What the Washington Redskins liked most about their offense when everything was running smoothly early in the season was the choice of receivers available to quarterback Brad Johnson. Now, with their season perhaps hanging in the balance, that variety will be tested in Sunday's game against the New York Giants, with wide receiver Michael Westbrook slated to play with a cast over the broken bone in his wrist.
This could be the week that the spotlight will be on fullback Larry Centers and tight end Stephen Alexander. And they'd like nothing better.
Centers is the Redskins' third-leading receiver (behind Westbrook and fellow wideout Albert Connell) with 30 catches. Alexander ranks fourth on the team with 22 receptions. But they have disappeared from the offense for long stretches this season, and both had greater expectations for themselves coming in.
"I would like to be more involved on critical downs," Centers said. "The passes I've caught have been quiet because of where they've been caught on the field."
Centers said this week it's too early to ponder his future with the team, but admitted he's had second thoughts about his decision to sign with the Redskins after being released by the Arizona Cardinals. He's on pace for a 53-catch season. But that's relative inactivity for someone who averaged 79 catches per year the previous six seasons with Arizona.
"Any time things aren't going the way you want them to, you're going to have second thoughts," he said. "But I made the decision to come here, and it was the right decision at the time. I just want the ball more to help this team win games.
"I go back and watch tape by myself. I try to be honest with myself: How much more could I have gotten out of the opportunities I was given? I think I've done pretty well with the opportunities I've had."
Alexander had 37 catches last season as a rookie who wasn't even a full-time starter. He has the speed to get downfield and stretch defenses, and the Redskins believe he will be a Pro Bowl player one day.
But he has battled nagging injuries all season. He's playing with a bone chip in his right wrist suffered during last month's loss at Dallas, and he missed practice time this week because of a hip flexor. Still, he said he thinks he has contributed to the NFL's second-ranked offense because he's a downfield receiving threat who draws attention from opposing safeties, leaving room for Westbrook and Connell to operate on the outside.
"It's not all about catches and yards and touchdowns," Alexander said. "I'd like to think I've done my part by holding the safeties in, making them conscious and aware of what I'm doing. Catches are a standard you can look at, but if you're not the primary receiver you still have to do your part by running hard and playing hard. You just hope down the road that your number will be called."
Alexander had five catches, two of them for touchdowns, in the Redskins' 50-21 triumph over the Giants in Week 2. He said he hopes he can duplicate that performance Sunday, particularly if Westbrook's wrist is bothering him and the Redskins are forced to throw the ball in other directions.
"If he is limited, I hope I can take up some of the slack," Alexander said. "But I had a decent game the last game with them, so I think they'll be conscious of the things down the middle."
CAPTION: "I think I've done pretty well with the opportunities I've had," said Larry Centers, here making acrobatic reception against Cardinals, his former team.