this level starting with the velocity of ball.

"It's a [heck] of a lot harder, quicker than when you were in school," Gardner said. "Plus, [NFL balls] don't got those white [stripes] like they did [in college]. You've got to concentrate more on the ball."

That's right. In addition to the increased pace of NFL passes, the lack of white on the ball makes it more difficult to pick up.

"The biggest thing that I remember [when I was a rookie] was, it didn't have the white stripes around the side," said Redskins receiver Kevin Lockett, a fifth-year veteran. "That was one of the easiest things to pick up when a college ball was thrown to you, the white coming.

"What's even tougher is when you play an NFL game at night, because the ball seems so dark. And the ball's longer it's got a little different shape to it. And the quarterbacks throw harder. I have to agree with Rod, it is more difficult to catch the ball. It just takes more getting used to."

Lockett also described how NFL offenses are based more frequently around timing than college systems. That means the ball generally is in the air before the receiver turns to see it coming.

"Not only are you picking it up later, but it's a more difficult ball to pick up," Lockett said.

To adjust, Gardner is trying to focus on the ball longer, rather than thinking about where he wants to run after the catch. One teammate, rookie cornerback Fred Smoot, believes the tactic will work because Gardner often makes the more difficult catches but drops the easier ones.

"A lot of those drops I would have had, but I took my eyes off the ball trying to run upfield," Gardner said. "It always used to be my nature to see it, catch it and run with it. But now it'll hit me in the arms. I'll think I made the adjustment on it but I didn't. I've just got to concentrate on the ball."

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