By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007
For nearly all of the last season, during which a once-feared defense plummeted in the league rankings and teams consistently exploited the same weaknesses, the inability of prized rookie Rocky McIntosh to get on the field raised the kind of red flags players and talent evaluators want to avoid.
The Redskins traded two draft day picks to the New York Jets in 2006 to acquire McIntosh, so why wasn't he playing? Wasn't he better than incumbent weak-side linebacker Warrick Holdman, who was consistently beaten in coverage and to whose side teams pounded their running games?
During last season, after each game he could not unseat Holdman, McIntosh would demur, saying only he was trying to improve and help the team. He trusted the decisions of the coaching staff, he said, and if playing special teams was where they thought he was at his best, then so be it.
But after yesterday's second day of this weekend's three-day minicamp, McIntosh is now an important member of a defense intent on regaining its swagger. Assistant head coach Gregg Williams singled out McIntosh prominently, and while Williams does not often like to place labels on his players, McIntosh is the expected starter.
"Everything they're telling me sounds good to me, just being out there and able to play," McIntosh said. "They expect a lot out of me, and I want to show them what I got."
For the first time in McIntosh's brief Redskins career, Williams has acknowledged he is quickly growing into the player they hoped would line up across from strong-side linebacker Marcus Washington.
"If I had to choose a person that has worked almost as hard as Jason Campbell, it's Rocky," Williams said. "He's been here on weekends, and every single day of the week. The things I thought he had approached with hesitancy last year, he has a better understanding of. We're only in shorts, but his speed and anticipation of the opponent's offensive concepts has been outstanding."
McIntosh, considered one of the defense's more gifted athletes, has begun to show a comfort level he didn't have last season. He started one game, a 37-31 overtime loss in St. Louis on Dec. 24 and, by his own admission, did not feel comfortable in coverage schemes. This year, McIntosh is counting on the convergence of his athletic talent and knowledge of the game.
"Last year the wheels were turning so fast," he said. "This year they're turning a little bit slower because I put in more time towards it. So it's making me a lot better. At first it was just getting out there and getting some experience out there. Now I've got a few games last year, and now the ball is rolling and I've just got to roll with it."
Part of the reason for McIntosh's improvement is his film study and dedication to his craft. According to the coaches, only Campbell has spent more time in the video room.
"That was a big priority for me in the offseason, just being here getting comfortable and getting ready for everything," he said. "Jason was here a lot, and I was here, just out here learning."
Said Williams: "I'm always going to be the way I'm going to be. The player has to go out and want it more than we do. He's flipped the switch, and the credit goes only to him."
But equally important is the change in linebacker coaches from Dale Lindsey to Kirk Olivadotti. McIntosh did not appear to thrive under the gruff Lindsey, who could be withering in his constant criticisms.
Olivadotti is "a younger type, and we can go out there and relate to him a little bit more," McIntosh said. "He's a student of the game, and he knows a lot of stuff and loves to teach us."
If Williams is impressed with McIntosh, so are teammates, who can see the improvement.
"You can see the comfort factor on the defense," linebacker Khary Campbell said. "A lot of times you break the huddle after a play is called, and he might get jittery. There would be a lot of wasted motion. This year, you can see him reading better. It's all about practice and getting the reps. The more reps he got on special teams, the better he got. This year, he's the starter. It's his job, and you can see that in how he carries himself."
If there is a red flag on McIntosh, it is physical. He dropped out of the first round of the 2006 draft amid questions about his knees. The Chicago Bears, who sought McIntosh in a trade with the Redskins for franchised linebacker Lance Briggs in March, were aware of McIntosh's knees but were not concerned enough to avoid him. There is a concern, McIntosh acknowledged, that his knees might suffer from a degenerative condition
"I'm not worrying about my knees. It's just a mental thing," he said. "I've got to tune those things out, and if I get a nick or a bruise, tune it out and go out and play."