ASHBURN, Va. -- When Washington Redskins receiver Albert Connell shattered the club's record for the 40-yard dash, he still heard that team officials doubted his ability to become a legitimate deep threat.
When he vowed to catch 80 balls this season, Connell learned that the Redskins were continuing their pursuit of every big-name disgruntled wide-out.
But with no other viable alternative, the Redskins stuck with Connell. Luckily for the club, the fastest Redskin has shaken off skeptics as easily as he has NFL cornerbacks.
In his first full-time starting role, Connell has starred as an acrobatic playmaker in the league's No. 1 offense, ranking fourth in the NFC with 241 yards on 13 catches after three weeks.
"I want to go out there and prove they're wrong every play," Connell said. "It was nothing but talk this whole off-season about how the Redskins don't have proven receivers and they need to bring another guy in. But since I've been showing what I can do, I don't hear anybody talking now."
Actually, the elusive, 6-foot, 179-pound receiver has been hearing a lot of whistles, drawing seven pass-interference penalties as defensive backs attempt to slow him down.
Since Michael Westbrook lines up on the other side of the Redskins' offense, opponents risk rolling coverage away from Connell, but may start to rethink that strategy.
When given single coverage, Connell will stretch defenses with the "Eight Route" -- the Redskins' post pattern -- using the same speed that allowed him to cover 40 yards in 4.4 seconds, the fastest time by a Redskin in six years of electronic timing.
So cornerbacks now have two choices: watch Connell score a touchdown or grab hold of him.
"I'm not being conceited, but I don't care if it's Pro Bowl cornerbacks in the league or the Deions; I can beat anybody in this league," said Connell, a 1997 fourth-round pick by the Redskins. "That's what I go out thinking, and basically I do it. So far, so good."
Last week against the New York Jets, quarterback Brad Johnson threw to Connell five times in the eight-play, game-winning drive. He caught three passes and cornerback Ray Mickens was flagged twice for interference, all of which accounted for 74 of the 80 yards in that series.
A moment of vindication occurred a day later, when coach Norv Turner awarded him the game ball for offense.
"The thing I most admire about him is that he's taking advantage of his opportunity," Redskins receiver Irving Fryar said. "He knows this is it and he's playing magnificently.
That chance at replacing departed starter Leslie Shepherd almost didn't surface, and Connell made it clear how he felt.
When the Redskins lured Fryar out of retirement, Connell frowned on the move initially, fearing his promotion would be short-lived. And when the team attempted to trade for Seattle's Joey Galloway as recently as two weeks ago, Connell distanced himself from reporters and refused to talk about the issue.
Anyone doubting his seriousness should take a look at his right leg, which has Connell's favorite of his 14 tattoos. It shows a clown whose mouth is stuffed with a football, with the words "No Joke" written above.
"He's a very confident guy," said Terry Robiskie, the passing game coordinator. "He believes he can play, and he goes out and proves it. He's always had that confidence from Day One."
Connell, a former basketball star, has a 42-inch vertical leap, and he soars for passes like they were rebounds. In fact, Connell scored his only touchdown of the season in the season-opener against Dallas when he jumped high in the air and ripped the ball away from two Cowboys defenders for a 50-yard score.
That reception was one of four this season that Connell has caught for more than 20 yards, and he said there will be more in the weeks ahead.
"If you're an athlete and you don't have goals, then what's the use of being an athlete?" Connell said. "It doesn't make any sense to say you can't do something. I have big goals and know what I can do. I believe I can catch 80-plus [balls]. You have to set high expectations."
Pub Date: 10/01/99