One moment, Carlos Rogers looked every bit like the ninth overall pick of the NFL draft, reading the eyes of the quarterback, anticipating a pass and coolly collecting an interception three possessions into his professional debut. Two drives later, he was just another rookie trying to find his way in a man's game, dangling at the mercy of passer Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals' speedy receivers.
Simply participating in this game was an accomplishment for Rogers, who missed the first two weeks of training camp because of an ankle injury and only returned to practice this week. He was the darling of the Washington Redskins' defense in the first quarter of this 24-17 preseason defeat at FedEx Field, as his interception set up the team's first touchdown. His confidence was soaring -- evidenced by the strut in his step after breaking up passes intended for star wideout Chad Johnson and his skillful accomplice, T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- but by the second quarter Rogers's body language conveyed a very different reality.
By then, the Bengals were clearly picking on the rookie, and one play after Houshmandzadeh breezed past him down the sideline only to drop a certain touchdown pass, Cincinnati called the same play for Kelley Washington, who sprinted past Rogers in identical fashion and easily caught a 45-yard bomb to tie the score at 7. The experience was a primer for Rogers on life in the NFL, with early evidence of how good he may become, and how far he must progress to get there.
"I knew to expect that, I knew they were going to come after me," Rogers said. "I'm a rookie out there; I'm a target. They look on the other side and see number 24 [veteran corner Shawn Springs] and look on my side and number 22: I know they're coming after me."
Rogers, a first-team all-American as a senior at Auburn and the recipient of the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, was not expected to be starting so soon, but a rash of injuries in the defensive backfield caused coaches to give him a heavy dose of what it is like to face a talented offensive team. With star corners Fred Smoot and Champ Bailey departed, Rogers is the future, and the expectation is that he would begin his NFL career as the nickel back behind Springs and steady veteran Walt Harris. But Harris has struggled with a quadriceps injury, Ade Jimoh has stumbled since getting a chance to start and Rogers benefited from all of that last night.
"I think he did really good," Springs said. "That was a tough group of receivers to start off with, and it was good to see that he wasn't nervous. He did a good job. I was so happy he got the pick."
Rogers never appeared overwhelmed early in the game, staying with Houshmandzadeh on several patterns and shadowing Johnson, named to the last two pro Bowls, when the Bengals switched him away from Springs to get a more favorable matchup. Rogers's illegal-contact penalty gave the Bengals a first down on a third and 17 from the 9, but eight plays later the drive died in Rogers's arms as he sat back in a cover-2 zone, broke on the ball, pulled down Palmer's errant pass and danced 30 yards on the return. "I recognized that play from practice," Rogers said. "The quarterback didn't see me, and I picked it."
When Springs left the game with many of the other starters, the Bengals targeted Rogers. In the span of a few plays his vulnerability became evident. Johnson eluded Rogers for an eight-yard grab on third and seven, and Palmer went after the rookie again on the following play, with Houshmandzadeh failing to pull in the pass after gaining several steps on Rogers down the left sideline. Washington lined up against Rogers next, and he pulled away from the cornerback as well, gliding into the end zone with Rogers chasing hopelessly.
"I'm coming off two or three practices, so I was a little winded," Rogers said. "I feel good. Other than just being a little winded, I had no problems."