- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

Washington Redskins fans know all about wide receiver Laveranues Coles. How he got a $13million signing bonus. How he showed up his former New York Jets team in the opener. How he has dominated at times. How he has set an NFL mark for consecutive games with five or more catches. And how he has validated the Redskins’ huge investment.

Lurking behind that stream of headlines is Rod Gardner, the Redskins’ other starting wide receiver who quietly is tied for eighth in receptions (31) among NFL players.

“As long as I’m doing my part, I’m OK,” Gardner said yesterday. “Even though a lot of attention went to L.C. this year, it was cool because he was due for it. He had a good season last year, got paid a lot of money. What can you do? But at the same time, teams can never count me out. They have to know we have two receivers who can go out and get it done.”

The Redskins’ 1-2 punch of Coles, who is tied for fourth in receptions (39) and ranks third in yards (573) in the NFL, and Gardner powers coach Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun offense and is a legitimate reason for optimism as Washington tries to snap a two-game losing streak tomorrow at Buffalo.

When Coles and Gardner dominated at Atlanta on Sept.14 — Coles had 11 catches for 180 yards, Gardner nine for 118 — the offense appeared borderline unstoppable. Things haven’t clicked as well in recent weeks, but quarterback Patrick Ramsey realizes he has more than one potentially dominant target.

“I think it’s unfortunate that Rod doesn’t get more attention than he does,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think things would go as well for me or for L.C. if he wasn’t on the other side of the field.”

To illustrate, Ramsey pointed to one of Gardner’s nine catches in last weekend’s loss to Tampa Bay. In the waning seconds of the first half, Gardner ran a quick slant from the Bucs’ 24. Ramsey threaded the pass between two defenders. Gardner caught the ball and accelerated, running all the way to the 2. One play later, Darnerien McCants scored to put Washington up 10-7 at the half.

“He caught that slant and really turned on the jets,” Ramsey said. “He showed me something when he caught that ball.”

In a more general sense, Gardner also has proven quite a bit to his position coach, Steve Spurrier Jr.

“He’s playing harder and practicing harder,” Spurrier said. “We’re very pleased with him. He’s growing up — if I can say that and it doesn’t bother him. He’s more of a professional this year than he was last year.”

The coach declined to elaborate on “growing up,” other than to say Gardner, who turns 26 on Oct.26, is working harder, being more attentive and taking more notes. Gardner, for his part, stressed that he doesn’t feel he was immature, but he did concede that his priorities have changed.

“You tend to understand what you’re here to do,” Gardner said. “Me, I’m here to play football, put on a performance, do what I have to do. And off the field, stay out of trouble. You can’t have anything bad to say about me, because I don’t do anything wrong. I know my place. I come to work and do everything right.”

If nothing else, he certainly handled the Redskins’ high-profile acquisition of Coles with aplomb. Gardner, the 15th overall pick in the 2001 draft, was Washington’s No.1 receiver his first two seasons and put up solid numbers last year (71 catches, 1,006 yards, eight touchdowns) despite a quarterback carousel.

But the Redskins made receiver a priority in their overhaul of the offense, and even though the team didn’t publicly declare Coles the new No.1, it was clear in private conversations that club officials wanted a receiver who could dictate the game plans of opposing defenses and beat consistent double teams.

A lot of NFL receivers would have pouted. But Gardner remained upbeat, saying at the time, “I’m excited about getting the opportunity to work with him. I think we can make each other better.”

Yesterday he added, “Once they signed L.C., Coach [Steve] Spurrier called me, Hue [Jackson, the offensive coordinator] called me, and they said, ‘That doesn’t mean anything, because we’re going to try to get both of you 100 balls. We need both of you in this offense.’

“Right now L.C.’s got eight catches more than me, but that’s through six games. If one of us ends up with 70, 80, and one of us ends up with 90, 100, who’s going to complain? You look at some [other] teams, their leading receiver has 19, 20 catches. I’m cool right now.”

In fact, Baltimore’s top two receivers (tight end Todd Heap and wideout Travis Taylor) have fewer catches (30) than Gardner.

And while Coles remains on pace to challenge Art Monk’s team record for catches (106), Gardner is on track to have 83 receptions, which would be more than any Redskin since Monk had 86 in 1989.

The flaw in Gardner’s statistics is his yardage — just 307 for a 9.9-yard average. In coming weeks, he hopes to boost that with more broken tackles and by converting the occasional deep chance he gets.

And when that happens, he just might get a bit of the publicity that has been flowing so freely to Coles.

“I’ll have the breakout game — you’ll see,” Gardner said. “It just hasn’t come yet. But don’t forget about me. It’s going to happen.”

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