By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
By the time Randy Thomas was hoisted onto a cart with an air cast strapped to his broken leg, he was already smiling. The Washington Redskins' right guard knew that the best season of his career had just been cut short, but the Redskins were pounding the Dallas Cowboys, 35-7, and Thomas's replacement, 43-year-old lineman Ray Brown, had met him at midfield to offer comic relief.
Brown told Thomas that he expected him to be ready for practice Monday, but both knew that a changing of the guard had taken place, with Brown now manning what is a crucial position for the offense in the final two weeks of the regular season and perhaps into the playoffs.
Thomas, who was scheduled for surgery on his fractured right fibula last night, had been Washington's best offensive lineman, strong on sweeps and outside plays that required him to pull and get downfield and solid on pass protection. But all he can do now is cheer on Brown and his teammates Saturday against the NFC-East leading New York Giants, and try to remain in the high spirits that characterized his exit Sunday.
"We just whupped the Dallas Cowboys, and I was part of it for three-and-a-half quarters, just that feeling of victory," Thomas, who was on crutches yesterday at Redskins Park, said of the way he smiled and pumped his fists at the ovation from the crowd Sunday. "And those guys were just encouraging me to keep my head up. It don't take much. I'm just blessed that it was not worse than it was."
The Redskins have been committed to running the football the last five weeks, with tailback Clinton Portis on a franchise-record pace in no small part because of Thomas's lead blocking. "I think he was having a Pro Bowl season," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "He played extremely tough."
The injury leaves Brown, a 20-year veteran, with a significant chore to close out his distinguished career. Brown entertained thoughts of retiring after 2004, when he was signed during training camp and went on to start 14 games, and has spent all of this season as a reserve, getting action primarily in goal-line situations.
That will change against the Giants, a team that held Washington to a season-low 38 rushing yards in a 36-0 victory in October. Brown, believed to be the oldest lineman in NFL history, was in on every play that game. With the offensive line banged up much of the season, Brown (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) has received ample practice at various positions, although primarily at tackle. He has not played much beside center Casey Rabach to this point, but is confident in his experience.
"The game is the icing on the cake," Brown said. "I haven't missed a practice, I went through all of training camp and I'm ready to play. It doesn't take that much for me. I'm not fixing to make this very complex; as a matter of fact, it's pretty simple. You give me the film, let me practice and lift weights, and I think I can give it to you on Sunday. With the coaches' backing, if they feel comfortable with me in the lineup, I'm good. As a matter of fact, I'm low maintenance. I don't need anybody pumping me up or patting me on the back saying I can do it. I know what I can do."
The offensive linemen said they expect Brown to contribute immediately, and are encouraged by the fact that they have an accomplished backup, while most teams would have to turn to a rookie or second-year player. "Randy Thomas is a leader but we've got our confidence in Ray," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "He showed us last year that he can step in there and play, and he'll do it again."
Thomas's absence will affect the running scheme, however. Brown conceded that left guard Derrick Dockery "might be pulling more than I am," and figures he will not be doing as much downfield work as Thomas did. Gibbs agreed, saying: "Yeah, there will be some things you'll probably adjust. Randy was terrific when it comes to pulling and we ran certain plays because of his ability and everything. So there will be things that you adjust there, but certainly we have great confidence in Ray."
Brown, who played for Gibbs in the coach's first tenure here, said he made the decision to play in 2005 while rehabbing before undergoing offseason surgery to repair his knee and ankle. He had never had to spend January working out like that, and figured he might as well play one more season. A month ago he confessed to his mother that he would like the opportunity to play regularly again before retiring -- although not at the expense of a teammate -- and long ago adopted a sense of humor about his age. Brown celebrated his birthday at home with teammates watching "Monday Night Football" last week, and had two cakes "because I had to have so many candles," Brown said while laughing. "That one really hit hard."
He knows that his age will make headlines throughout this week, and is taking that in stride as well. "I laugh at it, too, man," Brown said. "So I'm going to enjoy it. As a matter of fact, it started with my wife. She said, 'Okay, now all they're going to talk about is your age.' And I'm like, 'Honey, I get to play, though, so that doesn't matter.' "
Brown, drafted 201st overall in 1986 by the St. Louis Cardinals, spends the offseason doing Pilates with his wife, Ashley, to improve his flexibility, and he attributes his longevity in part to that. But regardless of how these final few games play out, and no matter how good he might feel, Brown says this season is the end. A future within the organization -- as a coach or scout -- likely beckons, and new challenges await.
"I'm pretty sure this is it," Brown said. "I feel good. Now, I'm not going to stamp that in concrete, but I don't think I want to keep playing. I've had enough football and I've enjoyed it. I say I've had enough with a big smile, and a lot of happiness."