Rod Gardner was the first player on the practice field at Redskins Park on Sept. 20, the morning after the Washington Redskins lost, 20-14, to the New York Giants, a game in which the wide receiver dropped a few pinpoint passes.
Gardner stepped in front of a Jugs machine that resembled a tripod and was operated by Coy Gibbs, an offensive assistant. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound Gardner stood several yards away and caught dozens of balls: fastball-like tosses, feathery-soft passes and medium pitches. Gardner was more concerned about maintaining focus on each catch than honing his pass-catching skills.
Gardner repeated the ritual for the rest of last week. And during Monday's 21-18 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Gardner finished with one of the best performances in his four-year career: 10 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns.
The tour de force illustrated Gardner's potential in Coach Joe Gibbs's offense following the worst statistical season of his career. Despite switching from Steve Spurrier's pass-heavy offense to a run-oriented scheme, Gardner entered this season excited about Gibbs's system and intending to reclaim his status as a top wide receiver.
"Even though he runs the ball, he's going to take the big shots, that's how I look at it," Gardner said of Gibbs. "I'd rather catch one 50-yard pass than three five-yard passes. Any day. Those little five-yard routes are cool for first downs. But when you get an opportunity to go up the field and make a big catch, that's what I love."
Gardner, who attended Clemson, mainly knew of Gibbs for his three Super Bowl titles and a power-running game, but he was aware that Art Monk and Gary Clark were star Redskins wide receivers. Gardner did some cursory research to see exactly how Gibbs's wideouts fared. He was surprisingly pleased at some of the gaudy numbers gleaned from the media guide. Gardner noted that in 1984 -- Gibbs's third season -- Monk set a franchise mark with 106 receptions. Monk also set the club's all-time mark of 888 catches for 12,026 yards playing from 1980 to 1993. Gardner checked out Clark's numbers -- 549 catches for 8,742 yards playing for Gibbs from 1985 to 1992.
"You can say that this was a run-oriented team, but for them to be among the top receivers to play the game, evidently they had to catch the ball," said Gardner, who was selected 15th overall in the 2001 NFL draft. "There was even one year that Art Monk had over 100 catches."
In 2002, Spurrier's first season, Gardner set career highs in catches (71) and receiving yards (1,006) plus a team-high eight touchdowns. The numbers were particularly impressive because Gardner played alongside not-ready-for-prime-time wide receivers. Before the 2003 season, the Redskins signed Laveranues Coles to a seven-year, $35 million contract to use his speed, stretch the field and ostensibly allow Gardner to exploit single coverage. Gardner concocted a nickname for the pair, Thunder and Lightning, for their ascension as one of the league's best wideout duos. Gardner was Thunder, with an ability to make catches despite aggressive coverage; Coles was Lightning, using his speed and quickness to separate himself from the defensive back. Coles produced 82 catches for 1,204 yards, but Gardner was more of a statistical thud -- career lows in receptions (59) and receiving yards (600). The precipitous drop -- "a slack-off," he said -- came largely because of Gardner's altered role: running shorter routes while lining up mainly on the outside.
Despite being more bruiser than blazer, Gardner has proven himself as a deep threat -- averaging 16.1 yards as a rookie -- with deceptive speed (Gardner has been timed at 4.45 in the 40-yard dash). Thus, the Redskins line up Gardner in various spots, frequently unleashing him on long routes.
"Our system is built so you have to be able to make chunks of yards at a time," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said yesterday. "We're going to take our shots."
Gibbs provides his receivers option routes, which are based on the defense's reaction after the snap. Because of tailback Clinton Portis's presence, Gardner has received more opportunities for big yards on play-action fakes. As linebackers creep up to stop the run, Gardner has extra room to operate and tries to find a seam leading to a big play. Now, Gardner has regained the mentality of a number one receiver, showing it against the Cowboys.
"He said, 'Give me that football,' " Gibbs recalled yesterday. "I've been around real good receivers in the past with a similar approach. They say, 'Hey, give it to me here. Throw one my way, I'm going to try to win this thing.' And I think he stepped up and did everything he could."
Perhaps Gardner's best attribute is a knack for snagging the ball among a crowd by using his strength and size. "He's a big target," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "He makes plays."
But Gardner has gone through stretches in his brief NFL career of intermittently dropping easy passes while making spectacular grabs. During Gardner's rookie season, then-defensive end Bruce Smith dubbed the wideout 50-50, as in the odds of a catch. But Gardner says the moniker is gone for good, even if it means regularly using the Jugs machine before practices.
"It's mental. It's not on hard catches," Gardner said of the drops. "I might be turning my head and trying to run first. The best [players] drop balls. I just have to concentrate."
Although Gardner grew frustrated with his role last season, he became a well-rounded receiver after increasing his work. "I kept working hard," Gardner said.
After last season, Gardner actually received a better overall grade from the coaching staff because of his improved blocking and sharper routes. Gardner shed the knock from early in his career of having a lackadaisical approach while relying too much on his talent.
Gibbs said yesterday that he was impressed by Gardner's virtually perfect attendance in workouts during the offseason.
Now, Gardner desires to produce some Monk-like numbers by maintaining his approach in Gibbs's run-heavy but receiver-friendly system.
"I want it all," Gardner said, smiling.