By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006
Rocky McIntosh has spent a half-season on the bench before, only then nobody noticed. The Washington Redskins' rookie linebacker was a freshman at Miami in 2002 and did not begin playing regularly that season until the final four games. Once he grabbed that starting job, however, McIntosh never let go, starting in the national championship game that season. He is waiting patiently for his time to come again.
Thus far, McIntosh has not been given a chance to play, paying his dues on special teams while stuck behind struggling weak-side linebacker Warrick Holdman on the defensive depth chart. Learning assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams's complex scheme has been challenging for many veteran free agents, so for McIntosh to progress slowly was expected. For him to have not played on defense at all -- even in pass-rush or third-down situations -- has surprised some around the league, though.
"The same thing happened to me when I first got to Miami," McIntosh said. "They had an older guy there and he was doing well and with a thing like that all you can do is be patient and wait for my opportunity."
Washington, with a predilection for players who played college football at Miami, identified linebacker as a key need in the offseason and traded up in the second round of the draft to ensure they could select McIntosh, giving up a sixth-round pick last April and a second-round pick in 2007.
McIntosh has received more practice time with the first-team defense recently with starters injured, but even the prolonged struggles of Washington's defense, ranked 26th overall in the NFL, and the team's fading playoff hopes have not been enough to prompt his promotion.
McIntosh was a playmaker in the preseason, opening eyes with his knack for getting to the ball and punishing tackling style, but the coaches believe that while he adapts to the defense, special teams is where he belongs. Linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said before the bye that he could see "the switch go on" for McIntosh when watching him on return and coverage teams, adapting to the speed of the game, taking proper angles on ballcarriers, fighting off blocks and making tackles.
"I think every play you make that's a really good play up here is a confidence-builder for you," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Certainly, you'd think a young linebacker, one of the things you count on them doing is special teams, and certainly I think [special teams coach Danny Smith] is counting on him. He's made plays almost every week and he's getting much more settled in and at home, and hopefully he's going to be here for a long time and play a lot of defense for us, too."
All of that bodes well for McIntosh's future, but this staff also prizes experience.
Williams has often sought players who already had strong ties to his scheme or coaches, and former first-round pick LaVar Arrington was banished to the bench for much of last season because coaches said he wasn't familiar enough with the playbook. Their willingness to exile a three-time Pro Bowler for such reasons may be the strongest indication of the import of mastering this system.
"I talk all the time about when the boat sails, be on it," Williams said. "You've got to be ready to go. . . . It's easy for all of a sudden to say, 'Hey, Gregg, go ahead and put this guy in.' But the other guys have got to play beside him, and they've got to be comfortable playing alongside him, too."
Linebackers are the lifeblood of Williams's scheme and must be able to make adjustments immediately. When they appear lost, deviate from the system or blow an assignment, the entire defense can crumble. Backup middle linebacker Khary Campbell honed his knowledge on special teams for 2 1/2 years before finally playing in place of injured linebacker Lemar Marshall in Week 7. He can relate to McIntosh.
"He can run fast, he has lot of ability and he's learning the defense a lot more than what he picked up during training camp," Campbell said. "He has improved a lot, but it's hard for me to say where he is when I know I have a ways to go myself in this defense. You can never really tell until he gets that opportunity."
There is no set timetable for his indoctrination to the defense, so McIntosh is embracing his role on special teams. "It's fun," he said. "You get to run down the field as fast as you can and try to hit somebody." Occasionally, McIntosh even gets to make contact with a starter from another team, an even more enticing proposition. "You want to hit them a couple of times and try to let them know who you are," McIntosh said. "That's what I try to do."
McIntosh is intent upon making a similar impression on his coaches over time, working hard in the classroom and in practices. "You have to know what they want you to do and how they want you to do it," he said.
To some, sitting out two months might seem difficult, but to others, seven games as a reserve is elementary. Campbell, a former undrafted free agent, was in the league more than four full seasons before getting his first start.
"When you're behind someone you really have to excel at what your responsibility is, whether that's special teams or whatever," Campbell said. "You have to make them recognize you being able to take it to the next level, however long that takes."