Laveranues Coles jogged to a corner of the field with his fellow wide receivers when the Washington Redskins broke into position groups early in a two-hour practice yesterday afternoon. They ran curl routes, sprinting for eight to 12 yards then suddenly turning toward the quarterback. No other Redskins wideout changed directions as quickly or burst into his routes with Coles's explosiveness.
Then, during 11-on-11 drills, Coles sprinted across the middle and in front of a crowd of defenders to snag a bullet from quarterback Patrick Ramsey, bringing a roar from spectators.
After garnering his first Pro Bowl berth last season, the 5-foot-11, 193-pound Coles is expected to stand out among a deep group of talented wideouts, including Rod Gardner, Darnerien McCants and James Thrash. Coles will try to maintain his status as an elite wide receiver while learning Joe Gibbs's offense, one that is based on the run and geared toward star tailback Clinton Portis. Coles also must beware of a toe injury that hindered him last season.
"I don't see the slightest limp. I don't see any of that," Redskins offensive coordinator Don Breaux said shortly after yesterday's session. "He's got real quickness in his cuts. Just ask the defensive backs in this league."
Coles fractured his right big toe in the second game of the 2003 season, but didn't disclose it until late in the season. He started every game, finishing with 82 catches for 1,204 yards. It was the most receptions for a Redskins player since Art Monk had 86 in 1989 and the most yards since Henry Ellard had 1,397 in 1994.
Also, Coles -- who played his first three NFL seasons with the New York Jets -- set a modern-day NFL record with at least five receptions in 19 straight games. Such numbers, while injured, were an indication of his resilience.
"The thing I admire most," Gibbs said, "is that it would take an ax to get him out of there."
Gibbs added: "He's a receiver who could be a star-type personality, but he's not. He's a go-getter."
During team offseason workouts, the Redskins tried to limit Coles's participation as a precautionary measure. But he couldn't resist running routes. "Playing through it this summer when he could have sat out says everything about him," Gardner said yesterday.
After Breaux was hired in early January, he called Dan Henning, the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator, for insight on Coles. Henning, who had been one of Gibbs's assistants in the 1980s, knew Coles from being an assistant with the Jets from 1998 to 2000. The first thing Henning mentioned about Coles was his toughness, Breaux recalled yesterday.
In the second regular season game of Coles's Redskins career, against the Falcons in Atlanta, he lived up to his reputation. With Washington down 17-0, Coles suffered two vicious hits, including a knee to the head, forcing him from the game each time. But Coles insisted on returning and helped the Redskins to a stirring 33-31 victory.
Although the toe isn't 100 percent now, it's markedly better than last season, when Coles felt pain merely walking. The toe hurts when the wideout shifts directions or plants his right foot. He feels no pain when running straight routes.
"I never expect for it to be 100 percent right now," Coles said, "but we're taking good care of it and it's working out for me right now."
Washington's medical staff monitors Coles's toe with almost the same scrutiny Alan Greenspan has for inflation. The Redskins provide Coles with a specially designed orthotic -- a sole insert for his right shoe. He also wears his right shoe tighter than normal, and replaces shoes frequently, well before they wear out.
"We have this great orthotic that's designed specifically for his needs," said Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' director of sports medicine, "and so far it's working well."
Earlier this summer, Coles considered surgery but decided against it because doctors said it would take four months to recover, cutting into the regular season. Despite impressive overall numbers last season, Coles's statistics did decline after the injury. He amassed at least 100 receiving yards in each of the first three games last season. He reached the mark only one other time for the rest of the season.
Coles's -- and the team's -- nadir occurred Dec. 14 in a 27-0 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys when he couldn't muster a catch. The injury soon became public when then-coach Steve Spurrier's staff revealed that Coles wasn't fully healthy. (Up until that point, the club had said Coles suffered a relatively minor case of turf toe.) After persistent questions from reporters, Coles reluctantly admitted to having a stress fracture. Coles's reason for secrecy, he said, was because he doesn't believe an athlete should use any excuse once he steps on the field.
Coles is learning his fourth offense in five NFL seasons. But the latest change is perhaps the most drastic because Coles is going from a pass-happy coach in Spurrier to a run-oriented coach in Gibbs. Coles has a general understanding of Gibbs's system, he said, and the wideout's biggest challenge is mastering the terminology. Because of Gibbs's reputation, Coles appears to be prepared to catch fewer passes.
"You've just kind of got to go with the philosophy of your head coach," Coles said recently. "He's our head coach and also our president, so as long as I keep him smiling and say the right things about him and support him, that's the main thing right now."
He added, "I know in the public eye it's about how many catches you have and how many balls you get, but on a professional level we're all graded individually and as long as I grade out well and the coaches see the effort is up to standards, I think everything will be fine."
Breaux said that Coles may be surprised to find out how often Gibbs's receivers have big games.
"We recognize what kind of player he is," Breaux said. "And I'll assure you, we will be designing things to get Laveranues the ball. We'd be foolish not. To say what that is, that's going to change week to week. I'm sure he's going to get the game plan each week, and the first thing he's going to do is look at it and try to see if he's a part of the offense. But he will be a big part of our offense every week.
"You have to have big [passing] plays in this league to go far, and he has the ability to make those plays."