- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jerome Bettis received all the attention for retiring from the Pittsburgh Steelers after winning the Super Bowl in his native Detroit. But that title game three seasons ago was also the Steelers swan song for receiver Antwaan Randle El, who capped his four years in black and gold by clinching the title with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.

On Monday night, Randle El faces the Steelers for the first time since he signed with Washington as a free agent seven weeks after that Super Bowl. The game comes a week after Randle El’s return to Detroit, which brought memories flooding back.

“We had the same locker room that we had in the Super Bowl,” he said. “I remember when I first walked down that tunnel with my camera on media day. That was a joy. I can still see the black and gold in the stands, the fans, the touchdown pass to Hines, having my daughter Ciara on my shoulders after we won. It really hit me when I got down on that field last week. You’d rather leave like that.”

Pittsburgh remains a special place - and team - to Randle El because that’s where the option quarterback out of Indiana turned into a legitimate NFL receiver.

“You watched El in the Senior Bowl and he certainly had return skills and a lot of very natural receiver skills that just needed time to develop,” former Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. “He was so quick and so elusive [that] the slot was the natural spot for him. You had to be patient with him because he had never played receiver before, but he just got better and better. To his credit, he took the challenge and embraced it.”

Ward, who played quarterback at high school and briefly in college, helped Randle El with the transition to receiver.

“Hines helped me a lot with how to run routes consistently, little techniques for getting inside, getting outside, give them a little chicken wing to get a guy off you instead of pushing off,” Randle El said with a quick flap of his arm.

Often playing behind Ward and Plaxico Burress, who left for the New York Giants in 2005, Randle El never had more than three touchdown grabs in a season for the Steelers. But Cowher was far from disappointed.

“El could give you big plays and he was very consistent,” Cowher said. “He gave us more than we expected - not just on the field, but what he was able to bring to the locker room. He has this air of confidence about him and this bubbly personality. He always had a smile on his face. He was one of my favorite players to coach. He gave a lot to Pittsburgh.”

Including a 9.4-yard average and four touchdowns on punt returns. That elusiveness was one of the reasons Joe Gibbs thought Randle El was worth a six-year, $30 million contract. But Randle El has averaged just 7.3 yards per return for Washington with one touchdown. Santana Moss’ 80-yard score against the Lions was more than half the yardage Randle El has managed on 24 returns this season.

“El sometimes will make one more move than he has to,” Cowher said. “I used to tell him, ‘One move and go!’”

Randle El, while not chagrined by Moss’ touchdown, said he knows he has to improve.

“The first two games, I did a lot of stuttering around and shaking around,” he said. “Since then, I’ve done a better job of trying to go north and south. I’ve had three or four returns where, with one more block … it’s just got to come.”

There are far fewer questions about Randle El’s development as a receiver. After a downbeat Washington debut, he set career highs of 51 catches and 728 yards in 2007. With 33 catches and 409 yards at midseason, he’s on pace to easily eclipse those numbers - despite playing in an on offense that also includes Moss, tight end Chris Cooley and NFL rushing leader Clinton Portis.

His development into a starting receiver validated Randle El’s decision to sign with the Redskins.

“No question, I made the right decision from a football perspective and for my family,” he said. “I’m a much better receiver than I was when I signed here. I’m involved in the offense more. I’m on a roll. It’s a good time to be playing Pittsburgh. The relationships I built there were the biggest thing and now, going against those guys, it’s going to be fun. There’s more juice involved.”

There’s always juice when the loud and boisterous Randle El is involved.

“Antwaan’s a character,” said Ward, who talks or texts with Randle El every few weeks. “He’s so spirited. He was a locker room favorite. He was just a big kid at heart. Any time I see guys that I played with go and have success, I get a big smile on my face. He’s definitely missed around here.”

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