Rod Gardner has always considered himself to be a clutch receiver, dating all the way back to high school and college. As a senior at the University of Clemson, in a game against South Carolina, Gardner hauled in a 50-yard catch with 10 seconds left to set up a game-winning field goal.
In the NFL, Gardner believes he hasn't always had the opportunity to prove he is a go-to receiver. He flashed the potential in his rookie year. During a memorable game against Carolina, Gardner caught an 85-yard touchdown pass that tied the game, then caught a 47-yard pass in overtime to set up a game-winning field goal.
So it shouldn't be surprising that Gardner had the confidence to encourage head coach Joe Gibbs to throw him the ball during Monday night's 21-18 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
"Anytime I feel like I can beat the defender, or if it's a close game and the team needs a big play, I'll do that," Gardner said of his comments to Gibbs on the sidelines. "On Monday night, I just went up to coach and told him, 'Throw it to me. Give me a chance. I'll make it happen.'"
Gardner responded with a career-best 10 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, his 15-yard touchdown catch from Mark Brunell followed a 49-yard, over-the-shoulder catch down the left sideline. On the Redskins' final drive, Gardner hauled in a 46-yard reception again on the left sideline, but he was quickly tackled by Roy Williams. The game clock ran out before the Redskins could run another play.
Said Gibbs: "In that game, I turned around in the first quarter and you could tell--he said, 'I want that football. Give me that football.' I have been around real good receivers in the past where they've had a similar approach. I think Rod stepped up and gave it everything he could in the game.
"Rod is a big receiver (6-2, 213 pounds) and he's very physical with defenders. If you get the ball in his area, he's big enough to overpower some of the defensive backs. He's been very impressive."
Gardner and Laveranues Coles are tied for the team lead in receptions with 17 each. Gardner has 294 receiving yards, including a 51-yarder in the Week 2 game against the New York Giants.
For his career, Gardner has started 50 of 51 games and has 193 catches for 2,641 yards. He had a stellar 2002 season, catching 71 passes for 1,006 yards and eight touchdowns. But his numbers dipped to 46 receptions for 741 yards last year as Coles emerged as the offense's primary receiving threat.
"Rod has always had the talent," Coles said. "In the past, he felt like he wasn't getting the opportunity. In this offense, he's going to get his opportunities. It's reflective in the game plan.
"Rod was drafted in the first round [by the Redskins, 16th overall]. When a guy is drafted as high as he was drafted, the potential is always there. He's already had a 1,000-yard season. Right now he's taking the success in stride. He's going out in practice and pushing to get better."
Gardner believes the offense, ranked 15th overall with an average of 332.3 yards per game, is improving each week.
"We're making strides, but we're still making a few mistakes here and there," Gardner said. "We're working hard. Right now, I think we're still in the process of getting adjusted to the offense, with all of the new formations and shifts. We'll get it down."