“I think I’m ready,” Ryan Kerrigan said that day. “But I guess I won’t know till I do it.”
The combinations of letters and numbers on those whiteboards — all the blitzes and coverages the Redskins would employ against the New York Giants in the season opener, perhaps 70 percent of their overall defensive playbook — represented the essence of the 3-4 defensive scheme employed by Washington Coach Mike Shanahan and his defensive coordinator, Jim Haslett. But they also represent the current state of professional football.
The NFL, in its 92nd season, has never been more complicated. Thirty years ago — when Shanahan was still coaching in college and Haslett was still playing linebacker in the NFL — offenses altered their formations only nominally, and defenses played almost exclusively man-to-man coverage. There weren’t systems that ran four receivers and no running backs on one play, two running backs and two wideouts on the next, dictating drastic defensive changes. Defenses didn’t counter with expertly disguised zone blitzes, with basketball-style coverages in which a linebacker might hand off his responsibility for a receiver to a safety, with packages using as many as six defensive backs. Game plans were built more on broad concepts — maybe we’ll throw more than usual, maybe we’ll run more to the right, but we’ll sure as heck perfect what we do — than on carefully dissected analysis, on scripts and playbooks that, each week, run hundreds of pages.
“If you really sat down and looked at the video then compared to now,” Shanahan said, “you’d almost just laugh at what you’re able to do now.”
Into this world, not two months ago, stepped Kerrigan, a chiseled-from-granite pass rusher — 6 feet 4, 267 pounds, his does-he-even-shave-yet face obscuring maturity that those who know him back home in Indiana believed would help his transition.
“He’s just a sponge,” said Gary Emanuel, the defensive line coach during Kerrigan’s senior season at Purdue.
“His football IQ, it just helps him fit in so quickly” said John Hochstetler, his coach at Muncie Central High.
No draft pick, for any team in any round, is chosen without considering such characteristics. Outside linebacker, in the Redskins’ scheme, “is probably the toughest position to play — mentally,” Shanahan said. As the Redskins screened players they might select with the 16th choice in last April’s draft, they brought in Kerrigan for a tour of Redskins Park and, essentially, a job interview. He had been a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment — four down linemen and three linebackers — all through college. Would he be able to handle all the Redskins would ask of him — adjusting to a new strategy, a new position, a new life?