Forgetting about Chris Neild would’ve been easy.
After all, 252 players were picked before the big nose tackle April’s NFL draft. One selection separated Neild from Mr. Irrelevant, the moniker thrust on the draft’s last, lonely pick. But Neild was anything but irrelevant Sunday in his regular-season debut with the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
“I didn’t expect that,” Neild said, “at all.”
The big man couldn’t suppress a wide grin.
On a Redskins roster infused with youth — it includes nine rookies and 25 players with three years or fewer of NFL experience — Neild stood out. So did fellow rookie Ryan Kerrigan. While Neild was the Redskins‘ final pick of the draft, Kerrigan was the first.
“Man, rookies are coming in and making plays,” veteran outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “That’s what we need, guys with hungry attitudes.”
Starting at left outside linebacker, Kerrigan recorded perhaps the game’s pivotal play.
Three plays into the second half, the Giants faced a third-and-11 at their 18-yard line. When a lineman tried to cut block Kerrigan, he knew a quick pass was coming. Kerrigan dodged the block, then tipped Manning’s pass. Arms stretched as far as his 6-foot-4 frame allowed, Kerrigan pulled in the football and raced nine yards for a touchdown.
Not since Champ Bailey in October 1999 had a Redskins rookie returned an interception for a touchdown.
As the team’s defense mobbed him in celebration, Kerrigan couldn’t see anything. That stuck in his mind.
“That kind of set the tone for the second half,” said Kerrigan, who hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school. “We talked about that at halftime, that we needed to come out with more swagger and fly around, have more fun.
“Fortunately the ball found my hands. Twice.”
More unexpected was Neild’s play. A bemused look hung on his face in the locker room after the game, as rivers of sweat drained off his shaved head and into his thick beard. He recorded three sacks last season for West Virginia, none the previous season. Adjusting to the Redskins‘ one-gap system after using a two-gap approach at West Virginia hasn’t been easy.
But two sacks in his first NFL game? The right words escaped Neild to describe the unusual turn of events. His left bicep is home to a tattoo of a hand crushing a football. That was a good picture for what he did to Manning.
The backup to veteran nose tackle Barry Cofield first struck in the third quarter, bowling through the Giants‘ line and throwing down Manning for a 6-yard loss. That forced the Giants into third-and-15 and, eventually, a punt.
Neild didn’t expect to sleep Sunday night after the performance. Besides, there was film to watch from a night he couldn’t quite believe.
And it’s one day Neild won’t forget.