During the offseason, the Washington Redskins handed Albert Connell a starting job as the wide receiver opposite Michael Westbrook. And now, as Sunday's regular season opener against the Dallas Cowboys nears, team officials talk about their hope that Connell will have a breakthrough season.
In between, though, Connell watched the Redskins lure the seventh-leading pass catcher in NFL history, Irving Fryar, out of retirement, and heard the rumblings about prospective trades for wide receivers, including Seattle holdout Joey Galloway. Connell read reports about the possibility that he could be included in a trade package for Galloway.
The third-year pro acknowledged yesterday he was bothered by the club's flirtations with other wide receivers. He asked team officials about the chances he'll be traded for Galloway, and was told that was only speculation. So now, Connell said, his mission for this season is to make the Redskins' decision-makers have as much confidence in him as he has in himself.
"It bothers you a little bit," Connell said. "But this is how I look at it: I think I'm almost to the top of my game. I feel like the only way someone is going to come in here and take my job is if they hand it to him. If anyone comes in here on an even competition, I feel confident I'm going to win the job."
Terry Robiskie, the Redskins' passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, said he wants all of his players to take such an I'll-show-you approach.
"It's there," Robiskie said of the team's trade discussions. "I'm sure they hear it. They just have to go out and play and perform. Like I tell my guys, 'You know you can play. So go out and prove it.' "
The Redskins lack a proven game-breaker at running back or wide receiver. Westbrook has plenty of ability but, thanks to injuries and inconsistency, is yet to have more than 44 catches in an NFL season. Connell, 25, overtook 39-year-old cornerback Darrell Green as the Redskins' fastest player during the team's offseason sprints. Green still maintains that Connell improperly wore track shoes instead of football cleats for the timing. Connell has only 37 receptions and six starts on his two-year NFL resume.
Team officials are enamored with new quarterback Brad Johnson and his targets in the short passing game, tight end Stephen Alexander and running backs Brian Mitchell and Larry Centers. But the club also needs Westbrook or Connell to develop into a consistent, reliable down-field receiving threat. Sunday would be a good time to start. One of Dallas's starting cornerbacks, Kevin Smith, will be sidelined by a bad back. The other, Deion Sanders, could be sidelined or limited by a lingering toe injury.
"I'm looking forward to Sunday," Robiskie said. "I'm looking forward to getting started and seeing what our guys can do. I think they can go out and make some plays."
Connell said he, too, is eager for the regular season to get under way.
"I'm a whole lot better than I was a year ago or two years ago," Connell said. "If I can stay healthy, I can be a Pro Bowl receiver this year. Brad is getting the ball to me. I can beat anyone down the field. I can catch 80 balls this year, and Michael can catch 80 balls."
Mike Holmgren, the Seahawks' coach and general manager, reiterated on Wednesday that he doesn't intend to trade Galloway. But the Redskins haven't given up on the possibility. According to sources close to the situation, the Redskins have been told the Seahawks will make a final decision following the second game of the season. The Redskins seem to believe the Seahawks might part with Galloway if Seattle wins its first two games. They've already offered a first-round pick in next year's draft, and they'll have to add a third-round pick or Connell--or both--to their proposal.
Connell said he now is able to shrug off such talk.
"I shouldn't let it bother me too much," he said. "It bothered me for a day. But I talked to people here the next day, and I was over it. . . . You like to have the coaches' confidence in you. But I'm more concerned about my teammates, and from what they tell me they're all confident in me. I've showed the coaches what I can do. If they're not confident in me, there's nothing else I can do about it."
Johnson's passing touch and know-how will provide a significant boost to the production of the Redskins' wide receivers and the team's offense as a whole, Connell said.
"We haven't had a quarterback like that," he said. "I'm talking like I've been around for 10 years, but he's amazing. He always thinks we can do better. We'll run a play that turns out pretty well, and he'll look at it on film and come to you a week later and tell you how we could have done better."
The 36-year-old Fryar is third on the depth chart at this point. He signed with the team only three weeks ago, and played in only one preseason game. Coach Norv Turner said yesterday that Fryar is far enough along in his crash course on the team's offense that he can play in the club's three-wide-receiver formations Sunday. But Fryar probably isn't ready to serve as an every-down player if the need were to arise, Turner said.
Fryar said he has been pleased with his progress and his conditioning level, but conceded it will be another few weeks before he's fully comfortable with the Redskins' offensive system.
"I'm still grinding," Fryar said. "There's a lot being thrown at me. It's a crash course. It's a little tough sometimes, but it'll have to be enough. I'm going to play."
CAPTION: "If I can stay healthy, I can be a Pro Bowl receiver," Albert Connell said.
CAPTION: Albert Connell, 25, who beat Darrell Green to become the fastest man on the Redskins, has only 37 receptions and six starts on his two-year NFL resume.