A Healthy and United Front
Monday, September 4, 2006
After the Washington Redskins selected tackle Jon Jansen in the second round of the 1999 draft, he daydreamed about the brotherly bonds that would be forged through the brutality of life at the line of scrimmage in the NFL. He relished training with his fellow linemen nearly year round, battling with them each Sunday and sharing his life and family with them in the offseason.
Only recently has any of that been possible. Jansen, the longest tenured current Redskin, came to the organization during a time of continual overhaul, with players and coaches whisked in and out of Redskins Park yearly at a rate staggering even for this league. The roster has remained in flux since Coach Joe Gibbs returned in 2004, but the starting offensive line has remained almost entirely intact, leaving Jansen as the elder statesman on what is by far the most cohesive unit on the team.
Jansen, starting guards Randy Thomas and Derrick Dockery and left tackle Chris Samuels have been together since the 2003 season, with Casey Rabach (class of 2005) the new guy. Only two other starters have been here since at least the 2003 season -- kicker John Hall and middle linebacker Lemar Marshall -- and only five reserves on the roster can say the same thing (running backs Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright, defensive back Ade Jimoh, linebacker Khary Campbell and defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn).
"We've got a unique situation on our line," Jansen said. "My first four or five years here we had a lot of transition, a lot of guys coming and going. Now, we've had basically the same group going on the fourth year, and it's so much fun to get to know guys like that and have a unit with guys like that. It's something I always wished we had early on, and now we have it. You just hope we can ride it as long as we can."
The Redskins expect that familiarity to breed exceptional results this season. Washington has one of the highest-paid lines in the NFL -- Jansen, Samuels, Thomas and Rabach all signed substantial contracts -- and while last year they performed much better than they had in recent seasons, there is still room for improvement. In 2005, the entire starting line save for Dockery suffered some type of significant injury, and when Thomas broke his leg late in the season, the running game in particular suffered.
After a strong start to the preseason, the line was beaten thoroughly by New England in the third game -- the one in which the starters played the most -- and allowed three sacks in the first half while the running game lagged. That was the last time all five were on the field together, as Samuels and Thomas were rested for the preseason finale Thursday against Baltimore.
"I'm not concerned about our guys," quarterback Mark Brunell said of the line. "They've proved themselves time and time again. I've got an incredible amount of confidence in our starters."
The linemen are hopeful for fewer injuries this season, which should boost their output. With minimal if any proven depth behind the starters -- the second-string line was exploited repeatedly in the preseason -- they're committed to gutting it out if need be.
"We saw enough of each other in the training room last year," Jansen said, "and that's one of the things that brought us even closer. I played the whole year with two broken thumbs, and I think they appreciated that. It was something I did for them. And Casey was playing with a bad shoulder, and I think if he saw me playing with my thumbs, then he could play with his shoulder.
"And obviously Randy couldn't play with his injury, but Chris had knee problems and he played through the pain and you develop a toughness together of, 'Hey, if my buddy can do it, then I can do it too.' "
The linemen renewed acquaintances in the winter and spring as well, as they were often the only people around Redskins Park rehabbing from surgery when others were vacationing. Jansen had both thumbs worked on, Samuels had arthroscopic surgery on his knees. Thomas had the broken leg. Rabach had a torn rotator cuff repaired and then was injured in an accident on an all-terrain vehicle.
Even without the unexpected camaraderie provided by the mutual convalescence, they still would have been in contact. They gather at Thomas's house for barbeques, and get together for weekly nights out. Usually, the festivities include the quarterbacks, whose health and prosperity are tied to theirs.
"We're probably the tightest group on the team, us and Mark Brunell, you can throw him in that mix, too," Rabach said. "Everybody's got the same interests, got the same hobbies. It's an easy fit for us. Everybody likes to eat, we all like to have a beer here or there, and we're all just similar, family-oriented guys. We've gone through a lot of the same situations together."
In offensive line coach Joe Bugel, they have a gruff but fun-loving mentor who has tried to mold them in his image. Bugel spins classic stories, cracks jokes and keeps things light, but is also a stickler for technique and can be demanding when need be. After a season in which Clinton Portis set a franchise record for rushing yards and Brunell had one of his finest seasons, the weight of heavy playoff expectations will rest on the offensive line again. They will rise or fall collectively.
"Oh, man, we're like husband and wife, we've been together so long," Thomas said. "We've all got a good sense of humor, man, and that just keeps you young. We all laugh together, and laughing is healthy and we're high on life. But it'd be nice to get a ring together now because you never know next year who's going to be here."
Redskins Notes: Eight players were signed to the practice squad yesterday: wide receivers Mike Espy and Steven Harris, defensive back John Eubanks, defensive lineman Vaka Manupuna, offensive lineman Chris Pino, defensive lineman Joe Sykes, and two players who were selected in the 2005 draft -- linebacker Robert McCune and fullback Manuel White. The team set its 53-man roster with 25 offensive players, 25 defensive players and three specialists. The Redskins could still sign a depth player or two before returning to practice Tuesday, but they would have to release one player for every one they sign.