Vertically challenged, he came to Washington as a low-round draft choice with aspirations of starting. Instead, he made his mark on special teams and wound up outlasting every player on the Redskins when he arrived. That describes ex-Redskins great Brian Mitchell, but also fits Rock Cartwright, Washington’s current jack of all trades, pretty well.
The 257th choice in the 2002 draft, the 5-foot-7 Cartwright has started just three games in his five seasons, but only Jon Jansen, Chris Samuels, Ethan Albright, Lemar Marshall and Renaldo Wynn have been in Washington longer. Though Cartwright has touched the ball on offense only 175 times, he has been valuable. In his first year as Washington’s main kickoff returner, Cartwright has 1,160 yards — more than any Redskin except Mitchell has accumulated in a season.
“A lot of people get caught up in where you’re drafted or what school you’re from, but it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you are,” said Mitchell, a fifth-rounder in 1990 who is still the NFL’s all-time returns leader. “But Rock’s like me. He doesn’t back down from anyone. One thing that makes you a good kickoff returner is being fearless because guys are running 65 yards full-speed trying to take you out. There’s no more hard-nosed Redskin than Rock.”
Coach Joe Gibbs, who was wowed when former college option quarterback Mitchell returned the first kickoff he handled in a preseason NFL game for a touchdown, can’t say enough about Cartwright.
“There’s a guy who could be upset about his role, be pouting, but he does everything he can in practice,” Gibbs said. “Rock’s a consummate pro.”
Cartwright, who ran for 118 yards on nine carries last year at St. Louis, hasn’t had more than five touches on offense in any other game during Gibbs’ three seasons, might not be pouting, but he is frustrated at his inactivity.
“My approach to the game is that when I’m out there, ain’t nobody better than me,” Cartwright said. “If I ever had the opportunity to run the ball more than one game, I think I could produce. In 2003, I was the best in the NFL on third-and-1 [11 out of 14]. After St. Louis, where we started our roll, you didn’t see any more of me [three carries during the final four games]. I’m very versatile. You plug me in any position except quarterback or the line and I can help. I can make plays, but we really only use two backs. I just go out and use that negative energy towards something positive.”
Last week was proof of that. Cartwright blocked a punt for the first time in his career and returned kickoffs.
Cartwright returned just 16 kickoffs during his first four years in the NFL and not at all in high school in Conroe, Texas — where he rushed for 2,060 yards as a senior — or as a 260-pound fullback at Trinity (Texas) Community College or as a 240-pound fullback at Kansas State. However, when starting running back Clinton Portis separated his shoulder in the preseason opener, Ladell Betts moved into that role. Burly T.J. Duckett became the No. 2 back while Cartwright, now 217 pounds, took over the kickoff return duties vacated by Betts. Cartwright took the ball and ran with it.
He returned a kickoff 100 yards for Washington’s only touchdown in Week 2 at Dallas and is tied for fourth in the NFC with a 24.2-yard average heading into Sunday’s game at Philadelphia. At his current 96.7 yards a game, Cartwright is set to break Mitchell’s 12-year-old team record of 1,478 yards in the season finale.
“Being the biggest guy or being the fastest guy doesn’t equate to being a good football player,” Betts said. “It’s how you play on game day. Rock is one of those guys coaches love, a true team guy, a guy you can always count on. You can throw him in anywhere: special teams, kickoff return, running back, fullback and he can play it. You know he’s always going to give you his best effort. Rock eats, sleeps and lives football. He’s fiery, full of heart and competitive.”
He’s also an inspiration to those whose height doesn’t measure up to NFL standards.
“You should see the amount of fan mail I get and all the people who come up to me when I speak in the community,” Cartwright said. “One high school student asked me, ‘I’m 5-3. Do you think I have an opportunity to play?’ I told him they can’t measure the size of your heart.”