The Washington Redskins received some good news yesterday when tests revealed no serious damage to the left shoulder of wide receiver Albert Connell. According to team officials, an MRI exam showed that Connell has only a sprained shoulder and a slightly pinched nerve, and he probably will be available to play in Sunday's regular season finale against the Miami Dolphins at FedEx Field.
The question is whether the Redskins will want Connell to play. The Redskins have clinched the NFC East title, and should know by kickoff time whether they'll have any remaining chance of securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The game could be meaningless to the Redskins from a playoff standpoint, and Coach Norv Turner and the team's other decision-makers will have to consider whether to use Connell, running back Stephen Davis, quarterback Brad Johnson and other key players for extended periods--or at all.
Connell has been playing with an injured shoulder for weeks, and he aggravated it during Sunday's 26-20 overtime win at San Francisco that secured the division crown for the Redskins. Davis missed the 49ers game with a sprained left ankle suffered the previous week at Indianapolis.
Johnson has surprised many NFL observers by avoiding injuries and starting all 15 games this season. There have been recent rumblings about him having a tired arm, but he threw for a club-record 471 yards against the 49ers. Still, the Redskins probably do not want to press their luck with him Sunday if the Miami game is meaningless.
The Redskins have a chance for their first 10-win season under Turner, and Turner reiterated yesterday that he wants to see his club generate momentum heading into the franchise's first playoff appearance since the 1992 season. But he left open the possibility of resting key players Sunday if injuries are a concern.
"We need to get ready to play as well as we can," Turner said. "We still have a chance to get a bye. [But] in terms of someone like Stephen Davis, we're certainly not going to do anything to jeopardize his health."
The Redskins have a 4:15 p.m. kickoff against the Dolphins, and should know before the game whether they still have a chance at a first-round playoff bye. For the Redskins to get a bye, they would have to beat the Dolphins and have both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings lose. The Buccaneers play at Chicago and the Vikings are at home against the Detroit Lions in 1 p.m. games Sunday.
If the Redskins don't get a bye, they'll host the lowest-seeded NFC wild-card team in a first-round playoff game at FedEx Field the weekend of Jan. 8-9.
Connell had five catches for 106 yards against the 49ers, while fellow wideout Michael Westbrook had seven receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown. The Redskins revived their big-play passing attack that often had been absent from their offense since the season's early stages.
"People were concerned about Brad's arm," Turner said. "People were concerned about the big plays in the passing game. When you can be minus a 1,400-yard rusher and still play well, that means something."
Turner said that, given the improved play of the team's defense in recent weeks, he believes the Redskins are on an upswing as the playoffs near.
"We're playing good football right now," Turner said. "We've been in some hostile environments that will help our football team in the playoffs. The great thing about the tournament is, everybody's got a shot."
The Tampa Bay and Minnesota games aren't the only scoreboard watching that the Redskins will do Sunday. If the New Orleans Saints lose at Carolina, the Redskins will have the second selection in April's college draft. If the Saints win, the Redskins will have the No. 3 pick. The Redskins acquired the Saints' first-round pick next year as part of a draft-day trade last spring.
The Redskins have three first-round draft choices next year, theirs and those of the Saints and Panthers. The Redskins' selection from the Panthers will fall between 11th and 14th, and their own pick will be no higher than 20th.