In Middle, Rabach Is the Nerve Center

Casey Rabach, locking up with H.B. Blades, left, during a drill, is universally respected among the Redskins for his intelligence, toughness and versatility.
Casey Rabach, locking up with H.B. Blades, left, during a drill, is universally respected among the Redskins for his intelligence, toughness and versatility. (Photos By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

When Casey Rabach breaks from a huddle, he has perhaps five seconds to process and convey a play's essential information. In an instant, the Washington Redskins center has determined how many down linemen are in the game, as well as if any linebackers are stationed on the edge, and relayed it to the quarterback and the backfield.

He'll bark out, "Nickel, nickel, nickel," or, "Three down, three down, three down," to indicate the defensive alignment, then point out the location of the opposing middle linebacker, or, more specifically, the person filling that role in a given formation, which could be a defensive back, outside linebacker or someone else. Before Rabach snaps the ball, he will also announce where the defensive pressure will be coming from, watching for tells and cues, then yelling, "Ray," "Ram," "Rocco" or "Ralph," to signal which blocking scheme to use for a blitz from the right, or "Lenny," "Lion," "Leo" or "Lester" to set the technique if pressure will be coming from the left.

The mental part of his job now over -- for one play, at least -- Rabach's brawn takes over. After the snap, he is asked to do as much as any center in the game, like shed a 325-pound lineman immediately after the snap, then pull wide to pummel linebackers as a lead blocker, and in 2006 few did it better. Rabach, 29, keyed Washington's fourth-ranked rushing attack and was strong in pass protection.

"To be truthful, he's one of the most valuable people on our team," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Casey means a lot to us, and he makes every call in there. He's extremely bright and last year I mean the guy plays with a broken hand with a big cast on. He's one of our leaders. When people talk about free agency sometimes, you know, 'Why do you do it?' That's why, because you can get a Casey Rabach."

Rabach broke his hand in Week 14, had two screws surgically put in on a Monday and never missed a snap of game action.

Although he now is universally respected in Washington's locker room, he arrived as something of an unknown. Rabach spent four seasons in Baltimore but did not start regularly until his final year (2004). The Redskins made him an immediate free agent target after centers Cory Raymer and Lennie Friedman faltered, and the five-year, $13.75 million signing is one of Gibbs's smartest personnel maneuvers since his return.

"That's one we'd want back," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. "That's a very good player we let get away."

Rabach provided stability in his first year here, but suffered serious leg lacerations in an all-terrain vehicle accident in April 2006, required a skin graft in June and was not fully cleared for all physical activities until training camp. Yet he was one of the few players to clearly master associate coach Al Saunders's complex offense. By the second half of the season, when the Redskins returned to their smash-mouth approach, Rabach was a wrecking ball. The Redskins allowed just 19 sacks -- fourth best in franchise history (only 12 were considered the result offensive-line errors) -- and Rabach set a physical tone with his pulling on outside running plays.

"I think my first year here they were feeling me out, finding exactly what I could do," Rabach said. "And last year I started to do a lot more things -- some athletic, different things -- which I really enjoyed."

"You can do a lot with a guy who can snap and pull," said tackle Jon Jansen, Rabach's close friend. "We got him out on some of the sweeps and it just really opened up the whole offense as to what can we do."

Rabach seeks no accolades, and widespread acclaim eludes him.

"I'm really disappointed that a lot of people don't recognize how good this guy is," said Joe Bugel, offensive line coach. "I think he is one of the top centers in the NFL, he's a great signal caller, he makes great preparation, he's an iron man who can take 100 snaps in a row, he has great leverage."

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