The voice mails on Carlos Rogers's cell phone Sunday night were all the same, a series of mixed messages covering an afternoon of disparate emotions. Rogers, the ninth overall pick in April's draft, had made a sizeable impact for the Washington Redskins, displacing veteran Walt Harris on defense in the second quarter, helping to limit one of the league's best passing attacks and registering his first NFL interception -- the first by any Redskins cornerback this season.
But the agony of another last-minute defeat, when Washington's defense failed to hold another 10-point, second-half lead, trumped any personal accolades, and did not go unnoticed by friends and former teammates who called. Each sentiment of congratulations for his performance was tinged with questions about what is going on with the Redskins (5-6), and why they keep blowing crucial games.
To that, Rogers, like so many other Redskins, has no explanation, which made the chore of having to return all of those calls more frustrating.
"They all asked me the same question," Rogers said, " 'Why can't we close out a game?' And I just said we have to go out and work harder. I feel good about my performance, but at the same time, it's a whole team, and we've still got to close the game when we've got a chance to close it, and as a whole we didn't do that, so as a result we lose."
One of the first phone calls came from Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams, a first-round pick who starred with Rogers at Auburn. The Buccaneers began Washington's three-game nosedive by scoring on a game-winning two-point conversion in the final seconds Nov. 13. Rogers got beat by wide receiver Edell Shepherd on a 46-yard, third-down pass that was pivotal to Tampa Bay's comeback, so Williams did not hesitate to give his friend some more grief Sunday. Miami running back Ronnie Brown, another Auburn first-round selection, was playing in Oakland while the Redskins' game against San Diego was ending, so he could not make an immediate phone call, but Brown, too, was well-versed in Washington's defensive collapses, since he had spent all week watching film of the Redskins' loss to the Raiders from the week before.
Rogers should get ample opportunities to try to help reverse the Redskins' losing ways. He started three games earlier this season when Harris was hurt, but now, with both healthy, Rogers appears to have risen up the depth chart, overcoming nagging ankle problems. Harris has struggled much of the season, and after conceding too much space on a reception and missing a few tackles early Sunday, Rogers replaced him in the lineup and Harris became the nickel (fifth) defensive back. There were no grand proclamations from the coaching staff about the changing of the guard -- "Coach just told me to go in and get Walt," Rogers said -- but he made the most of the opportunity.
"From Day One, when he got back healthy, I think he's looked really comfortable out there," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I think he feels like he belongs out there and he's a heck of an athlete. We all know how fast he can run, what kind of an athlete he is, and I think he's an all-around player. That's why we drafted him up there. I felt like in this game, I think he made a bunch of plays, and it was good seeing that."
The Redskins resisted the temptation to rely on Rogers too much, too soon, despite his high draft selection. Rogers's various preseason injury problems delayed his development as well, although given Harris's woes, some thought this switch might have come sooner. His teammates in the secondary believe that Rogers has served a successful apprenticeship.
"Carlos has been practicing in the base package since he came here," cornerback Shawn Springs said, "so it's not like it was new to him. Hopefully, it was just like practice to him. It's Week 12 or something like that, so I'm quite sure he's adjusted. He's not a rookie any longer; we've had too many practices now."
Rogers came close to nabbing his first interception early in the fourth quarter. He shadowed rookie wide receiver Vincent Jackson down the left sideline, stayed with him into the end zone and broke perfectly for the ball, pulling it down but letting it squirt free when he hit the ground. "Once I landed on my butt, it came out," Rogers said. "I thought we could have challenged it." San Diego ran the same route on the ensuing drive, with Keenan McCardell the receiver this time. Again Rogers read the play well, picked it off at the goal line and returned it 14 yards.
"They tried a taller guy the second time, McCardell, and he kind of did a stutter and go," Rogers said. "So I kind of had an idea they were trying to test me."
Rogers did not let the moment go by unannounced. He loves to trash talk, and has abundant self-confidence in his ability to play at this level despite his inexperience. Picking off a Pro Bowl quarterback, Drew Brees, for his first interception provided ample ammunition. "He believes in himself now and you've got to when you're playing that cornerback position because you're pretty much all alone out there," said linebacker Marcus Washington, a fellow Auburn product. "He talks a little bit; not too much, but a little bit."
After that interception, it seemed the Redskins should be able to put the game away by scoring again or running down the clock on offense, but they could not, and tailback LaDainian Tomlinson won it with two long runs. Rogers had the best, or worst, view in FedEx Field for the second of those runs, the one that gave San Diego the win in overtime.
He was sprinting toward the end zone, eyes focused on the ball in Tomlinson's arm, while the Pro Bowl back raced 41 yards for the game-winning score in overtime. As Tomlinson slowed over the final 10 yards, Rogers gained ground, but never got close enough to pop the ball loose.
"He's got a little speed on him," Rogers said, "but if we had maybe five more yards I maybe could have got that ball out. I was looking at it the whole time the way he was carrying it, but at the same time, it should have never come down to that point. We have to close games out when we have a chance."