By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
In the parlance of athletes, it's known as "The Nod," a brief-but-unmistakable tilting of the head, from coach to player, that means "strap on your helmet, it's time to get out there." After seven seasons in the NFL, tackle Todd Wade knows The Nod when he sees it, and following Jon Jansen's season-ending injury Sunday, Wade says he got it twice in rapid succession, a certain indication that he would be Washington's new starting right tackle.
Nothing was spoken, but when Wade locked eyes with Coach Joe Gibbs and associate head coach-offense Al Saunders on Sunday, he assumed his time had come. This is why he worked so hard to overcome major knee surgery a few years back, why he received a $6.2 million contract in the offseason, why he was so willing to attempt a doomed conversion to guard in the preseason at the team's behest. He was ready to do anything for the chance to get back on the field with regularity.
Gibbs acknowledged the exchange but when asked about it Monday claimed this particular nod meant only that Wade was "going to play a huge role for us," and not necessarily start, implying an uncertainty existed whether to replace Jansen with Wade, 30, a longtime starter and veteran of 109 NFL games, or undrafted rookie free agent Stephon Heyer, 23. So by yesterday Wade was a little anxious, knowing he was the logical choice but not totally certain he was the starter until he stepped into the office of offensive line coach Joe Bugel in mid-afternoon.
"I've been waiting to get in there, so I went to his office and asked Coach Bugel, and that was the deal," Wade said. "It's weird, the last couple of years since I left Houston [in 2005], you kind of get a fresh look at the season and I spent training camp [in 2006] just rehabbing and all that stuff, and now I'm finally at a place in the season where I can actually start a number of games and really get back out there and get after it and help this team win some games."
There were many days last year when Wade wondered if that opportunity would come. At times, his professional future -- as a big tackle with a suspect knee -- seemed bleak and while he can sympathize with Jansen's plight, he is savoring his chance.
"Last year was really, really tough on me, to a depressing point," Wade said. "It really, really bothered me through the season. It's not easy all the time sitting and watching from the sidelines and not playing."
Wade was an elite prospect coming out of Mississippi in 2000 -- a giant at 6 feet 8, 314 pounds at a position known for hulking players -- and was selected 53rd overall by Miami that year. Wade started all 16 games as a rookie and missed only one game in four years with the Dolphins, with 63 starts. In 2004, Houston considered him a cornerstone of the franchise, giving him a six-year, $30 million free agent contract, including a $10 million signing bonus.
Wade appeared in just 25 games for the Texans. He sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee nine games into the '05 season and required season-ending surgery. The Texans changed coaching staffs, switching to more of a zone-blocking scheme with smaller, more athletic lineman, and with Wade still unable to participate in drills, Houston released him in July 2006.
He worked out for a few teams before signing with the Redskins on Sept. 5, 2006. Gibbs and Bugel knew he would need time to round into form, but by the time Jansen's calf forced him out of the lineup in Week 15, Wade was ready. Teammates praised Wade's efforts against New Orleans's talented ends, shining in an upset win over the Saints despite last playing on Nov. 13, 2005. After that game, the Redskins knew they had found a valuable tackle -- a commodity in short supply -- and made re-signing Wade a priority this offseason.
"He's a reliable starting right tackle in this league," said Charley Casserly, a former Redskins general manager who was general manager in Houston from 2002 to '06. "He was a good signing for the Redskins and I've watched the tape from New Orleans and he played well and I think he's still a starting tackle in this league. He's a tough guy and he takes it very seriously, almost too seriously, and that's not a negative. He just so wants to please you and he's kind of like: 'What can I do? What can I do?' And sometimes he just has to relax a little bit, but he's Buges's kind of guy. He's a tough guy, that's really what he is."
Internally, some coaches and players believed Wade's skills were comparable to Jansen's, perhaps even superior in certain nuances of pass protection, but Jansen had just received a huge contract extension and starting left guard Derrick Dockery departed in free agency. Wade longed for a chance to play regularly again as a tackle, but finding only tepid interest on the open market, ended up re-signing here. His massive size and lack of experience at guard made him an odd fit at the position -- Wade admits he never acclimated well there -- but the coaches stuck with the experiment until a few weeks before the season, ultimately trading for guard Pete Kendall and moving Wade back to tackle.
"Without a doubt I feel more comfortable at tackle," Wade said. "I moved back to tackle last week and it was like I never left. So I feel very confident."
Several scouts who watched Wade in the preseason said his leverage, height and ability to combat linebackers in space were significant obstacles at guard, but he has acquitted himself well as a tackle. Speed rushers generally give Wade the most trouble, they said, but his footwork and hand placement are generally strong.
"Todd and Jansen, there ain't too much difference between them in the way they handle things over there," said Redskins veteran right defensive end Phillip Daniels, who faces both in practice. "I think he'll be fine. Last year he did a great job against [talented end Charles] Grant in New Orleans, and Todd is a guy who knows how to play the game, knows his technique and we've got confidence in him out there.
"At guard he had a little trouble in there with the tight space and less room to work in, but at tackle he's perfect the way he drops back and kicks back and his stance and technique are perfect. He won't have a problem with his size or leverage or anything out there."