With the Redskins forced to play out the string in the last few weeks of last season, players were relegated to finishing the year strong and building momentum for the 2005. Tight end Robert Royal, in particular, was one of those players who ended the year playing his best football of the season.
Royal came into training camp last summer buried on a depth chart that included seven tight ends. After cracking the starting lineup in Week 8 against the Green Bay Packers, Royal finished the season with eight catches for 70 yards and was third on the team with four touchdown catches.
By season's end, Royal was the primary tight end on the Redskins' roster--apart from newcomer Kori Dickerson and H-backs Chris Cooley, Brian Kozlowski and Mike Sellers. He enters the offseason expecting the team to continue to upgrade the tight end position, but remains hopeful that his hard work and dedication made an impression on coaches.
"A lot of things always happen in the offseason, but hopefully next season I'll fit in at the same place I left off at and that's as a starter," Royal said after the Redskins' season finale. "But I never worry about stuff like that. I let the coaches go out there and make the best decision they can. I just go out there to play hard."
In the Redskins' final five games, Royal caught all four of those touchdown catches while establishing himself as one of quarterback Patrick Ramsey's favorite targets in the red zone.
Royal's first touchdown catch of the season was also the first of his NFL career. It came in the second quarter of the Redskins' 31-7 rout of the New York Giants at FedExField in Week 13. After a blocked punt gave Washington superb field position, Ramsey rolled to his right on a second-down play and fired low to Royal, who slid and hauled in the pass in the end zone.
"I wasn't the primary receiver," Royal said of his first NFL touchdown. "I was the third option. It was a bootleg play, so Patrick usually will look at the slot guy first, then go back to the receiver, then back to me. I was open in the end zone, and he happened to see me, and I caught it."
In the Redskins' 26-16 win over the San Francisco 49ers two games later, Ramsey again connected with Royal for a touchdown. The Louisiana State product caught a 12-yard touchdown to cap a 10-play, 72-yard opening drive.
Royal found the end zone again the following week at Dallas with the Redskins trailing the Cowboys 6-3 in the fourth quarter. With Washington's offense marching toward the end zone after struggling to move the ball all game, Ramsey rolled right before finding Royal in the end zone from five yards out.
Ramsey and Royal duplicated the play in the season finale against Minnesota, with Royal scoring from four yards out for another touchdown.
Royal's late-season emergence was a positive sign for the offense. That Royal was healthy and on the field late in the year was a significant accomplishment in itself, considering that his first two NFL seasons ended prematurely due to injury. After being drafted in the fifth round of the 2002 draft, the 6-4, 252-pounder suffered a high ankle sprain.
Last season was effectively Royal's first in the NFL and it didn't last long. He started the first six games of the year before fracturing his hip in a loss to Tampa Bay. He had five receptions for 48 yards in 2003.
Playing time was at a premium during training camp last year because head coach Joe Gibbs opted to look at several tight ends. The group was divided into the H-backs, which often line up in the backfield, and the wide tight ends, which line up along the line of scrimmage. Royal is a wide tight end and began the year behind veterans Walter Rasby and Fred Baxter. Rasby and Baxter were eventually released, creating playing time for Royal.
"Robert is very conscientious and smart," Gibbs said. "He has worked extremely hard. Even when he wasn't starting, he was committed all the time in practice."
It was that commitment and work ethic in practice that earned Royal a chance to excel in Gibbs' offense.
"We kept seeing him out here making plays at practice," Gibbs said. "We think he is a young guy who really has some potential."