By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
After a 20-year career, offensive lineman Ray Brown now is happily retired and contemplating a future in broadcasting. The Washington Redskins' most trusted remaining backup, third-year tackle Jim Molinaro, is scheduled for surgery to repair torn meniscus in his knee today. The five players comprising the second-team offensive line during yesterday's practices had a grand total of 27 NFL starts among them, and three of them have yet to appear in a regular season game.
For the first time in the second Joe Gibbs era, the Redskins are heading into the preseason without proven depth at offensive line. Coming off a season in which four starting linemen suffered significant injuries, their ability to cultivate adequate understudies could become a telltale subplot of 2006. Even the most ardent football junkie would have a hard time identifying the non-starters on the offensive line in this camp, although it stands to reason that at least a few of the role players will be called on at some point.
Ensuring the health of starting quarterback Mark Brunell, who turns 36 next month, is imperative, especially given the limited starting experience of the backup passers, and that chore falls most heavily to the line. Starting tackles Jon Jansen (broken thumbs) and Chris Samuels (two knee arthroscopies), guard Randy Thomas (broken leg, high ankle sprain) and center Casey Rabach (torn rotator cuff and serious leg lacerations) are recovering from injuries and played through considerable pain at various points last season. When Molinaro was carted from Monday's practice, the anxiety level of Joe Bugel, who oversees the offensive line, escalated again.
"The second group, that's what we were really worried about," said Bugel, who anticipates Molinaro will miss at least a few weeks. "When Molinaro went down, everybody was playing left tackle. But the young kids are looking pretty good. I think you're going to see some of the cream coming to the top."
Gibbs said he was comfortable with the offensive line depth throughout the offseason, even with Brown retiring and veteran backup center Cory Raymer leaving. The team addressed the area with a collection of low-round draft picks, undrafted players and obscure free agents, but beyond the five starters (who also include left guard Derrick Dockery, who dropped 20 pounds in the offseason), the Redskins do not have an offensive lineman who played regularly in 2005.
"You never could have enough offensive linemen, but certainly I feel confident [in the depth], or comfortable, I'll put it that way," Gibbs said. "That's a better way of putting it."
In Molinaro's absence, Tyson Walter, a four-year veteran who did not appear in a game for Houston last season despite the Texans allowing 14 more sacks than any other NFL team, was switched to left tackle with the second team. Chris Pino, an undrafted rookie from San Diego State, is at right tackle. Pino's college teammate, Jasper Harvey, another undrafted rookie, is playing right guard after playing center in college. Mike Pucillo, a four-year NFL veteran who started six games for Cleveland last season and has played primarily at guard, is the center. Ikechuku Ndukwe (on the Redskins' practice squad last season) is at left guard.
"That five is just starting to come together," said Bugel, who added that the team is not pursuing additional line help. "It's been some tough love now, beating them down, kicking them, doing everything, But they keep responding. They're doing a great job."
Ideally, few if any of those unknowns would be stepping on the field when the games really count. The Redskins were able to keep their offensive line intact for 13 full games last season -- Thomas broke his leg in the 14th -- but once Thomas went down, the running game in particular was never the same. And this year, there's no Brown, a smart guard and tackle, to plug in.
"Hopefully, this year the injuries don't happen to us," Rabach said. "But if they do, we know we've got guys who can push through it and do whatever they can to keep playing."
Pucillo has the best pedigree of the second-team linemen and was brought in for cover at center and guard. The lack of established backup linemen on Washington's roster did not go unnoticed when he hit the free agent market. "That was definitely one of the main things I looked at: What kind of depth do they have?" Pucillo said. "I came in here and they made me feel wanted and I felt like there was an opportunity, so when I came here to visit I signed that day."
This coaching staff has a history of unearthing talent among undrafted linemen ("We've been lucky with that," Bugel said), and Bugel sees potential in this group. He has particularly been surprised by the emergence of Pino and Harvey. "I've got to prove I belong here," said Harvey, one of 15 linemen in camp. "And that I can be a solid backup in the NFL if I have the shot."
Bugel worked with the second-string linemen during yesterday's practices, pointing out nuances and harping on technique. The preseason opener is Sunday night in Cincinnati, when the real evaluation of depth begins. The starting line will play a decent portion of the game, Bugel said, considering it missed much offseason work because of injuries, but sorting out the role players will be even more imperative.
"I'm really happy with those kids right now," Bugel said. "But Sunday night, that's the true test."