By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007
As Keenan McCardell jogged from one practice field to another yesterday afternoon, he stumbled upon a scene from his youth. Coach Joe Gibbs was on the sideline hugging former star receivers Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders between drills, and suddenly McCardell was a rookie again, transported back to 1991, asking questions of his mentors.
McCardell had a moment to acknowledge his former Redskins teammates who were visiting for the afternoon -- "Hey, what are you all doing over there?" he asked -- then it was back to catching passes and running routes, while most players of his generation have long moved on to a second career. Age and experience have trumped youth around Redskins Park recently at wide receiver, with McCardell, 37, and James Thrash, 32, becoming the most unexpected receiving duo in the NFL during the Redskins' 34-3 win over Detroit. Should they be needed again Sunday in Green Bay, both vow to be ready, as always.
Just watching McCardell practice made Clark and Sanders smile -- their pupil now the sage veteran -- with McCardell the only active Redskins player linking Washington's last Super Bowl season (1991-92) to the 3-1 team that travels to Lambeau Field this weekend. McCardell was a 12th-round pick in 1991, on injured reserve all season and unable to play, but he was an avid student as he tagged along with Clark, Sanders and Art Monk, getting a foundation that has served him in 16 seasons. His ability to produce against the Lions despite missing much of the preseason and signing with Washington just six days before the game was a marvel to teammates old and new.
"He had some great mentors -- myself, Gary, Art Monk -- and I always liked Keenan," said Sanders, 45,who retired in 1995. "He's a hard worker, an honest guy and he will be a big impact on this team with his leadership. I have the utmost respect for him. I took him under my wing when he first got here, and he's made me proud."
Antwaan Randle El (hamstring) missed practice yesterday and said he is "questionable" to play Sunday, while Santana Moss (groin) practiced fully for the first time in weeks and expects to face the Packers. Regardless, Gibbs has confidence in Thrash and McCardell, turning to them ahead of Brandon Lloyd, 26. McCardell, who played regularly once Randle El was forced out before halftime, and Thrash, who started in Moss's place, have combined for 27 NFL seasons and nearly 350 games, defying the years with grace and class.
With Randle El hurt, Thrash, an all-around special teams stalwart, returned a punt 62 yards to help put the game out of reach. McCardell caught passes of 19 and 20 yards in the second half, with Gibbs anticipating even bigger things in the coming weeks.
"You kind of wonder sometimes how somebody plays 16 years; that's how they play 16 years," Gibbs said of McCardell. "I would have to think from here on out I would hope that he plays a real role for us. He's certainly a leader for us in the short time he's been here, and I think the guys respect him. And I can't brag enough about James. I've said all along that for me, certainly one of the highlights of what we've done here is being able to get him."
While McCardell and Thrash may play a position populated with divas and showboats with over-the-top antics, they are known as family men and tireless workers. Both make essentially the veteran minimum on a team with three $10 million wideouts, are eager to play special teams, and gladly go into high-traffic areas to make catches.
"James and I have a lot in common," McCardell said. "As you get older you learn this is a business. Quit talking about your game and be about your game and go out and prove it. We understand that every time you get your opportunity you'd better make the most of it or you'll be out the door."
They rose from humble football beginnings -- McCardell never played as a rookie and was released three times by Cleveland in 1992 before becoming a regular in 1994; Thrash was not drafted and signed with the Redskins in 1997 after being cut by Philadelphia. Both are in their second stints with the Redskins, coveted as much for who they are as what they do.
"There's something to be said for guys who first of all, they're professional, and they're going to do whatever you ask them to do," said quarterback Mark Brunell, who starred with McCardell in Jacksonville. "Keenan was here, what, a week maybe, and he steps in there and makes a couple of nice catches for us. There a place for experience and guys who work hard and do what they're asked to do."
McCardell, ninth all-time in receptions, is a two-time Pro Bowler and has two Super Bowl rings (his second came with Tampa Bay in 2002-03). He started all 16 games for San Diego as recently as 2005, and, when pursued by Houston and Washington this summer signed with the Texans, his hometown team. Houston cut him before the season and the Redskins, long searching for a true No. 3 receiver, approached him again during the bye week. McCardell required just three practices to learn the offense (similar to what he ran with the Chargers) and produce two key sliding catches against the Lions.
"He was always dedicated and focused," said Sanders, who also lives in Houston and golfs with McCardell. "I played 10 years and won two Super Bowls, but this guy, 16 years, oh my God. After five I was ready to quit, it hurts so bad. But he's got the stamina. He lives close to me and he's with his trainer as soon as the season is over, and he's out there running hills and running for miles."
For McCardell, the work ethic comes naturally. It was instilled in him 16 years ago, one practice at a time, by the very men he laughed with yesterday.
"By me looking at those guys coming to work every day, it helped me in my career to understand that I have to go out and be about my business," McCardell said. "At the end of the day all the accolades come when you learn to do the right things and be a professional, and I couldn't help but see that just by being around them."