By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008
The ligaments in his right knee, repaired so carefully with a surgeon's tools last fall, would never fully be tested until a game mattered. So it came to Thursday night in the first game of the season, and if there ever was a time for Carlos Rogers to trust that those stitches and attachments were in perfect working order, this was it.
For a moment, he held his breath. Then he ran, legs pumping across the artificial turf at a gait unlike any he had tried since he first came off the crutches. He stopped. He ran again. And eventually, as the first game of the season wore on, the worry went away. He was healthy again. He knew it. And the feeling was good.
There are, in football, different kinds of speeds. And when you are returning from an injury as devastating as the one Rogers suffered Oct. 28 in New England -- when both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee were torn -- there is a natural disinclination to completely trust your health ever again.
For Rogers, the Washington Redskins' cornerback, the long training camp and preseason games were a test. But somehow, no matter how hard you work in training camp or in the exhibition games, you will never stretch yourself as far, or push a limit quite like the regular season. This is when you know whether you can ever feel right trying to do the spectacular.
On Thursday, it took Rogers a full defensive series before he knew.
"It's something you can't worry about," he said Friday after the Redskins' 16-7 loss to the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. "You just have to play. You got to believe it will be fine."
Of course, the first series was the one that helped do in Washington last week. And in that first Giants possession was a play on which New York wide receiver Plaxico Burress was wide open on a 30-yard pass from Eli Manning that came on a blown coverage by Rogers. Add in the 19-yard catch Burress made just in front of Rogers and this was the bulk of the Giants' offense in those first few moments. Once the series was over and Rogers knew his knee would be fine, New York did not score another touchdown and Burress was not as important a factor as he was in those first moments.
That shows just how important a healthy Rogers is to the Redskins. A first-round pick in 2005, he has teased with his potential, at times providing blanket coverage and dropping interceptions at others. His failure to completely blossom is part of why the Redskins signed Fred Smoot before last season, giving the team three starting cornerbacks for two spots. But Rogers said that he felt himself developing into the more dominant player in the first seven games last fall before he was hurt.
On Thursday, he had two interceptions on his hands and couldn't hold on to either. This could be looked at one of two ways: either as him once again dropping passes that could change games or as another sign of development -- that he had put himself in position to get more interceptions, something that might come once he feels more comfortable with his knee.
Just a few days before the Giants game, Coach Jim Zorn raved about Rogers, praising him for following the team-mandated rehabilitation plan through the winter and spring.
"He has looked very explosive and looked very ready to run all out," Zorn said. "There's been no hesitation at all."
A healthy and improved Rogers is essential for the Redskins. With offensive line problems and what appears to be a laborious process for quarterback Jason Campbell in both mastering the West Coast offense and adjusting to everything Zorn is teaching him, Washington will need its defense to be borderline spectacular. Already calf problems seem to be slowing Shawn Springs, which puts extra pressure on Rogers and Smoot to hold down the top pass catchers in a division that has several. The Redskins can absolutely not afford to be beaten on too many plays. Their offense may not be able to overcome deficits of 10 or more points -- at least early in the season.
If Rogers doesn't have to worry about his knee, that will go a long way toward giving Washington a little comfort at a position that has the potential to be one of the team's great strengths.
The injury to Springs forced Rogers to play more than he expected on Thursday. Through the preseason he had been brought along slowly, he expected the same would happen on the first night. When he wound up playing most of the game and came out of it without any great pain, he was elated.
"We're going to be one of the best secondaries in the league," he said Friday. "These guys were all top draft picks. We can be one of the top."