The first time Kam Curl announced his presence to the casual football fan, he made an emphatic play in a hauntingly silent stadium.
Last Dec. 13, on the final play of the third quarter of Washington's game against the San Francisco 49ers in Glendale, Arizona, Curl stepped in front of a Nick Mullens sideline throw, picked it off and began racing down the left sideline. During his 76-yard trip to the end zone the rookie strong safety, a seventh-round draft pick pressed into service because of a season-ending injury to three-time Pro Bowl selection Landon Collins, wondered if his first career touchdown would even count.
"It was kind of weird," Curl recalled Thursday. "It was so quiet. I was running toward the end zone thinking, 'I hope they didn't blow the whistle,' cause no one was making any noise."
It turned out that Curl's fear was unfounded: Though COVID-19 restrictions had prevented any fans from witnessing the play in person, the points from his pick six indeed went up on the scoreboard -- and played a pivotal role in the victory that put Washington in charge of the NFC East race.
Now, for the second consecutive season, Curl has helped spark a stunning second-half turnaround that has lifted Washington back into the NFC playoff picture. Earlier this season, his emergence prompted defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to start deploying Collins closer to the line of scrimmage as a "Buffalo" linebacker. In the wake of Curl's tremendous November, there's a stampede of praise coming his way.
Three weeks ago, Curl put an emphatic hit on Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Jaelon Darden, setting up teammate William Jackson III’s tone-setting interception of a Tom Brady pass that fueled Washington's shocking upset victory. The following Sunday in Charlotte, Curl's spectacular fourth-down tackle of star running back Christian McCaffrey with three minutes remaining keyed a 27-21 triumph over the Carolina Panthers.
Last Monday night, after the shrewd safety summoned another stellar performance that included a sack of Russell Wilson in a 17-15 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Washington tight end Logan Thomas made a point of telling reporters, "Y'all need to start respecting Kam Curl more. He's a top-five safety in this league. Put the tape on and tell me he's not."
Few could have envisioned such a statement back in April of 2020, when Curl, a 6-foot-2, 198-pounder out of Arkansas, was at home with his family on the third day of the draft preparing to assess his options as an undrafted free agent. With COVID-19 protocols having prevented him from impressing teams via in-person pre-draft visits, Curl felt he "was basically just another name on the board."
After Washington took him off the board with the 216th overall pick, he resolved to make the most of the opportunity. With only a virtual offseason program at his disposal, Curl nonetheless made a great first impression.
"We started noticing him in those first Zoom meetings," recalled Richard Rodgers, Washington's assistant defensive backs coach. "He was really, really sharp. Chris Harris (Washington's defensive backs coach) is a very smart football coach; he played the game and really knows football, and it can be intimidating, especially for a guy coming from college. It's the first time he's hearing the terminology -- it's like a different language -- and yet we'd put in a coverage, and the next day he'd know what everybody's supposed to be doing on that play.
“Nate Kaczor (Washington's special teams coordinator) was telling us the same thing: 'This dude is sharp.' He was a rookie, and yet he was up to speed with all the other guys right away. He has great recall. We started asking him questions, and he had answers -- and they were the correct answers."
From Curl's perspective, soaking up knowledge is a labor of love.
"When we started the Zooms and they started teaching us the defense, it stuck with me, cause I really love football -- and I just can't stop thinking about it," Curl said. "It's always been a thing for me to learn defenses pretty quickly. I make it into a competition. They'd ask questions, and I'd answer, fast. I like having the answers."
When Collins went down with a torn Achilles tendon in a Week 7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys last October, it was fair to question how Curl would handle the transition from playing in nickel and dime packages to taking over as the starting strong safety.
The answer: He emerged as a reliable tackler, ball-hawk and playmaker, with three interceptions in Washington's final four regular season games.
"He belonged," Harris said. "It wasn't too big for him. I saw a guy who was smart and able to bounce around and play multiple positions in the same series, which makes him a great chess piece to have. He's intelligent and has great instincts, which is a really good combination. And he's a playmaker."
The fact that Curl and Collins are both versatile has allowed Washington to feature both playmakers in various alignments, with free-agent acquisition Bobby McCain holding down the free safety position.
"I feel like all three of us being on the field gives offenses a lot of problems," Curl said. "We can play coverage or play zone, and we all do different things, so you don't really know what's coming. Even if you've watched film and think you know what we do, you don't trust it, because we can all move around and change things up from play to play."
As Curl continues to push himself into the public consciousness, the native of Muskogee, Oklahoma, is enjoying the visibility. He celebrated one defensive stop on Monday night by playing the air guitar, and no, he wasn't honoring "Okie From Muskogee" writer Merle Haggard.
"I like Jimi Hendrix," Curl said, laughing. "We've gotta be some rock stars out there, so I had to pull the guitar out."
And this time -- unlike his rookie coming-out party -- the response from the crowd was deafening.