By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Near the end of the lost 2006 season, Casey Rabach's left hand broke. It happened while making a block in the last series of the last quarter of a game that didn't matter in a season that had become entirely irrelevant for the Washington Redskins. And because the fracture was so significant, surgeons operated the next day, carefully resetting the bone with a maze of screws.
After they sewed him up and sent him home, he stopped by Redskins Park. There he was met by Coach Joe Gibbs, who ran through the list of options that faced his center for the final three games of the season. Would Rabach like to go on injured reserve? Come back in the spring when everything healed?
"Well truthfully, Coach, I want to see if I can play with it," Rabach replied.
The magnanimous gesture left the Redskins' coaches overjoyed. How many players, with a hand filled with so much metal it could well set off a lifetime of airport screeners, would risk millions in future earnings to play three games that meant nothing? They knew it said something about the relatively unknown player they had signed away from the Baltimore Ravens two winters before.
"He's a legitimate tough guy," said Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense.
Remembering that time during a phone call this week, Rabach laughed a little. "I don't look at it as being heroic or anything like that," he said. Maybe 10 or 15 years from now, when his hand is wracked with arthritis, he might look at things differently. But football players don't often consider long-term health issues. Certainly not Rabach, who early in his career wondered whether he ever was going to get the chance to make it in the NFL.
Playing those last three games meant everything.
"I'm definitely glad I did it," he said. "I learned more about myself and what I can play through."
There's a part of him that believes it prepared him for this year. All around Rabach, the offensive line is falling apart. Left guard Derrick Dockery signed with Buffalo as a free agent. Right guard Randy Thomas got hurt in the season's second week and is out for the year. Right tackle Jon Jansen was carted off the field in the first half of the first game and may never play here again. Left tackle Chris Samuels missed all of training camp with a sprained knee.
While injuries happen frequently in football, they can be devastating to an offensive line where everything depends on the timing of five men moving in symmetry, almost like a ballet of clunky giants. The moment one giant moves the wrong way, the rest of the line falls apart.
As the one constant on the line, the Redskins have leaned on Rabach. When the offensive line meets every Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 a.m., Rabach sits in the back of the room next to Bugel, who flashes pictures of different formations on the wall in the front of the room.
"What is this?" Bugel shouts.
Rabach is required to answer without hesitation.
For a center, this stands as the ultimate test. Spread in chairs in front of him are the rest of the offensive linemen. Perhaps not surprisingly, they sit as they would line up on game day: Samuels next to left guard Pete Kendall, right guard Jason Fabini beside right tackle Todd Wade. Since Rabach is responsible for reading defenses, the others must trust that he knows what he is doing. Inside this room, with no one else around, only they will know if they can believe in him.
Bugel said Rabach is right "99 percent of the time."
"He's my personal general!" Bugel cried.
Which is good because the Redskins need someone to keep everything in order. There have been times this season when Rabach has asked the other linemen in the huddle, "Are you sure you know what you're supposed to do?"
For the most part, it's worked. Until the final quarter in last Sunday's loss to the New York Giants, the Redskins' line was considered a strength, even with all the players coming and going. The line wore down Miami so much in the opener, many of the Dolphins' defenders were resting on one knee before overtime began. The line was equally as effective against Philadelphia in the Week 2 victory.
Last Sunday, at the end of the game against the Giants, things broke down. Rabach was called for two critical penalties, and when Washington had a first and goal from the 1-yard line, the left side couldn't hold. The last play -- a run by Ladell Betts off left tackle -- went nowhere when he ran into a wall of Giants.
Rabach has been thinking about that game during the bye week. "We had a little glitch there," he said, knowing that it was much more. Still, he will not worry too much. It took too much for him to get to this point.
When the Ravens drafted Rabach in the third round out of Wisconsin in 2001, it was clear he would be caught in a quandary. The Baltimore coaches thought he might be better as a guard; he knew he was better suited to be a center. Playing time was sparse. For most of his time there he was a backup. He worried he might be cut and began wondering what else he could do if football didn't work out.
But he ended up starting at center and guard during the 2004 season, then that winter he became a free agent. Within hours, he signed a five-year, $13 million contract.
"I feel very blessed," he said. "You can call it lucky or that the stars were all aligned or whatever. But the fact is things have worked out for me."