It was a somber, humble Albert Connell who sat on a bench in the locker room at Redskin Park yesterday, speaking quietly about his disappointment over the mistakes he has made in the Washington Redskins' past few games.
There was none of the brashness Connell demonstrated at the outset of this season, when he predicted he could have a Pro Bowl-caliber year with the proper opportunity. There was none of the brashness Connell displayed before a loss at Dallas in late October, when he declared Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders couldn't cover him.
The confidence still is there as Connell reiterated his belief he can get open on any defensive back. But as he makes his way through his first season as a full-time starting wide receiver in the NFL, he seems to have learned there will be valleys as well as peaks. He has seen firsthand the game is humbling as often as it is rewarding, and he sounded like a far more mature player as he bowed his head and softly scolded himself yesterday.
"It has bothered me," Connell said. "I've dropped about four balls the last four or five weeks, and that's not me. Crucial third-down plays, mental mistakes, not getting out of bounds, stuff like that--that's not me. It bothers me. I'm trying to concentrate and look past that, and move on."
Connell has been one of the Redskins' success stories this season. He began the season with only six starts and 37 catches in two NFL seasons, but the Redskins believed he could be a productive wide receiver if given more opportunities.
The results have been better than the Redskins could have hoped. Connell leads the team with 47 catches--two more than wide receiver Michael Westbrook and fullback Larry Centers. Connell and Westbrook have six touchdown catches apiece. Westbrook is eighth in the NFC in receiving yards, and Connell is ninth. Connell also has drawn 11 pass interference penalties, one of which was declined.
Connell, however, has had a gaffe for every positive play he has made in recent weeks. And when Coach Norv Turner spoke to Connell yesterday, Connell said Turner reminded him what happens in the remaining five games of the regular season could go a long way toward determining how Connell feels about his 1999 performance.
"I feel pretty good, but the last few weeks I haven't been playing up to my standards," Connell said. "I set a standard for myself. I haven't fulfilled that. I'm just going to go out there and try to continue on. I'm having a great season either way. But it's like Coach Turner was telling me: 'You're having a great season. But the difference between a great season and just an average season is how you finish it off in these last five games.' I'm going with that approach the rest of the year--go all out."
Turner said: "We're two-thirds of the way through the season. The key for young players is how they finish. Hopefully they get a second wind, and hopefully [Connell] can do that."
It's not that Connell has been across-the-board bad lately. It's just that he has had enough negative plays to offset his positive ones. In the Redskins' loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 14, Connell lost a fumble and had a pass wrestled away from him by Eagles cornerback Al Harris for a crucial fourth-quarter interception.
During a victory over the New York Giants a week later, Connell drew a pair of pass interference penalties in the end zone. But he also was called for unsportsmanlike conduct and a holding penalty that nullified a touchdown run by tailback Stephen Davis.
Last Sunday, Connell kept the Redskins from attempting a field goal at the end of the first half by failing to get out of bounds on two straight plays. The Redskins ended up needing overtime to beat the Eagles, 20-17, at FedEx Field.
"I still have the numbers, but it could be better," Connell said. "I need to go out there more aggressive, more mentally prepared, more focused and pay attention to details. The last game, I'm really disappointed about what I did at the half. We could have gotten a field goal out of that. The game could have been easier than we made it. Some people say that made a difference. Some people say, 'Well, we won anyway.' I feel three points could have made a huge difference.
"If we'd lost, I'd still be dwelling on that now. . . . When the ref blew the whistle, and the clock was still going, I said, 'Oh man, I screwed up.' "
Turner said he is satisfied Connell has been sufficiently remorseful about his recent mistakes and is taking the proper approach toward trying to ensure he doesn't repeat them.
"He's working at it," Turner said. "We're talking about it. He's just got to keep going. He's aware of what he's done and what it has done to the team."
On the whole, the Redskins are delighted with what they've gotten from Connell this season. He has used his speed to give quarterback Brad Johnson a deep receiving threat and prevent defenses from focusing solely upon Westbrook. He has demonstrated the toughness to make catches in the middle of the field and absorb hits. In a season that began with the Redskins luring Irving Fryar out of retirement and attempting to trade for other wide receivers, Westbrook and Connell have been one the league's best pass-catching tandems.
"I think I've proved myself," Connell said. "You still have your doubters, but I think I have silenced a lot of them."
He was asked what he still would like to prove by the end of the season, and said: "That I can really be one of the good ones and have a whole, complete season. I want to have a 16-game season and put up great numbers, and let people know I deserve to be in the position I'm in now."
CAPTION: After blunders in the past few games, Redskins wide receiver Albert Connell is toning down his approach.