By Mike Wise
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
There aren't many more top priorities this preseason for the Washington Redskins' offensive line than keeping Jason Campbell upright. One job. That's it.
So whatever cutting-and-pasting Joe Bugel has to do in the wake of Chris Samuels's injured right knee should be done with the utmost concern for the health and well-being of the 25-year-old starting quarterback.
Buges knows this, of course. The man who fed and watered the original Hogs -- who was in charge of a line last season that represented a sliver of light amid a nasty storm -- now has to find a way to achieve that goal.
Samuels going down is the first sign of real adversity of training camp, and while it shouldn't send the congregation into a panic, it's enough to create a serious domino effect at the position. Bugel and his boss, Joe Gibbs, have a real dilemma now that Samuels most likely will miss anywhere between three and six weeks (for now, the projected return is a month).
Do they gamble at left tackle on a young buck like undrafted Maryland rookie Stephon Heyer, an affable, strapping lad who goes 6 feet 6, 325 pounds -- and who, by the way, at 1:30 p.m. yesterday went from Pluto on the depth chart to getting most of the repetitions with the first-team offense? Heyer was so pumped afterward, he actually referred to Jon Jansen and Casey Rabach as "legends."
His promotion, which may not last until tomorrow but also might hold up until Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens in a scrimmage -- in which hitting the quarterback is not allowed -- is also a sign that neither Jason Fabini, who has started 114 games in his NFL career, nor Taylor Whitley has the complete confidence of the staff at this minute. In fact, you almost wonder if they're not purposely using Heyer to kick Fabini in the "be-hind" a little.
And that brings the Redskins to the next question: How long do they go with the Todd Wade experiment? He's played his entire career at left tackle and now he's being converted to an offensive guard.
Bugel comes from the Woody Hayes school, in which you're either a football player or you're not -- specialization be damned. He told his linemen yesterday he would shuffle them around like a "deck of cards." He told them the story about Joe Jacoby tripping on the carpet at Giants Stadium in the 1980s and wrenching his knee, how Buges turned to Russ Grimm and said, "Grimmy, you're starting at left tackle."
The punchline was the man lining up against Grimm: "Lawrence Taylor. He shut him out that week," Bugel said, proudly.
But it's not that easy. Wade, in his new job, has to get lower to the ground, learn more about leverage than he ever knew. He isn't just learning technique; he's learning to react without thinking. "It's a muscle memory, more than I thought it would be," Wade said. "More in pass [protection]. I'm used to kicking out fast, have my feet moving quick. Now I got to slow it all down."
Wade will do whatever they ask of him, but said for now he's committed to learning to play the guard position.
Asked if he might move Wade back if Campbell's safety becomes a concern, Bugel said: "We haven't made that decision. Before I would push Wade out there, I'd probably put Fabini out there." He said how Heyer and the rest perform against Baltimore will have much to do with his thinking on the matter.
The only blessing in disguise surrounding Samuels's injury is the Redskins now find out how much depth they have at the position, whether any of these guys can perform at the level Samuels, their only legitimate Pro Bowler, Jansen, Rabach, Randy Thomas and Derrick Dockery, now in Buffalo, did a year ago.
But the reality is, the cohesion and continuity that Bugel hopes to build among one of the team's only strengths last season will not matter one iota if Campbell's blind side goes unprotected. If Ray Lewis, James Farrior or some youngster on the bubble who needs to make an impression tees off on the kid once preseason games begin -- and he goes down in a heap -- all the experiments go out the window with perhaps the season.
While it might be the first genuine conundrum of the season -- going with Heyer, Fabini and maybe Whitley instead of moving Wade to his natural position in the preseason -- they have to ask themselves one question:
Is it more important to keep the continuity of the offensive line intact until Samuels returns or is it more important to keep Jason Campbell standing? It's a no-brainer, which is why Wade may end up there after all.