By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 24, 2005
When a number with a 703 area code popped up on Antonio Brown's cell phone Monday afternoon, he knew it was a lifeline from Redskins Park. Ten weeks after the wide receiver and return specialist was cut by Washington, with not a sniff of interest from anyone else in the league, but with the Redskins losing both of their top return men to injury, lacking depth at the wide receiver position and scrambling before Sunday's critical game against San Diego, the chance came for Brown to revive his career.
Brown was signed yesterday and will resume kick and punt-return duties Sunday at FedEx Field, with reserve offensive lineman Lennie Friedman cut to make room for him on the active roster.
For Brown, who came from humble beginnings and has had to face the death of three family members, the opportunity is an unexpected blessing. Before yesterday, it looked like the final play of Brown's NFL career would be the kickoff he fumbled in the opening game against Chicago, which led to the Bears' only touchdown.
Brown, 26, left here in September with no ill will, thanking the coaches after his release, and watched the next nine games on his satellite dish in Miami, rooting for his former teammates and calling them when they succeeded.
"I've been in some real-life situations as far as losing my brother, my sister and my father," Brown said, "and life goes on. So I understand [being cut]. This is something I love to do, and I have the ability to continue to do it, and I'm so young I don't know what else to do, so why not keep doing it?
"My mom told me before I left [Miami] this was a Thanksgiving gift. I can congratulate myself and thank the coaches and the whole organization for giving me another shot, because you don't get second chances at many things."
Wide receiver and special teams stalwart James Thrash is out because of a hamstring injury, and running back Ladell Betts, the other top returner, missed practice again yesterday because of a knee injury and seems unlikely to play. H-back Mike Sellers, one of the best special teams performers in the NFL, is out with a fractured rib, leaving the kick and punt units without its linchpins. No wonder Brown was welcomed back by players and coaches yesterday.
"As we said when Antonio left here, we all love him," Coach Joe Gibbs said.
Brown, who was undrafted out of West Virginia in 2002 and played one season in the Canadian Football League, was watching from his mother's house Sunday in Florida when Thrash hobbled off the field late in the second quarter -- Betts was not even in uniform -- leaving the return corps depleted and only two established wide receivers on the roster.
"I was just hoping those guys were all right, first and foremost, and then if I got a call, to be ready," said Brown, who has been lifting weights in his mother's backyard every morning, playing occasional flag football and catching passes from his high school quarterback to stay in shape. He packed a bag, just in case the Redskins called. At 2 p.m. Monday, as he was leaving to pick his daughter up from school, Brown's cell phone rang; he showered, grabbed his backpack and jumped on a 5 p.m. flight to Dulles.
Brown (5 feet 8, 175 pounds) was signed by Washington last November, and had worked with special teams coach Danny Smith previously in Buffalo. He was one of the feel-good stories of offseason practices and training camp, figuring to play more as a wide receiver, but began dropping passes in the final few preseason games, then fumbled in Week 1, and in a roster crunch, he was released days later.
"All the bad things I ever did," Brown said, "as far as little mental mistakes like ensuring the route, making sure I make the catch, making sure I get upfield, things that I didn't do, I need to make that an asset for me to do now."
The Redskins are eager for more production from the return game -- Betts's touchdown in Tampa Bay not withstanding -- and Smith said he expects a 10-yard return in most situations.
"We're happy to have him back," Smith said. "Obviously, we know each other and we've been together. I like the guy and trust the guy and we're looking for production from that position, regardless of who we put back there. There's no excuses."
Getting that yardage and preventing others from hefty returns will not be easy without Thrash and Sellers. Washington ranks first in limiting opponents' kickoff returns, and fifth in punt-return average against, with those players as anchors. They set an emotional tone in the special teams' huddles, challenge others to perform and form the identity of the units. Sellers, a 280-pound dynamo, "is like a beast," said linebacker Khary Campbell, a special teams standout. "He brings that intimidation factor to every play." Thrash studies special teams film diligently, has a knack for getting downfield and mans the important gunner position in charge of making headway on coverage.
"A lot of teams stay away from doing a lot of reverses and trick plays because he's always down there early," Campbell said. "They know Thrash is not going to bite on that and he's going to get off his double team and disrupt all that stuff. It's going to be tough to duplicate what those guys give us."
Smith is spending practice this week preparing new personnel in these key positions, but replacing the leadership, experience and spark they provide is not as simple as juggling lineups.
"They're great people and great special teams guys, tone-setters," Smith said of Thrash and Sellers. "They're a lot more than just good football players in this program, and any time you lose guys like that it hurts, but there's no time to be crying the blues."