By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Since joining the Washington Redskins in March 2006, the opportunities have just kept coming for Antwaan Randle El. And he just keeps making the most of them.
Through the first three games of the season, Randle El has shown signs of emerging as the complementary wide receiver the team has sought for Santana Moss, becoming a favorite target of quarterback Jason Campbell. The only significant difference from his first season with Washington is that Randle El is more involved in the offense as a starter.
With the Detroit Lions coming to FedEx Field on Sunday, Randle El's workload may increase even more if Moss sits out or is slowed because of a groin injury.
"We've always been comfortable with him. There's never been a lack of comfort, but he wasn't the starter last year," said Al Saunders, associate head coach-offense. "Now, he's put in situations where when the ball is thrown, generally he's in the game, so his numbers are going to be better this year. He's a starting receiver, and he's developed so well. It's really that simple."
In his sixth season, Randle El, 28, is averaging 21.6 yards per catch, which is tops in the NFL among players with at least nine receptions. First on the Redskins in receiving yards with 238, Randle El has one fewer reception than Moss, who leads the team with 12 catches (Campbell has thrown only two touchdown passes, both to tight end Chris Cooley).
He has made big plays on deep balls, teaming with Campbell on 49- and 54-yard receptions while catching five passes for a career-high 162 yards in a season-opening overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins. Randle El's ability to find holes in the defense on third down has been among the keys to Washington's 2-1 start.
Randle El has six receptions for 93 yards on third down, ranking among the top 20 in the league in that category. With the Redskins trailing the New York Giants 24-17 late in the fourth quarter in their last game, Sept. 23 at FedEx Field, Randle El caught a 20-yard pass from Campbell that put the ball on the Giants 1-yard line. The Redskins failed to score, but Randle El helped to put them in a good position.
And he's still doing his thing on special teams, averaging 7.6 yards per punt return.
"I'm not surprised at all by what he's doing," Campbell said. "Randle El is a guy who put in a lot of work in the offseason. He's determined, and he's a leader. He's a player who's real focused, so you know he's going to have success. He's off to a great start so far."
Randle El isn't surprised, either.
Despite his limited production (32 catches, 351 yards and 3 touchdowns) last season while sharing a spot with Brandon Lloyd, Randle El said he knew he was capable of being the consistent wide receiver the Redskins envisioned when they lured him from the Pittsburgh Steelers, paying him $10 million in guaranteed bonuses.
Lloyd, who also received $10 million in bonuses, arrived with Randle El as part of the team's 2006 free agent class, but his lack of production opened the door for Randle El.
"I've always felt like, at any given time, you can break out and do something big. But you have to be involved, you have to be a part of it, you have to get the opportunity," he said. "It really all goes back to last year. The opportunities were limited because of our offense. We weren't playing well as an offense, so that limits the opportunities for everyone. Now we're playing pretty well, we're playing better, so everyone gets more opportunities."
A college quarterback at Indiana, Randle El enjoyed four successful seasons with the Steelers as a do-it-all performer. Primarily Pittsburgh's third wide receiver behind Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, he had 162 receptions for 2,012 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a top-notch punt returner and also threw touchdowns on gadget plays, including a 43-yard touchdown pass to Ward that helped Pittsburgh defeat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
But in Pittsburgh, Randle El usually worked out of the slot, and he was less involved in the offense than Ward and Burress. The "X" wide receiver's role in the Redskins' offense often is to run vertical routes and is considered easier to learn than the "Z" spot that Moss plays, which involves more shifting and varied routes. Randle El also had to learn new terminology and adjust to Washington's timing passing last season.
"He went from one offense to another, so it's learning a new language, and the style of route running is a little bit different," Saunders said. "But the thing he's done is, he's running routes much better this season. He's had an opportunity to work with Jason, which he didn't last year because Jason was really our third quarterback [for part of the season], so everything has kind of fallen into place for him. He's an outstanding football player. The more he plays the better he's going to get, and the more excitement he's going to give the fans."