By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
The least discussed receiver at Washington Redskins practices caught 53 passes a year ago, more than in any of his seven NFL seasons. He scored four touchdowns, also a career high. When Coach Jim Zorn felt the need for some trickery, the wideout even completed three of his four passes and is the answer to the trivia question, "Who threw Chris Cooley's lone touchdown reception of 2008?"
Late this summer, though, the conversation has centered largely on the men who would unseat Antwaan Randle El as the Redskins' No. 2 wide receiver, second-year players Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas. Both are bigger. Both are faster. Both, at this point in their careers, have more upside. And Randle El's approach to both of them amounts to some warm, cuddly version of, "Bring it on."
"When you're in competition, it can't be me against him," Randle El said earlier this week. "It's got to be, 'I got to do my job the best way I can do it,' and then congratulate him publicly and privately. When they make plays, I'm encouraging them. And then I'm encouraging them even when I have to say, 'You should probably do this on that route.'
"You can't shy away from it. You're trying to tell them stuff, because you're trying to get them better, but at the same time, you're speaking to yourself, too, to make sure you're doing the same thing."
NFL training camps are filled with legends about veterans who mess with the minds of rookies and younger players who might one day take their jobs. The Redskins are no different, and 2008 was a notoriously difficult year for Kelly, who battled a knee injury, and Thomas, who too frequently didn't understand his assignments. The pair combined for 18 catches and scored no touchdowns.
But instead of hindering their development, Randle El and Washington's top wideout, Santana Moss, tried to help.
"You hear stories when you're in college and high school, guys saying, 'When you get to that league, man, those guys, they'll tell you to run the wrong routes,' " Kelly said. "But it was never like that with him and Santana. If we go into film, and for some reason I don't get open, or for some reason I catch the ball but I could've gotten open a whole lot more, they'll tell me, 'You raised your shoulders when you should've done this. A guy your size, you can do stuff that I can't do. You can shield with your body.' There's nothing he won't help with."
Lost in the offseason improvement of both Thomas and Kelly -- who have combined for 11 catches in three preseason games -- is the fact that Randle El, 30, is still expected to be a significant member of the offense, not to mention the primary punt returner. Heading into Thursday's final preseason game at Jacksonville, the Redskins have given Thomas, Kelly and rookie Marko Mitchell more opportunities on offense -- Randle El has only two catches for 22 yards -- and Dominique Dorsey and Keith Eloi have handled punt return duties.
But even if Kelly or Thomas bounces Randle El from the second wide receiver spot behind Moss, the primary downfield target, Zorn believes Randle El can still play. And, in fact, he will play, even if Kelly and Thomas improve.
"I think his skill level is high," Zorn said. "I think his camp was excellent. He didn't miss a day. He ran hard. He's run all three positions and done whatever we've asked."
That is Randle El's style, to do what is asked, even if he is asked by players who ostensibly are after his job. He said he has been that way ever since he was a boy and all the way up through college at Indiana, where he played quarterback. He is doing it now, as a veteran pro who understands that Washington's coaching staff would like more than 11.2 yards per catch -- Randle El's average a year ago -- out of the second wide receiver spot.
"You have to embrace the whole situation, and embrace it in a way that you're saying to them, 'I want you to compete,' " Randle El said. "Because if you don't embrace it, it's like this wall between me and you. And there shouldn't be a wall. You're either going to make it and beat me or I'm going to make it and beat you.
"I've seen people be threatened by the competition, all the time. And when it happens, you see it, because then there's that wall. It's almost like a standoffish type of deal. What are you being standoffish for? They brought players in for a reason, either to push you or to make you say, 'Whoa, wait a minute. Let me wake up.' There must be something you ain't doing that they want to see. So you still got to go out and bust your tail and get it done."
For Randle El to make his biggest impact, he will have to get it done on punt returns as well. The past two years, he has averaged 6.1 and 6.5 yards per return, crippling the Redskins' ability to shorten the field. Zorn said he thought Randle El improved later in the year "once he saw some of the things he was doing in his initial movements," which were generally side-to-side. Randle El said once Moss was sent back to return -- and sprung an 80-yarder for a touchdown against Detroit -- he realized the competition was on.
"That kind of sparked me," Randle El said. "You can't get upset because if I had two or three touchdowns, they wouldn't have sent somebody else back there. But I got to get upfield a little more and use what I got. I got to move forward with the moves I'm making, not getting over to the right and getting over to the left."
It is that kind of advice that Randle El would give Kelly and Thomas, whether he was asked for it or not, whether they can take playing time away from him or not. He said he will continue to push them both, in part because it's one way he can push himself.
"If they make a good play, I'm going to say, 'You made a good play,' " Randle El said. "I can't be afraid to encourage them. Once I'm afraid to encourage them, I'm not helping the team, and if I'm not helping the team I'm not helping myself."