- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

Eddie George in a bear hug. Steve McNair sacked from behind. Now that was what the Washington Redskins were hoping for from Daryl Gardener.

The gargantuan defensive tackle played last weekend's win at Tennessee with the flashes of dominance that marked much of his six-year career in Miami and his first preseason game with Washington really, whenever he hasn't been limited by his bad back.

Late this preseason and then again in Week2, it looked like Gardener's back spasms might force a third surgery in as many years. Instead, he took a final pain-killing shot and worked himself back into game shape. Suddenly the Redskins have a real difference-maker on their defensive line.

"When he's healthy, I don't think there's a limit to his ability," linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said yesterday.

The process of rehabilitating and learning Marvin Lewis' defensive scheme are nearing a close, Gardener believes. When complete, he expects to resemble his best in Miami, when he was a prototypical upfield defensive tackle able to ravage single blockers and squeeze through double-teams, then catch ballcarriers with his speed.

He might not be too far away. Despite missing the Sept.14 loss to Philadelphia, he is tied with defensive end Renaldo Wynn with a team-high five quarterback pressures. Soon, he thinks, his production should return to his Miami days "five, seven tackles a game," he recalled, "several pressures, maybe a sack or so."

"Each week I'm getting stronger," Gardener said. "That's what it's going to take. I'm trying to get myself back to what I used to be that dominating player, coming off the ball every snap and being a threat."

His development has been a boon for the upbeat Redskins, who braced themselves in early September for his limited participation all season. Back then club officials considered any production by Gardener to be a plus with or without him, they would rely on defensive tackles Dan Wilkinson, Carl Powell and Del Cowsette.

Lewis still shakes his head when asked if he is counting on Gardener, but the defensive coordinator acknowledges that his play has been a positive.

"We don't get excited about anybody," Lewis said. "He's one of our players and we want to keep going. The better player he is, the more he can help us, and he realizes that. He's learning to play down and play low, and when you do that, good things happen to you."

Lewis believes playing with a lower center of gravity "when you're 6-6, sometimes that's a challenge," line coach Ricky Hunley said of Gardener might even help the bad back get a few more miles. Know how chiropractors say lift with your legs, not your back? Same theory.

"The more angular you play, the more injuries you have, and the more stress you put on your back," Lewis said. "The more you bend your knees, the less stress you put on your back."

Meanwhile, one mild surprise has been the lack of stress Gardener has put on the Redskins. Cut by the Dolphins when he clashed with coach Dave Wannstedt, he came to Washington with something of a bad reputation. But veteran defensive players here say he has been nothing but an earnest, hard-working, jocular teammate.

Gardener, for his part, believes he messed up by crossing Wannstedt, saying, "No matter what the situation is with a coach and a player, the coach always wins."

"The way I'm acting now is the same way I acted in Miami," he added. "So when they said 'disruptive' I was never disruptive, but they said that because that was the only way they could get me out of there. I'm disruptive on the field."

Those who know Gardener add that he has toned down his act a bit, realizing that he lost a good situation in Miami not to mention quite a bit of money and might not have too many more chances in his career.

For now, this chance seems to be working out surprisingly well.

"It really says a lot he's not long off of back surgery, and those backs are nothing to play with," Trotter said. "The way he's playing now, I can only imagine what he'll be when he's 100 percent."

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