The mere opportunity to don a uniform and pads and stand with his teammates on the sideline Sunday filled wide receiver Darnerien McCants with joy. Actually getting on the field in the final minutes, making his first two catches of the season and reclaiming his place on the Washington Redskins' active roster was more than he anticipated.
McCants had yet to line up for a play through eight games -- he was active only once previously -- and did not figure into Washington's game plan against the Cincinnati Bengals. But then starting wide receiver Rod Gardner came up limp after running a pass pattern with less than five minutes to play, and McCants was rushed into the game for the next snap.
"Rod was coming back slow and we was against the clock, so they just called me in and I got my plays," McCants said. "When I get my opportunity I've got to take advantage of it. It's been like that all my life when it comes to football. I think that's why I've become the player that I am now."
McCants, 26, ended up finding a seam in the defense and immediately made an athletic 27-yard reception -- Washington's longest gain in five games -- and then picked up 19 yards on a pass from Patrick Ramsey on the following play. It led to the team's lone touchdown in a 17-10 defeat. Just like that, McCants was a part of the Redskins' offense again and, according to Coach Joe Gibbs, he figures to be on the field consistently over the final seven games as the club struggles to resurrect a passing game that has lacked a big-play presence or a deep threat all season.
"I think he is a playmaker," Gibbs said of McCants. "He's a big guy with really good hands and I think deceptively on deep balls he's very good, also. So it was good seeing him get in there and make some plays for us, and hopefully that will continue and hopefully we can find ways to play him more in the offense. I think now that he's up [dressing for games], I think we can do that and that's to his credit: If you make plays you're going to play."
McCants had yet to show Gibbs anything in a regular season game after a breakout 2003 season under former coach Steve Spurrier, and was deactivated weekly in large part because of his lack of participation on special teams. The coaches dressed Taylor Jacobs in the final roster spot for wide receivers in large part because he is active in special teams. But last week Gibbs slipped wide receiver James Thrash into the roster spot formerly held by return specialist Chad Morton -- Thrash is returning punts with Morton out for the season -- and the team also dressed one fewer reserve offensive lineman than usual, opening up a vacancy on the 45-man game roster for McCants.
"I was just happy [to be active], man," McCants said. "I was elated. It was just tough sitting on the sidelines getting cold. So if I would have played a little more I might have been able to score."
With the passing attack stagnant, there was no reason not to give McCants another chance. The Redskins rank 29th in passing yards per game and are second-worst in average gain per pass and total scoring as well.
"D-Mac came in and gave them two plays back to back, and I was happy for him," Gardner said, "because I know D-Mac has the skills and the ability to do it, and I know coach was going to put him in the game and give him an opportunity to make a play."
McCants (6 feet 3, 211 pounds) played in 15 games last season and started once, finishing with 27 catches for 360 yards and 6 touchdowns, which tied Laveranues Coles for the team lead. His best game came against this Sunday's opponent, Philadelphia, when McCants caught four passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He and Ramsey, who will start Sunday in place of the benched Mark Brunell, helped forge a near comeback against the Eagles last October, developing a chemistry they hope flourishes again now that both are finally getting a chance to get back on the field.
"Darnerien is a big, physical guy and he just finds a way to get open, regardless," Ramsey said. "I don't know how it happens. And when the ball comes to him he snatches it out of the air. He did a really good job Sunday, so hopefully he can continue to do that for us this year."
"Patrick understands where I like the ball, and nine times out of 10 he's going to put it in the right spot," McCants said. "All he has to do is throw it in my direction and I'm going to catch it."
McCants was not feeling as assured a few weeks ago. He admits his confidence took a hit from being inactive for so long. He refused to complain about the demotion, however, and chalked it up as another hurdle to overcome. The Gambrills native did not begin playing organized football until his senior year at Arundel High School, was not taken by the Redskins until the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of tiny Delaware State and was inactive for his entire rookie season. "I've been an underdog my entire life when it comes to football," McCants said. "And each time I rise to the occasion."
His lack of playing time this season was confusing, given the three-year, $4.5 million contract extension he signed in the offseason, which included a $2 million signing bonus.
But yesterday his happiness was obvious. McCants, an aspiring pianist and songwriter, even obliged a media request to sing a few bars of one of his songs in the locker room at Redskins Park. The love ballad, titled "Lonely," was apt given McCants's absence from the offense for eight games, but he may be singing a brighter tune in the weeks to come.