By Mike Wise
Sunday, September 23, 2007
So this young guy who starred at Minnesota shows up at training camp last year. Huge kid. Six-six. Three hundred thirty-plus. Enough body fat to qualify for "Shaq's Big Challenge." And easygoing, too, in a way that bothered the Type A defensive coaches and left the Redskins with a dilemma:
What to do with this project, this fifth-round defensive tackle?
Easy. Make him a Hog, an offensive lineman. That's where much of the NFL felt Anthony Montgomery belonged.
"What they said was his temperament was more suited to offense," Coach Joe Gibbs said, referring to the scouting reports. "I don't know what that kind of means."
Gibbs knows: It was code for not ornery enough to be a defensive tackle, not intense and driven enough to pile-drive a fullback to the ground.
Gibbs said Montgomery took that opinion to heart, that he now "understands the frame of mind you have to play over there; you got to be a wrecking ball to play on that side."
When the difference between 2-0 and 0-2 is broken down -- or 5-11 and whatever record north of 5-11 the Redskins could end up with this year -- you need to start with the flabby rookie from a year ago.
You need to start with Tony Montgomery.
Less than a year after he was listed on the depth chart behind Joe Salave'a, Cornelius Griffin and Kedric Golston, Montgomery will start his fourth NFL game at defensive tackle today against the New York Giants. He still is large, pushing about 320 pounds. But through diet and vigorous offseason workouts, he drastically altered his body type. The fatigue is gone, along with the pounds and the paunch.
Gibbs has a real investment in Montgomery's development. He's the team president who decided against upgrading an aging defensive line through free agency or the draft. The more youngsters such as Montgomery and Golston shine, the more he looks prescient as a general manager. And right now, he looks prescient.
Last August, Montgomery feared he would be cut in the preseason. This August, veterans Salave'a and Renaldo Wynn did not make the roster.
Even the seen-it-all Gibbs calls Montgomery's transformation "amazing."
"You always hear stories like this, how a guy turns it around in a season," he said. "He's definitely one of them stories."
"I know this might not sound great to a lot of people, but being able to play full-speed throughout the game the other night was a big deal for me," Montgomery said. "I'm not taking plays off anymore. I can't say that about myself a year ago."
Montgomery admits he was in slow motion for much of last season. His hand placement, overall technique and speed were hardly NFL-caliber, and some of it had to do with his girth. "He didn't have those quick fibers to move like that," said Phillip Daniels, the 34-year-old defensive end and the senior member of Washington's defensive line. "The coaches just kept getting on him. I told him it was only going to make him better, that we all go through that as rookies. But you never know how someone will respond."
Montgomery was punished physically, having to take nearly all of the scout repetitions in practice. Mentally? "There was a lot of verbal abuse," he said. "It kind of got me down, but I just fought through it." Greg Blache, the defensive line coach, was the main culprit, but assistant head coach-defense "Gregg Williams would sprinkle his seasoning in there sometimes," he said.
"Coach Blache told him, 'Before it's over, you'll be my [expletive],' " said Shirley Montgomery, Tony's mother. "I would be upset when I would hear about it and want to give him a piece of my mind. But I know there's a reason for it. It's like a boot camp. When all is said and done, [Blache] taught him great discipline."
Shirley spoke from Cleveland, where she and her husband of 29 years -- Tony's father, Rocky -- await the latest updates on their 23-year-old son. Yes, she said, he was rather large as a child.
"When he was playing baseball, he'd be on the mound and somebody would yell: 'That ain't no student. That's C.C. Sabathia,' " referring to the Indians pitcher, who goes 6-7, 290. "I know he doesn't like this, but I still call him my big baby. Tony was a big boy."
He was so big, that when Montgomery was 10 years old he showed up once for a peewee league championship football game and was sent home because he weighed in at one pound over the game's prescribed limit. "He came home in tears," Shirley said.
She added that Tony "now comes home and gets on the family about eating fried foods."
Montgomery fell into the trap that ensnares a lot of big, athletic kids who star in high school and college. "You already know you're playing, so you don't practice like you're trying to make the team," he said. "That all changed when I got here. Watching myself on film, I knew I wasn't getting my hands on guys the way Coach Blache wanted us to. I would take plays off. I had to do scout team and sometimes I wasn't giving guys on the offense the right look."
The adjustment was gradual. Montgomery's cubicle in the team's locker room sits between Demetric Evans and Ryan Boschetti, defensive linemen themselves who both talked him off the ledge at different points last season.
"I just thought with the potential he has, the size, I mean, this man could play a long time if he just took the game seriously and got in shape," Evans said. "Now look at him. He's doing it. As far as being responsible and being accountable to himself, he's come a long way."
Montgomery had a moment last Monday in the victory over Philadelphia. At the 2002 Music City Bowl, he recalled being in awe of Shawn Andrews, then an all-American offensive lineman from Arkansas whom the Eagles would pluck with the 16th pick in the 2004 draft. "I remember thinking, 'I'm a freshman coming into college and he's about to be a first-rounder,' " he said.
After he and Andrews and the Eagles line bumped helmets in Philadelphia last week, the gap didn't feel as wide.
"I went against him Monday night and I was able to get some pretty good pressure on Donovan McNabb," he said. "To get pressure on Donovan McNabb, that feels good."
He is asked what it feels like to go from fourth on the depth chart to the starting, to shed pounds, gain muscle and turn a young career around.
"It's not a comfortable feeling where I feel I've arrived," Montgomery said. "But I mean, I feel good I'm able to go out there and play, to actually be able to contribute.
"I was able to prove myself I could play."
Said Gibbs: "He's got a great opportunity. I've talked to him about that. You gotta make the most of those. You can't fumble that stuff. If you do, it gets taken away from you. I think he sees that now."