By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Visions of glory flashed before Carlos Rogers's eyes. The errant pass from Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was in his hands. He would tuck the ball and run untouched into the end zone, giving the Washington Redskins an early lead in the NFC second-round playoff game. The Redskins would go on to win and play the following weekend for the chance to reach the Super Bowl in the cornerback's rookie season.
Then he dropped the ball.
There was no interception and no victory -- the Seahawks won, 20-10 -- and no more football for Rogers or the Redskins last season. By no means was Rogers -- whose first NFL season had been a resounding success -- responsible for the loss, but the hard-luck play lingered as the defining moment of Rogers's career to date. The lost opportunity was one that would haunt him in the offseason and remind him just how much work lay ahead. It also provided motivational material for Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense.
"We need for him to make plays," Williams said. "He's athletic enough to make plays around the ball and he has very good hand skills, but I'm still on him for that one he dropped in Seattle. I'm still on him for that one. I mean, there's no excuse for that one. He dropped it in the flat; he should have walked in [to the end zone] to start that playoff game."
Had Rogers wanted to blot out the memory -- he didn't, by the way -- Williams would have offered more reminders. As it was, Rogers heard about the drop during minicamp and in meetings and before practices.
"That's something I think about all the time," Rogers said. "After practice I catch balls every day, and that's something that's going to help me out, just getting the feel of it and progressing my game. That was a big play I could have had to turn around the game. You never know the outcome, but you never know what could have happened if I made that catch for a TD. That's one thing I've got to work on, and he's always going to get on me about it."
Big things are expected of Rogers, the ninth overall pick in 2005. With premier cornerback Shawn Springs sidelined at least another three to five weeks as he recovers from abdominal surgery, Rogers stands to enter the season as the No. 1 cornerback. Given the relative impenetrability of Washington's run defense, teams may opt to go downfield more often. There may be ample opportunity to make plays; in any event, the time to learn gradually as an understudy has passed.
Rogers, 25, began last season as the nickel back behind veteran Walt Harris and got his first start in the third game when injuries struck the secondary. He started five regular season games and both playoff games, but missed four games with injuries. The 6-foot, 195-pound Rogers finished the season with two interceptions and two forced fumbles, but the games he missed loomed large with the coaches, including a stretch after he took a freakish hit on his arm against Arizona. Rogers also had missed much of the 2005 offseason workout program recovering from a stress fracture in his foot and was hampered by ailments in training camp.
"Carlos needs to show us that he can stay healthy for 16, 18, 20, 22 games," Williams said. "He's not a fragile person by any means. Carlos doesn't give quarter to anybody, and that's what we want our corners to do. And with [new cornerbacks coach] Jerry Gray, I think Carlos will have the best year that he's had at a college level or here, too."
Physical football is the only game Rogers knows. It was hammered into him through high school, and at Auburn. Just backpedaling and covering receivers was not enough. He had to be able to step up and crack the ballcarrier in run support. He had to be able to blitz and crunch the quarterback. That would seem to be a perfect fit for the Redskins' hybrid attacking scheme, and Williams sees Rogers as a modern version of heavy-hitting defensive back Steve Jackson, now the Redskins' safeties coach.
"Carlos is definitely the total package," Jackson said. "Whatever is asked of him, he does it. You say, 'Be physical,' and he's physical. You say, 'Cover,' he covers. I'd like to see him realize that he's better even than he gives himself credit for."
In Gray, a longtime friend of Williams who played for and coached with him, Rogers has a role model. He has an intimate understanding of the system, and during their first meeting he told the youngster that he has the talent to spend each February in Hawaii, courtesy of a selection to the Pro Bowl. That Gray was a four-time all-pro cornerback gives him instant credibility.
"He knows so much that I don't know," Rogers said. "It helps me a lot."
Gray had Rogers rated as the best cornerback available in the 2005 draft when he was defensive coordinator in Buffalo. He wasn't just a bump-and-run specialist; Rogers saw the whole field and could pressure the passer. Gray works to instill every fundamental foot and hand technique as a base, complementing Rogers's natural talent.
"I think he's learning more about the entire game of football," Gray said. "You can't really start making plays until you really know what's going on. There's always underlying aspects. What does this team like to do? What is this offensive coordinator's attitude about the game? It's my job to teach those guys that."
There was one lesson Gray never had to mention. If the ball hits you in the hands, hold on to it.