Ricky Sanders may have had a dozen visions of what this season would be like, and none of them likely included three dropped passes against Phoenix, another against Dallas, a couple against New Orleans and the one against Chicago last Sunday.
It wouldn't have included an arrest and civil lawsuit in connection with an incident in the parking lot of a Houston bar and it wouldn't have included his feeling compelled to go to Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs three weeks ago and say, essentially, "Don't give up on me."
It probably wouldn't have included yesterday morning's meeting at Redskin Park when Gibbs called him in for a coach-player chat. The Redskins for five seasons have become so accustomed to his daily excellence, to his making spectacular catches seem routine and routine catches seem mundane, that almost no one knows how to handle the sight of seeing him drop a pass here and a pass there.
"I don't think he's ever been in anything like this before," Gibbs said. "He's been one of the big-play people for us the last few years. I can't tell you how many times he has bailed us out making a laying-out catch down the field. This year it has just been one of those things. He's a conscientious guy, and I know it's bothering him."
Sanders said he expected more. "This year hasn't been too kind to me," he said, "and there's no excuse."
This was the season Gibbs was going to turn his offense over to quarterback Mark Rypien and The Posse -- wide receivers Art Monk, Gary Clark and Sanders. The Redskins got going last season after Gibbs went to a three-wide-receiver scheme and each of them finished with more than 1,000 yards.
But then some passes were dropped, Rypien got hurt, the running game was born again and. . . .
All of a sudden, the Redskins are balanced. Earnest Byner is on his way to a 1,000-yard season and the H-back is again a blocking back about half the time. That means they start games with only two wide receivers -- Monk and Clark -- and that Sanders gets his playing time when one of them gets a break or on passing downs.
He hasn't complained. He's 13th in the NFC with 50 catches, and while he won't match last season's 80 catches, circumstances have changed. But the real big days have almost disappeared, the drops have increased and Gibbs wanted to know if there is a problem.
"I think things like he's going through are hard to explain," Gibbs said. "When you talk to someone, you want to know if there's something bothering them. Is he getting his rest? When you talk through all that, I'm convinced he's in a good mind-set. He had that problem in Houston, and I asked if it was bothering him. I'm convinced none of those things is the problem."
Gibbs said that since the Redskins are throwing fewer balls to Sanders, that could be a problem. "It could be that," he said. "We're going to keep going to him. When we're going good, he's going good. I think somewhere in there he's going to snap out of it and we've got to keep throwing it at him. I told him: 'Look, you can't start thinking about it. All you can do is relax and play. You're a natural football player.' He's an instinctive athlete. He's as good at catching balls and making plays and reacting to things as anyone there's ever been. I tried to convince him to just play and forget about everything else. I know something like the other night bothered him. I told him on the sidelines, 'Hey forget it.' "
That may be easy for Gibbs to say. No indictment was issued for his arrest two days before training camp. No one is filing a multimillion-dollar civil suit against him. He doesn't face a January trial on a couple of felony charges.
Sanders might have known what kind of season it was going to be when those troubles started in late July. He had an argument over some missing hubcaps with a parking-lot attendant in Houston on May 1.
He was charged with attempted murder on July 20 when a criminal complaint was sworn out. What makes the Redskins suspicious is that the complaint was sworn out 2 1/2 months after the incident, and only after the attendant, Sam Jamus, had attempted to obtain a cash settlement.
Jamus has accused Sanders of striking him with his auto, and while the more serious charge of attempted murder was dropped, Sanders was indicted for aggravated assault, which is a third-degree felony in Texas.
Sanders won't face trial until after the season, and at the very worst, he appears to face probation. More troubling may be what surely are mounting legal fees and a civil suit Jamus has filed.
The problem is that almost everyone likes Sanders, respects his attitude and effort and roots for him. Everyone knows concentration has been a problem.
"That part of it hasn't been there," Sanders said. "I've been pressuring myself. Anytime I miss a ball, I get down on myself. If it's anywhere close to me, I should catch it. Lately, I've been dropping easy passes. I've caught them all my life."
Rypien calls Sanders "his own toughest critic. How could you get down on a guy who has made so many big plays for us?"
The second of Rypien's five interceptions in Sunday's 10-9 victory over Chicago came after the ball bounced out of Sanders's hands. The ball was thrown low, but Sanders's mistake was not in missing the ball, but in missing the blitz and not coming back to Rypien.
Sanders said that was a problem, but added: "I should catch the ball anyway. There was no excuse for that one. I don't care if it's five feet over my head. I feel I should be able to leap or dive or do something to come up with it. I've always caught those."
Gibbs said he's dealing with the slump by talking to Sanders and by giving him a lot of practice work. The betting inside Redskin Park is that he may also play more than a minor role Saturday at New England as the Redskins attempt to clinch a playoff spot, then begin working on whatever problems are left before the postseason begins.
"That would be nice," Sanders said. "I think I'm putting too much pressure on myself. I've started thinking: 'You've got to catch everything. You've got to do this and got to do that.' I should be just relaxing and playing ball. The people here know me. They know I'll come out of it. Coach Gibbs told me that if I drop one, put it out of my mind and catch the next one."