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Malcolm Kelly finishes second season with a breakthrough game

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010; D09

SAN DIEGO -- All week long, the Redskins coaches, who assumed they were about to be fired, kept shouting to the players that this game on Sunday was "an interview." Whatever happened here on the spotty sod of Qualcomm Stadium would burn freshest in the minds of the new coach.

And in that case it would probably be best if they played their finest.

So Redskins wide receiver Malcolm Kelly woke up in his hotel here Sunday with a new sense of inspiration. His career, filled with great promise two summers ago, has been something of a disappointment. Instead of being part of a bright Washington present, his time with the Redskins has been one of head-shaking and declarations of what-could-have-been.

If the new coach -- perhaps Mike Shanahan -- was really going to be watching, then maybe this would be the opportunity to salvage his career.

The chance was there. Starting wide receiver Devin Thomas was out for the second consecutive game with an ankle sprain. All Kelly had to do was catch some passes, run, block, do something -- anything -- to make himself sparkle on the new coach's tape.

And then early in this 23-20 loss to the Chargers, it happened. Nothing special, just a short, one-yard route on the first play of the Redskins' second series. Quarterback Jason Campbell fired a pass that hit him in the hands, the ball stuck, he turned and dived for another yard. He smiled. He felt good.

"The first ball starts everything," Kelly said. "If I can get in a rhythm then I can start making plays."

In many ways, this has been his problem in Washington. While Kelly missed much of his rookie season last year to knee and ankle injuries, his problems this year were related more to inconsistency. He would catch a pass, make a nice play and then disappear. He just wasn't dependable enough. And he knew it.

But after the first pass there soon came another, the ball again settling into his palms, and he raced for seven yards. Suddenly he felt as good as he had since he was drafted in the second round from Oklahoma in 2008 and was immediately proclaimed a big part of the Redskins' new offense. A prediction that had not come true.

Soon passes were coming to him every few plays on Sunday in ways they had never before. Just before halftime he already had tied his career high for receptions with four when the Redskins called for their two wide receivers to go deep -- a route designed to get Kelly open sprinting down field and lead to a long gain. A similar play had been chosen a few minutes before but didn't work.

This time though, Kelly saw himself beating the first San Diego defender, springing open and staring at the ball sailing down from the fluffy Southern California clouds and into his hands. He was running hard as he caught the pass and the yards were flying beneath his feet. He had not made a play like this in an NFL game and there was a certain euphoria he felt as he tore across the grass.

He looked over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason racing toward him. He knew Cason to be fast, very fast, and he so he cut toward the sideline, stretching his legs as far as they could go, hoping somehow he could generate enough speed to get to the goal line. Only he could feel Cason catching up, grabbing his jersey and pulling him to the ground.

Kelly looked across the grass. He was lying on San Diego's 4-yard line. Just feet from the touchdown he so desperately wanted.

Later teammates would joke with him and even owner Daniel Snyder told him "you should have scored." Still he couldn't help but smile.

The play had gone for 84 yards.

"I don't think I even had an 84-yard play in college," he said.

Campbell chuckled.

"He could have had a touchdown but I guess that 'horse guy' was back there or something," he said.

For the day, his greatest in the NFL, Kelly had five catches for 109 yards. And yes, maybe this would give the new coaches something to look at on film.

"I feel like I made a start," he said. "There's a chance that there is a new guy coming in and maybe I had a pretty good interview."

It was the chance he has been looking for. He said that after starring in training camp, he struggled to make catches early in the season and started to lose his confidence and his flow. It took time to work his way back into a regular rotation and a chance to start again. Still, he never believed his career was fading or that he had somehow blown a wonderful chance at professional football.

"It was a situation where I knew if I could get on the field and got balls thrown at me that I would catch them," he said.

Sunday the balls came. And he caught them. And maybe, just maybe, this will matter on the film that will soon be watched by whomever the Redskins hire as coach.

Quite an interview indeed.

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