- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

Since 1980, the Washington Redskins have chosen receivers with their first draft pick just three times. Desmond Howard (1992) was too puny to free himself from coverage. Michael Westbrook (1995) was always physically hurting and/or mentally hurtful.
Rod Gardner, last year's top choice, showed he was a more worthy selection from the get-go, leading NFC rookies with 46 catches, 741 yards and four touchdowns. However, Gardner also dropped more than half as many balls as he caught and only produced one game with more than 70 yards and just five games with as many as four catches. So Gardner, from Clemson, came to training camp as the Redskins' top receiver more by default than by merit.
"I had a lot of anxiety last year," Gardner admitted. "I was worried about messing up. [The dropped passes] had nothing to do with my hands. I know I have great hands. Being a first-round draft pick, there was a lot of pressure on me to show what I could do."
If Gardner's performance in last Sunday's season-opening 31-23 victory over Arizona is any indication, the pressure is now on opposing cornerbacks. Gardner had seven receptions for 139 yards against the Cardinals both figures good for fourth in the NFC.
"Rod had probably his best game as a Redskin," raved Redskins coach Steve Spurrier. "He caught everything he touched even with guys hanging all over him."
Just as important as Gardner's production was the critical nature of the last six of those seven catches. After a routine 6-yard flat route on the opening drive, Gardner made a sliding 15-yard grab over the middle on third-and-14. His 6-foot-2 height helped on a leaping 10-yard catch on third-and-10. Both of those plays came on point-producing drives and he added a physical, 14-yard catch for another first down before the half ended.
Washington trailed 13-10 in the third quarter when Gardner used his 217 pounds to outmuscle David Barrett's press coverage and streak down the sideline before hauling in a 29-yard fingertip completion.
"DBs shouldn't press me because that's when I'll hurt them," boasted Gardner, comparing himself to such proven big receivers as San Francisco's Terrell Owens and Arizona's David Boston. "We use our bodies and strength to overpower people. A lot of DBs are smaller. It's all about trying to break free. Sometimes you can't and you have to use your body. If that's your plus, that's what you need to use to get open."
The Redskins went ahead to stay two plays later and when they got the ball back, Gardner made a 14-yard catch in traffic on second-and-9 "it was just concentration" and topped that by whipping Cardinals cornerback Duane Starks for a 43-yard touchdown on a post route.
"I give the DB credit for kind of reading the play, but Shane [Matthews] threw a good pass and I went up, made the catch and got it done," Gardner said of his favorite catch of the day.
"Rod can be one of the best in the league," said Matthews, who played in Chicago with such fine receivers as Chris Conway, Marcus Robinson and Marty Booker. "Rod has the size and speed and he catches the ball extremely well in traffic. He's got strong hands. He caught some balls the other day that were pretty unbelievable."
After 17 starts, the 24-year-old Gardner believes he's on the verge of establishing himself as a true No.1 receiver.
"I'm more calm and confident this year," Gardner said. "I know the DBs. It's like everything has slowed down. If you have that knowledge along with that talent, you can't [help] but get better. It just takes time. Last year there were a lot of times when I knew what I was doing, but I was blind to what was going on around me. I hope I didn't open too many DBs' eyes [last Sunday]. I don't want their eyes open yet. I want to go out there and burn them because they don't expect that much."
Those expectations won't likely remain low for Gardner now that he's playing in Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun. The Redskins, who passed for the NFL's second-fewest yards last year under play-it-safe Marty Schottenheimer, threw for the second-most in the league last week.
"Last year, the receivers weren't a big part of the offense like we are now," Gardner said. "This year, if we don't get it done, it will make it hard for the offense to work because it's built on throwing the ball. So we have to get open and make plays. When it's thrown to me, I have to catch it."
Notes Redskins quarterback Shane Matthews was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his three-touchdown, 327-yard performance against Arizona. The effort left the 32-year-old, who was starting for just the 16th time in his career, the conference's second-ranked quarterback. Running back Stephen Davis, who appeared gradually less pained by a strained groin this week, is probable for Monday's game against Philadelphia. Linebacker Eddie Mason (shoulder) also is probable. As expected, tight end Walter Rasby (knee) and linebacker Antonio Pierce (ankle) are out. For the Eagles, defensive end Derrick Burgess (foot), receiver Freddie Milons (leg) and guard John Welbourn (leg) are out. Linebacker Carlos Emmons (hamstring) is doubtful. Tackle Jon Runyan (foot) is questionable. Safety Michael Lewis (ankle), cornerback Lito Sheppard (quadricep) and cornerback Troy Vincent (knee) are probable.
Staff writer Jody Foldesy contributed to this report

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