By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
DETROIT He's at the top of quite a few wish lists, a 26-year-old free agent critical to the success of a Super Bowl team. No doubt, the Chicago Bears want Antwaan Randle El to come home. The Washington Redskins haven't said publicly they want him, but they don't have to. Of the players out there who fit the description of number two wide receiver, at the top of the list there's the Colts' Reggie Wayne and the Steelers' Randle El. And while Wayne is more prolific as a pass catcher, no wide receiver out there, not even his Pittsburgh teammate Hines Ward, can claim to be more versatile than Randle El.
He averages 15.9 yards per reception on a team that traditionally doesn't like to throw much. He has run the ball from scrimmage, mostly on reverse and end-around plays, for a career average of 5.9 per carry. He has returned four punts for touchdowns. And the former Indiana University quarterback has completed 14 of 16 career passes -- 87.5 percent -- for two touchdowns and no interceptions. He has taken the position the Steelers popularized -- "Slash" -- to new levels. And if the Steelers can't or don't want to pay Randle El, somebody will.
The Redskins might not be able to pull off signing him because of the salary cap, but then again, Daniel Snyder has been fairly creative and quite insistent when he wants a player. While the Pittsburgh coaches are more creative offensively and more willing than most to welcome college quarterbacks who can play wide receiver and virtually anywhere else on the field (Kordell Stewart, Ward and now Randle El), one would think that the new offensive boss, Al Saunders, could figure out what to do with a quadruple threat. Is it a stretch to think that Randle El is the piece that could dramatically improve the Redskins' offense?
As you might expect, Randle El, being just a little busy this week, isn't ready to sit down and share his plans for free agency. "The free agency stuff, we're kind of going to have to leave alone," he said Tuesday. "Anyway, I have no idea."
But he's not unaware. He knows there are going to be suitors, including one that plays in Chicago, the town in which he grew up. "It's flattering in a way," he said. "And I do know about the buzz in the city over the possibility. But . . . "
When coaches and players talk about an X-factor in games like these, they're talking about players with unique abilities, which is what Randle El has both physically and mentally. The word "versatile" is inadequate to describe what he can do. Making the transition from college quarterback to professional wide receiver was mostly seamless even though he speaks of the difficulties. Like Ward, who assisted in that transition, Randle El knows all the positions on offense and can anticipate what defenders are thinking.
"As a quarterback going to receiver," he said, "you realize how long a quarterback can reasonably hold on to the football. You know he's waiting and you don't want to leave him hanging out there to dry, so there's more of a sense of urgency about running your routes."
By this time, after four years in the NFL, he and Ward can read coverages as a quarterback or as a receiver. Asked if had his choice of scoring on a pass reception, run or throw, Randle El jokingly said: "Why would you want to limit me? I can do all three! Catch one, run one, throw one, maybe return a punt for one. That would be four."
But Randle El also brings other athletic instincts, sensibilities and experiences to the table. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs to play baseball and played basketball at Indiana as well as football. "When I went to IU," he said, "I'd been drafted by the Cubs, I had a football scholarship and I wanted to play basketball. I wanted to play for Coach [Bobby] Knight. But I prayed about what to do. I put it in God's hands. This road seems to be the best platform for me." A slightly lesser authority, Michael Jordan, once told the kid that he'd prosper regardless, but to go where his heart led him.
When it became clear at the Senior Bowl and in workouts for teams that he could be a contributing wide receiver, Randle El decided he wouldn't insist on playing quarterback. But it was difficult to go from being on the field and handling every snap to being uninvolved if the ball wasn't thrown his way, which it usually isn't. "That was hard," he said, "but playing a backup role is even harder. That's one of the reasons I wanted to return punts and kicks. I wanted to get involved in every way I can."
That's especially useful for a second wide receiver (he was third when Plaxico Burress was in Pittsburgh) on a run-first team. Randle El caught five passes in a game only once this season, and just 35 in 16 games, 15 of which he started. But he also rushed 12 times for 73 yards, returned one kick and 44 punts, three of them for 70 yards or longer. This season, he completed all three of his pass attempts, one for a 51-yard touchdown.
He and Ward take exception to the "jack of all trades, master of none" description that gets hung on both of them. "I don't like the phrase 'trick plays,' either," Randle El said. "You guys call it that, but they're just plays. When run properly, they're plays that work."
The question for Sunday will be how successfully the Steelers coaches can incorporate Randle El's skills into a game plan to counter a Seahawks defense that's smallish and fast and led the NFL in sacks. The question beyond that will be whether the Steelers decide to come up with big money to keep Randle El, something the team doesn't often do; the Steelers count on, much to their scouts' credit, finding young and inexpensive players who can be coached to do things fairly quickly out of college. If the Steelers bet that way again, some team is going to find itself with a unique talent who initially will be described as "receiver" but in reality will be infinitely more valuable than that.