Before practice each morning, Larry Centers takes a moment to focus on expending as much energy as possible in the workout. Then he starts bouncing up and down, getting his body in sync with the message.
The NFL's most prolific receiving fullback, Centers, 31, sees room for improvement in his game. And he's eyeing his offseason move to the Washington Redskins as a chance to raise his game one more notch, transforming himself into the complete football player he dreams of being -- hybrid wide receiver, halfback and fullback.
Fullback was far from the Redskins' most critical need last December, as they concluded a forgettable 6-10 season. The team had a complementary tandem in blocking specialist Larry Bowie, whose season was shortened by a broken leg, and third-down specialist Brian Mitchell, whose 44 receptions tied wide receiver Michael Westbrook for the team lead.
Nonetheless, the Redskins jumped at the chance to sign Centers, their longtime tormentor in the NFC East, after the fullback was released by Arizona in June.
Centers set the standard for running backs in 1995, when he caught 101 passes. Only one player in Redskins history has had more than 100 receptions in a season -- Art Monk, with 106 in 1984. Among runners, Centers's 69 receptions last season ranked second to Marshall Faulk.
Centers's gifts are speed, soft hands (he played the violin though grade school) and focus.
"First and foremost, he's got good hands," said Terry Robiskie, the Redskins' passing game coordinator. "And the second thing, he's got heart. He's got a tremendous heart. He wants to be good."
Said Centers: "My main focus is to try to learn everything that I can learn -- from running back position, to receiving position, to fullback. I want to do as much as I can. This offense is so complex at times, and it changes so much, you could have players plugged in all the way across the board. And I want to be the type of player that the coaches feel comfortable plugging in to any type of situation."
Centers was one of the few Redskins to draw applause during this afternoon's practice against the Pittsburgh Steelers. On one play, he slammed a defender to the ground. Twice he darted toward the right sideline to reel in throws by quarterback Rodney Peete. On another play, he slipped past the defense for a 30-yard reception, thrusting the ball into the air as fans clapped and cheered.
Just as significant, Centers seems to lift the play of teammates around him.
"I saw him out there last week, running after practice," linebacker Greg Jones said. "All the younger guys are in, and he's still running out there by himself. . . . He's still sharp. He's real smart. He's got a lot of experience, and he's got a lot of moves. He's dangerous. So what I try to do is hit him early -- because if not, then he's going to outrun me."
Centers's strengths mirror Mitchell's. And Turner has designed offensive sets that call for both. But for now, Turner begs off the question of who becomes his third-down back.
"Obviously, Larry is capable of being a third-down back, and Brian has been very successful as a third-down back," Turner said. "So that's a decision we'll make down the road. But both of them in the game on third down is a nice change-up for us."
Centers saw a lot of the Redskins in nine seasons with the Cardinals. He caught a touchdown pass in each of Arizona's victories over the Redskins last year: a four-yard pass in Game 9, which the Cardinals won in overtime, 29-27; and a nine-yard pass in Game 11, which the Cardinals won, 45-42.
Asked to analyze the struggles of the Redskins' defense last season, he said: "I think they were hindered, number one, by injury. The team got off to a difficult start, and I think that might have caused some guys to lose desire. I think it's going to be important for us [in order] to be successful this year, to get off to a good start. The defense and the team as a whole is going to have to establish a chemistry early and a cohesiveness that allows us to stay together through thick and thin, no matter what happens."
Centers makes the transition to the Redskins' system look easy, but it is tremendous work. There are nuances of route-running in the Redskins system, for example. The offense is exceedingly complex. And the quarterbacks' styles are different. Where Arizona's Jake Plummer is precocious and instinctive, Brad Johnson is mature and methodical.
"Jake is more of a mobile quarterback -- a guy who's going to move around and try to buy time in the pocket," Centers said. "Brad is more of a drop-back, stay-in-the-pocket type of quarterback. I think Brad takes what a defense gives him, and Jake always tries to make something happen. So there's quite a bit of difference between the two."
For the Redskins to be successful, Centers predicts, the team will have to make protecting Johnson a top priority.
Centers saw what making the playoffs did for Arizona, after so many years of struggling. In the players' eyes, he said, it was a validation. But for the Cardinals, the first step toward making the playoffs was coming together as a team, Centers said. That is part of what he hopes will happen to the Redskins this season.
"I think it's going to be important that each and every individual on this team gets to know each other well," Centers said. "We have to start talking about winning. We need to start talking about winning and making it the topic of conversation."
He paused for a moment.
"This is a period in our lives that you get an opportunity to do what every other athlete out there in football would like to be doing who's not a professional. And we need to take advantage of the situation, realize the position we're in and realize that we can create memories just by focusing."