RICHMOND — Bacarri Rambo wasn’t in the room when Mike Shanahan answered the question last September, a day after the Washington Redskins’ third consecutive loss to open the season, but the coach’s words surely found their way back to the rookie.
Rambo started the first two games of the season for Washington, then was dropped to the bench for the third. It was the Monday after that game that a presumably well-intentioned media member asked Shanahan how the team would keep Rambo’s spirits up.
“When he gets his opportunities, he’s got to take advantage of it — we’re not here to keep his spirits up,” Shanahan said. “When he does play special teams or whatever role you’re in, you better play it 100 percent and make some plays. If he doesn’t play anything on defense, he better play well on special teams and if you don’t play well on special teams and you’re not a starter on defense, then you won’t be dressing. So everybody’s got a role and it changes during the season.”
When Rambo spoke last week at Redskins training camp about learning the “business” part of the game last season, this is the kind of thing he was talking about.
Coming out of the weekend of the NFL draft, many lauded him as a great value pick for the Redskins in the sixth round — ESPN, for one, had projected him to go in the fourth. But when the lights came on and the observers who mattered began making their evaluations, Rambo’s star fell about as fast as it could have for a rookie handed a starting job from Week 1.
He didn’t play in Week 4 and was inactive the following two games. He made one more start the rest of the season, in Week 14 against the Chiefs, and was so ineffective that he was back on the inactive list the following two weeks.
Rambo might not have grasped it immediately, but no illusions remain a year later.
“It’s nothing like college,” he said. “You have to be on your ‘A’ game every day because the guy behind you’s trying to take your job.”
The question, then — the one that has consumed Rambo throughout an offseason spent puzzling over how to avoid repeating the ignominy of his rookie season — is what does he need to work on to earn back that starting job?
“Tackling,” he said.
Tackling. The essence of defense but a building block that crumbled in his hands last fall.
In college at Georgia, Rambo became known for his ball-hawking in the defensive backfield. He made 16 interceptions in four years, tying a school record. (All the more impressive considering he missed five games serving suspensions, including the first four games of his senior year.) His eight picks as a junior led to him earning first-team All-America honors from the Associated Press.
But there were signs in the SEC that he might have trouble running down players in the open field. His pre-draft profile on NFL.com listed among his weaknesses: “… will be eluded by quicker ballcarriers at the next level.” That issue surfaced even last preseason, when Rambo missed Titans running back Chris Johnson in space on what became a 58-yard touchdown run.
Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett diagnosed Rambo’s problem at the time as being mostly about finding the proper angles, and that teaching point has been hammered home ever since. To the extent that you can hear Rambo visualizing even as he talks.
“I’ll be there, I’ll be in position,” he said. “I’ve just got to learn to just shoot, just go, just try to grab a body part and try to get him down and live to see another down.”
More difficult than it sounds at the NFL level, for sure, but it really is that simple for Rambo. He still has the physical tools the Redskins appreciated when they drafted him, and there’s no question he’s more mentally ready heading into this season than last. But he has to get it done on the field.
Though Haslett and defensive backs coach return from last season, along with veteran mentors like DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather, Rambo might take some solace in new coach Jay Gruden expressing patience when it comes to the 24-year-old’s work.
“Certain guys handle things differently, but don’t expect a Pro Bowler by a rookie safety — it’s hard,” Gruden said last month when asked about Rambo. “It takes a year or two or three sometimes for those guys to pick up everything Coach Haslett wants him do or Raheem wants him to do.
“He’s got great ball skills. He’s not afraid to tackle. He’s got to do a better job tackling. Obviously we missed too many tackles as group last year, not just him but everybody, so we think he is progressing nicely.”
Kinder words there than were uttered about him last September, but Rambo knows they’ll mean nothing if he can’t follow through.
“I’ve grown up a lot since last year, and I’m ready for this season,” he said. “I’ve got a point to prove; that’s the main thing that I focus on, that I have a point to prove. A lot of people think I can’t tackle, that I’m not aggressive, so I’m just going to go out there and do whatever I’ve got to do to show them.”