As statistics go, tight end Stephen Alexander wasn't much of a factor in the Washington Redskins' season-opening loss to Dallas. Wide receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell each had career days, and Alexander caught one pass for five yards.
The Redskins' 50-21 victory over the New York Giants last Sunday, however, brought out a dominant performance from the second-year tight end. Alexander led the team with five receptions for 86 yards. Two of those were for touchdowns: a one-yard reception for a 33-14 halftime advantage, and a 27-yarder in the fourth quarter that boosted the Redskins' lead to 50-14.
Despite the discrepancy, tight ends coach Michael Pope saw much he liked in Alexander's game against Dallas, playing opposite strong safety Darren Woodson. With both Dallas starting cornerbacks out, the Redskins chose to attack the outside, going repeatedly to Westbrook and Connell, who combined for nine catches.
"That's a misnomer sometimes that a guy doesn't play well because he doesn't get a ball or doesn't get a lot of big plays," Pope said. "If he blocks well and does his job, and you're making a lot of yards running the ball on the edge of the defense, off tackle holds, then the linemen and the tight ends and the blocking backs and fullbacks are doing a very good job."
In the Giants game, the Redskins' offensive attack shifted inside, giving Alexander a more prominent role in the passing game. Sunday at Giants Stadium against the New York Jets, who boast hard-hitting free safety Steve Atwater, the Redskins likely will spread their passes around.
Based on what he's seen so far, Coach Norv Turner predicted this week that Alexander could have a Pro Bowl year.
"Stephen can run all the routes and is becoming a better blocker," Turner said. "He's capable, depending on the number of opportunities, of becoming a Pro Bowl guy. Again, it depends on the opportunities and how people play us and how things come up."
Big and strong (6 feet 4, 246 pounds), Alexander has sure hands and striking speed after catching the ball, which helps him when matched up against heavier linebackers.
But asked about Pro Bowl aspirations, he hesitates.
"I think first and foremost, if the team is winning, that's when the players start getting a lot more praise and accolades," Alexander said. "The first thing and the most important is to go out and win ballgames. The rest will take care of itself. I know we have a lot of weapons on this team, and we have guys that have the potential to go out and be Pro Bowl players."
For the moment, Alexander is among the Redskins' most reliable weapons on a surprisingly potent offense.
The offensive line has been impressive, allowing just two sacks and helping running back Stephen Davis to NFL-leading marks in scoring (32 points), rushing (235 yards on 47 carries) and rushing touchdowns (five).
Quarterback Brad Johnson has done a good job distributing his passes, involving fullback Larry Centers, along with wide receivers Westbrook, Connell and Irving Fryar.
Through Week 2, the Redskins have the NFL's top-rated offense (fifth rushing, fourth passing). Alexander credits much of the fast start to Johnson.
"He is unbelievable," Alexander said. "He comes out and works hard and is the team leader. That's probably the most important thing that really keeps us going and helps us out.
"When he steps in the huddle, he's the man. Everybody listens to what he says. When there's a little pressure, he's the first one who says, `Hey, look -- we have all the ability. We can make the plays. Let's just go out and do it.' I think that's what you need in a quarterback. The guy is extremely accurate. He's all that you could ask for in a quarterback."
Alexander, 23, was the Redskins' second-round pick of the 1998 draft and so far has exceeded expectations. A knee injury to starting tight end Jamie Asher gave him more exposure as a rookie, and he finished the year with 37 receptions (fourth on the team) for 383 yards and four touchdowns. In Week 15 against Tampa Bay, he scored the game-winning touchdown with a one-handed grab in the end zone with less than six minutes remaining.
Less likely to make the highlight reels is Alexander's blocking, which Pope said is vastly improved from his rookie year.
"He was a remedial student," Pope said, "but it's a matter of what they ask them to do in college. [Oklahoma] was a myriad of different offenses his last couple years. They changed coaches and changed offensive systems. For a while, they were trying to be a running team. Then they were a passing team. Stability is what he needed. And repetition, which is what all the players need."
In most other respects, Alexander was a polished product upon arrival. He bulked up and started building strength after recovering from a ligament tear in his thumb, which required a cast and inhibited his work in the weight room before training camp in 1998.
This past summer, he remained in the Washington area to continue his workouts at Redskin Park.
"He has a free-agent mentality, which is a good thing to have," Pope said. "That means you prove yourself every day. You think that every day you've got to go out and prove yourself. That's the best kind of player to work with because they have a hunger to improve."
Redskins Notes: Middle linebacker Derek Smith (bruised shoulder) participated in yesterday's noncontact practice, and Turner said he expects Smith to play Sunday. While Smith has no pain, the shoulder is slightly weak. "He has felt better every day and has another 48 hours before game time, so I think he'll be fine," Turner said.
Also, linebacker Malcolm Hamilton (back) is expected to be ready to play. But because of the Redskins' lack of depth at that position, Turner listed cornerback Tito Paul as inactive in order to play linebacker Eddie Mason. Mason, 27, was signed this week for his special teams play. He was a sixth-round draft pick by the Jets in 1995 and played for Jacksonville late last year.
"We have problems at the linebacker position now, with the injury things: Malcolm with his back; Derek with his shoulder. We've got Eddie Mason here. Eddie's a good special teams player," Turner said.
The Redskins' other inactive players are fullback Larry Bowie, defensive tackle Barron Tanner and guard Rod Milstead.