By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Even with his strained quadriceps throbbing as he stood on the sideline after an 80-yard kickoff return Sunday against Arizona, Rock Cartwright still wanted the ball. Cartwright, who is having a breakthrough season in the Washington Redskins' return game, lobbied Coach Joe Gibbs and special teams coach Danny Smith for another opportunity to run with the ball, but team doctors quickly quashed that notion.
Unable to sprint and forced to relinquish kickoff duties, Cartwright still contributed on the punting team, serving as a personal protector for punter Derrick Frost. Cartwright, a fierce tackler on special teams, is trusted by Smith to set the protection and make calls on punts. With the Redskins locked in a close game and already having had one punt blocked, his presence on the field was essential regardless of his condition.
"I couldn't really move too much. There wasn't that burst there," Cartwright said.
Most of Cartwright's contributions have been of the selfless, intangible sort, but his success in the return game has been impossible to overlook and will be critical Sunday against New England. The question, of course, is whether he will be able to play. Although Cartwright says his status is day-to-day, he is eager to face the undefeated Patriots and coaches figure they will have a hard time keeping him off the field.
"He's a leader at practice, and a lot of times on a football team it's the unselfish guys" who lead, Coach Joe Gibbs said. "A lot of times what he does is jump in there and run the other team's plays when he doesn't have to. He jumps in and spells his buddies. He plays great on teams.
"I feel bad to be quite truthful. I think if we played him at running back, he'd make a lot of yards. I think he's a real Redskin, and I think he kind of knows how we feel about him. And as a return guy, I couldn't pick somebody else back there I'd want."
Cartwright's role off the field has grown with his prominence on it. He was elected by his teammates to the leadership committee that routinely meets with Gibbs to discuss the state of the team and he has joined the NFL's elite in kick returns. Averaging 29.2 yards per return, Cartwright ranks fifth in the NFL and leads the NFC. The Redskins are second in the NFL -- to New England -- in average starting point after kickoffs (32.7-yard line).
Cartwright was likely headed to his second career return for a touchdown -- he had a 100-yard return against Dallas last year -- had he not pulled his quad near the end of the 80-yard run that opened the second half on Sunday.
"When you see the end zone, your eyes get so big and you're trying to get there, so it's really frustrating," said Cartwright, an undersize tailback and seventh-round pick out of Kansas State in 2002. "You work so hard to get that opportunity and to seize the momentum, and I wasn't able to seize the momentum. Maybe next time I'll stretch a little more at halftime or something, but I know whenever you've got the opportunity you have to try to put it in the end zone."
Last year Cartwright stabilized what had been a rotating cast of returners under Gibbs, with Chad Morton getting cut after the 2004 season, and tailback Ladell Betts and erratic Antonio Brown sharing the role in 2005. Betts became a featured running back in 2006, however, and Cartwright took over regular return duties, averaging 24.1 yards. Teammates liked his no-frills style -- he doesn't care for lateral theatrics or fancy moves, preferring to run directly to the first opening he sees -- because it makes him easier to block for.
"Guys are getting on their man and giving Rock creases to get up into, and he's hitting that full speed," special teams standout Demetric Evans said. "It's comforting to have a guy like that back there, especially when you've been a part of a play where he took it 100 yards against Dallas. And if he hadn't pulled up, he would have taken it 100 yards again [Sunday]. You always want to put that [video] tape out there so the other teams know this guy is a threat every time he touches the ball."
Other NFC scouts have noted his ability to run through arm tackles and bounce off tackles, but this season he has been stronger and more consistent. Cartwright doesn't make highlight films like Chicago's Devin Hester -- who had five combined punt and kickoff touchdowns last season -- but he is averaging six yards more per kick return than Hester.
"I've got so much faith in the guys in front of me, and I know they're going to make the blocks," Cartwright said. "They trust me and I trust them and that just comes with us playing together a couple of years now."
Cartwright would love the chance to participate on offense (he had a 100-yard rushing game in 2005), but has re-signed here in the past despite knowing his opportunities at running back behind Betts and Clinton Portis will be scant. But his strong season could lead to impending free agency. According to league sources, Cartwright has a clause in his contact that, should he average 24.2 yards per return or make 25 special-teams tackles this season, the final two years of his contract would be voided and he could hit the open market in March.
He is on pace to trigger that clause on both counts, but like many players in a league of non-guaranteed contracts, teammates say the uncertainty plays on Cartwright's mind, particularly in a role where injuries are prevalent. After allowing several key players to get away, the Redskins have been more proactive in the past year about retaining potential free agents, giving new deals to players such as Betts, fullback Mike Sellers and tight end Chris Cooley.
In 2003, before Gibbs arrived, the Redskins gave Morton a $2.5 million bonus as a restricted free agent, and Cartwright has already exceeded what Morton did in two seasons. Cartwright has not had any contract talks with the Redskins this season, league sources said, although he would like nothing more than to find security with the team.
"It's just a joy to go out and play week in and week out and try to show what I can do, and I would love to get something taken care of," Cartwright said. "In the NFL you kind of learn that you have to deal with uncertainty, but I would love to continue my career here and possibly sign a long-term deal and be here for a while. But that's not up to me. I would love to get something like that done, but as of right now I don't know what the future is for me. I just do everything I possibly can every week and hope everything works out in the end."