When word leaked last month the Washington Redskins were looking to trade for a big-name wide receiver, Albert Connell was clearly miffed at the suggestion coaches didn't have faith in him as a starter.
After initially expressing his displeasure, Connell piped down. He had nothing more to add on the topic, he explained, refusing to fan a controversy. Connell's reticence reflects a newfound maturity, an attitude he hopes will convince coaches he is finally worthy, entering his third NFL season, of the starting job he now holds.
"I said to myself, `Why am I worrying about that?' " Connell said. "What we have here now is what we're going to have. If any changes come about, they just do. What I need to focus on is myself. I need to work instead of worrying about other things."
With the Redskins' season opener less than five weeks away, Connell still has work to do to convince coaches he can handle the job. With each practice, it is clear Redskins officials aren't entirely comfortable with so much of the team's fortunes riding on the hands of their starting wide receivers.
Both are question marks, to some extent. With Michael Westbrook, who underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck in January, the question is whether he will stay healthy enough to play a complete season. In the case of Connell, who inherited the starting job that belonged to Leslie Shepherd, the question is whether he'll be able to stand up mentally and physically to the rigors of the season.
"Albert has shown he's capable of giving us big plays," said Coach Norv Turner. "What we want to see is consistency."
With that in mind, the Redskins have taken steps to bolster the passing game by other means.
They signed Arizona fullback Larry Centers, whose pass-catching ability is proven, and Turner continues to script plays for tight end Stephen Alexander, who had 37 receptions as a rookie. Player personnel director Vinny Cerrato continues to scan the league for a wide receiver who might be acquired in a trade. Arizona's Rob Moore, Cincinnati's Carl Pickens and Green Bay's Antonio Freeman have been mentioned.
Connell finished last season strong, filling in for Westbrook. He caught 28 passes, including touchdown throws of 56 and 16 yards.
At his best, Connell is a fearless wide receiver who doesn't flinch in traffic. He's also speedy enough -- recently eclipsing cornerback Darrell Green as the fastest Redskin -- to elude most corners.
The questions about him are twofold. At 6 feet, 179 pounds, will he be durable enough to withstand the pounding? And at 25, has he matured sufficiently?
Said Redskins passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie: "He's extremely physical in what he's doing. He's very aggressive, and I think because of that, he throws his body around a lot, and that kind of scares me a little bit. I just don't know if he can do that for 16 games -- play as hard as he plays and throw his body around for 16 games."
Today in practice, Connell leapt to grab a ball thrown by Casey Weldon. Rookie cornerback Champ Bailey matched Connell stride for stride and was draped all over him, but Connell never let go of the ball, even after slamming hard onto the turf.
"I think it's a toughness you have to have, and I've had it all my life," Connell said. "You just want more. You won't just settle for the catch. A lot of guys just settle for that catch and just go down. Me, I'm trying to score."
As a player in junior college, then at Texas A&M, Connell admitted his attitude was a problem.
"I didn't want to listen," he said. "I wanted to do my own thing. When it came time to get on the field and the coach tried to tell me something, I'd be like, `Whatever . . . .' I've grown out of that."
Chosen in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL draft, Connell found his vision of life as a pro slow to materialize. His rookie season, the Redskins brought in Alvin Harper to start ahead of him. The next season, he lined up behind Westbrook and Shepherd. But instead of working harder to prove coaches had made a mistake, Connell sulked.
"He came in and he probably had a chip on his shoulder a little bit," Robiskie said. "With me, that's not good. But I know how to deal with that attitude."
Said Connell: "Verbally, [Robiskie] really ate me up. We would get in screaming matches my rookie year. He pulled me off to the side. He would tell me flat out: `I'm getting rid of you. We don't have to put up with that.' That really straightened me out."
Equally important, according to both Robiskie and Connell, was the influence of Connell's longtime girlfriend, Chanae. The two were married in the offseason in Jamaica.
"She's the best thing that has happened to me," Connell said. "She stays on [me]. Even with the football aspect, she knows when I'm not doing well. She keeps track of me. She sees Terry and she asks, `Is he doing what he's supposed to be doing?' "
He did in Saturday's drills with the Pittsburgh Steelers, hanging on to a catch after getting hit so hard it knocked his helmet off. But later that day, new team owner Daniel M. Snyder vowed to upgrade the team by adding players in areas of weakness, touching off new speculation Connell may be displaced. Today, Connell confined his comments about job security to the field.
"There's no need for an attitude -- especially in this league," Connell said. "There are a lot of great guys out there, and if you've got a bad attitude they can bring someone in to replace you who wants to play and wants to listen and learn."