- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

For years, the Redskins have been bringing in old heroes, borrowed heroes, somebody else's heroes. You know the names Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Dana Stubblefield, Brad Johnson, Larry Centers, Mark Carrier. Guys who've had their best seasons in another uniform (except maybe for Johnson's '99 here). Guys who haven't really seemed like Redskins.
If ever a team needed a new hero, one it could call its own, one who could get the fans thinking about the future instead of the miserable present, it was the Redskins. And yesterday at FedEx Field, Rod Gardner stepped into that void in a big way. You just don't see a rookie receiver have a 200-yard game six games into his career very often especially one that includes an 85-yard touchdown catch to tie the score in the fourth quarter and a 47-yard grab to set up the winning field goal in overtime. Heck, we're still waiting for Michael Westbrook to have a day like Gardner had in the 17-14 win over Carolina in this, his seventh year.
And it came after a month and a half of dropped balls and after a week of practice in which the rook's teammates teasingly called him "50-50" (the odds of him hanging onto a pass lately). It also came a day after Marty Schottenheimer summoned Gardner to his office and, according to Rod, gave him a pep talk. "He just told me to stay with it," he said, "that we were going to get the job done. He said he was going to put me in the position to win games."
Actually, it was LaVar Arrington who put him in a position to win yesterday's game. The Redskins were virtually out on their feet, trailing 14-0 with less than 11 minutes left and trying to stave off yet another Carolina drive, when Arrington picked off a deflected pass in the flat and sprinted 67 yards for a touchdown. The next time Washington got the ball, on first down at its 15, Gardner ran a deep "V-out" (an inside-outside route), was ignored by free safety Deon Grant and was as open as a wideout can be. Panthers 14, Redskins 14.
"We had some success with the deep ball in practice [last] week for the first time all season, and it carried over into the game," said Banks. "Carolina played a lot of man-to-man defense, and we didn't expect that. I don't know if they really have the type of cornerbacks to do it. But not too many people are respecting our passing game these days."
Gardner tried to win it for the Redskins in regulation, springing loose for a 22-yard reception to the Carolina 17 in the closing minutes, but Brett Conway sliced a 32-yard field goal try to keep the suspense going. So in OT Gardner went deep again, this time on a post pattern, and the Panthers didn't cover him that time, either. Result: a pickup of 47, which was immediately followed by Conway's 23-yard clincher.
"I figured sooner or later I'd have my breakout game," Gardner said. But no one could have imagined it would happen so soon, particularly with the problems the offense was having and the growing pains he was going through. The early returns yesterday weren't encouraging, either. He dropped the first pass that came his way, an easy one designed to gain only six or seven yards, and had a modest three catches for 54 in the first three quarters. But in the last 17 minutes he had three for 154, to finish with an eye-popping six for 208.
Just to show you how unusual this is, Art Monk didn't have a 200-yard game until his fifth season. Charley Taylor, great as he was, never had a 200-yard game. Indeed, there have been only 11 such games in Redskins history and only seven higher yardage totals than Gardner's 208.
Of course, Albert Connell racked up 211 last year against Jacksonville and was rarely heard from again. But Gardner looks like he might be around awhile (even if the coach who drafted him in the first round, Schottenheimer, isn't). His hands have been a little shaky, but he has shown an ability to make tough catches that Westbrook has never demonstrated. (Michael, by the way, outdid himself yesterday one reception for 19 yards and one penalty for 15 yards, a net of four. He was probably making one last trading-deadline push.)
"I've been anxious, making silly mistakes," Gardner said. "I was as confused as a person can be. Schottenheimer's offense is a controlled offense, and that's not really my game. In college [at Clemson], all we did was throw deep five or six times a game."
But in a single afternoon, everything may have changed for him. You'd better believe the Redskins coaching staff will be looking to throw deep more often now. Arrington is convinced Gardner's big game "took his confidence to a whole new level. You could see it in his face. Sometimes it's like that with a great player. Things just suddenly click for you."
The rest of the season may not be very appealing to Redskins fans the team being 1-5 and all but watching Gardner's development could be a welcome diversion. The kid can obviously play a little.


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