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Redskins Fishing for Small Change
Plan for Big Plays by Undersized WRs Bucks NFL Trend

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 15, 2005

Antonio Brown trudged off the field at Redskins Park after a recent practice, disappearing behind the offensive linemen who sauntered a few yards ahead of him. When Brown stopped to sign autographs for fans, many in the crowd towered over him.

At 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, Brown often has been the shortest player on his team, whether it was at Miami's Central High, West Virginia University, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League or the Buffalo Bills.

But there's one group that Brown has no problem looking squarely in the eye -- some of his fellow Redskins wide receivers. Starters Santana Moss and David Patten are each generously listed at 5-10 and approximately 190 pounds.

"It's funny because every place I went, in high school, college, my first year at Buffalo, I was the little guy. Now, I'm normal ," said Brown, who led the Redskins' wideouts with three catches for 37 yards in a 28-10 preseason loss Saturday to Carolina. "We have one big guy" -- Darnerien McCants is 6-3, 214 pounds. "So it's a lot of little guys, and that helps us a lot, because it's a great deal of confidence to have that many.

"I'm pretty sure Coach [Joe Gibbs] sees something that he wants, to have that many 5-10-and-under guys."

Gibbs hopes the smallish, speedy receivers will supply something the offense lacked last season: big plays. That wasn't much in evidence in the loss to the Panthers with Moss, McCants and Patten combining to catch four passes for 36 yards. Gibbs envisions receivers stretching the field, enabling his ball-control system to thrive behind tailback Clinton Portis with occasional play-action passes. "You've got these three midgets who can fly," Portis said, "so it's going to open a lot of stuff up."

During Gibbs's first head coaching tenure (1981-1992), he won three Super Bowls in four appearances with help from smaller receivers, including the "Smurfs" in the early '80s and the "Posse" in the late '80s.

"Receivers come in all sizes and packages," Gibbs said. "As receivers, I've had Art Monk [at 6-3]; he's a big guy. I had Gary Clark; he's a small guy. It was terrific.

"I've had Pro Bowlers in all categories there. And I think it depends on how good the guy is. If he's explosive and can make big plays for us, I've found that size is negated."

Last season, with starters Rod Gardner (6-2, 213) and Laveranues Coles (5-11, 193), Gibbs's offense finished ranked 30th among 32 teams, averaging only 15 points per game. Receivers caught only four passes of 40 yards or longer, averaged 11.4 yards per catch and scored only six touchdowns.

Instead of focusing on size, Gibbs chose to pursue players with the ability to stretch the field. Last season with the New York Jets, Moss -- acquired for Coles -- caught a team-high five touchdowns and averaged 18.6 yards per catch, second-best in the NFL. Patten -- who won three Super Bowl rings in four years with the New England Patriots -- nipped at Moss's heels with an 18.2-yard average and scored seven touchdowns, a career high and tied for the team lead.

Moss's career average of 16 yards per catch -- plus one touchdown every 7.9 receptions -- is among the best in the NFL. Patten, a ninth-year veteran, has a career average of 14.9 yards per catch. Still, their size bucks a trend in the league.

The prototypical NFL receiver has a combination of size, speed and strength. Randy Moss of the Oakland Raiders is 6-4 and weighs 210 pounds; Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles is 6-3, 226. And although they are unique talents, NFL wideouts appear to be getting bigger and faster with each draft. Of the six receivers selected in the first round of April's draft, only one was under 6-2: The 5-11, 187-pound Mark Clayton (Oklahoma) was the fifth wideout drafted (Baltimore Ravens) as teams went for bulkier receivers such as the 6-3, 208-pound Braylon Edwards (Michigan), chosen third overall by the Cleveland Browns.

"Some teams have always wanted bigger receivers. San Francisco doesn't mind giving up speed for some size," said Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, Gibbs's GM from 1989 to 1992. Casserly drafted Andre Johnson, a 6-3, 219-pound wide receiver, with the third overall pick for Houston in 2003. "But for other teams like the Rams, speed is number one. It depends on the philosophy."

Patten noted that the Patriots established a dynasty with no receiver taller than 6 feet and that Deion Branch (5-9, 193) was Super Bowl MVP in February.

"We were just a bunch of small guys that got a lot of production on the field," said Patten, New England's number two receiver for most of its championship run. "Everybody always focused on our size. A lot of time, we got overlooked as a corps. We felt like we had one of the best corps in the league. And you saw the end result."

When Gibbs spoke to Patten about joining the Redskins, the coach said that size wasn't an issue, and mentioned some of his former receivers. "He brought up Mr. Sanders and all those guys," Patten recalled.

In the late 1980s, the Posse starred Monk, the 5-9 Clark and 5-11 Ricky Sanders. Monk, who once held the NFL's all-time record for catches -- stood out among the group at 6-3 and 210 pounds. In 1989, three Washington receivers each had more than 1,000 receiving yards. Monk -- a physical, possession pass-catcher -- ended his career with the most receiving yards in team history. Clark and Sanders -- explosive players -- finished third and fifth overall, respectively.

McCants was a Posse fan while growing up in Gambrills. "I'm the Art Monk of the group," McCants said. "Each style of receiver has a different purpose. In this offense, I'm considered more of a possession-style receiver, going across the middle and taking the punishment."

Like Monk, McCants towers over his fellow wideouts. And the size disparity has been an adjustment. "He looks at us and says, 'Hey man, I'm bigger than all of y'all,' " Brown said. "He looks kind of funny standing around us."

McCants and the 6-2, 212-pound Kevin Dyson appear to be competing for the role of Washington's big receiver. (Reserve wideouts Taylor Jacobs, 6-0, 198, and James Thrash, 6-0, 200, are virtually ensured roster spots.) But Gibbs said that he doesn't necessarily have a spot reserved for a big receiver.

Before the Posse, the Smurfs helped Gibbs win the Super Bowl after the 1982 season and reach the title game the following year. In 1983, the Smurfs were led by the 5-10 Charlie Brown and also included Virgil Seay (5-8, 175 pounds) and Alvin Garrett (5-7, 178). The Redskins set an NFL record for scoring with 541 points; Brown caught 78 passes for 1,255 yards with eight touchdowns.

The illegal contact rule helps receivers such as Moss and Patten. Before the 2004 season, the NFL placed an emphasis on enforcing the rule against bumping or grabbing a receiver five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. "In the old days," Redskins wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said, "they were grabbing you down the field and throwing you down and all kinds of things."

Cornerback Shawn Springs said that he has more difficulty defending against small receivers, but sees two main drawbacks. "You have to have a quarterback who can find them because they are not big targets," Springs said, "and they have to be able to hold up. The league is a physical league."

It helps to have big receivers for fade routes, essentially a jump ball thrown toward the back of the end zone. But Gibbs generally doesn't employ a fade in his offense.

Bigger receivers also can use their strength against press coverage. Nonetheless, the best receivers at avoiding jams tend to be small and speedy, forcing defensive backs to give them extra space. At training camp, defenders have been giving Moss a substantial cushion that he uses for intermediate catches.

Antonio Brown, who appears to have a roster spot as the lead punt returner, also might contribute as a receiver. He has improved his route running since last season -- and doesn't give his size a second thought.

"The minus is people doubt you and the plus is proving 'em wrong," Brown said. "An advantage is them not knowing our strengths and our ability, and what we have in the total package."

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