By Les Carpenter
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Out in the sunshine they toiled this weekend: five giant men with football jerseys cut too short, revealing bellies that spilled over the waistbands of their short pants. And the fact that they stood together adjusting their helmets and tugging up their shorts with their beefy hands was the most beautiful thing folks around here had seen here in months.
They worked in the back corner of the practice fields at Redskins Park, a spot located next to a sandpit. And they did whatever it is offensive linemen do at minicamp. They squatted. They pushed at each other. They shoved a few giant toys around. The point wasn't so much what they did as it was that they were simply there.
Chris Samuels, Pete Kendall, Casey Rabach, Randy Thomas and Jon Jansen.
All 1,519 pounds of them, standing together in a straight line just as they had on the first game of last season when the hope was that the five of them together could eventually form one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. That lasted all of about a quarter, until Jansen tumbled to the ground in great pain and glanced at his right foot to see it dangling in a direction that no foot should ever be facing. And after the cart took him away, nothing was the same. Thomas went down a week later with a torn triceps, only playing in part of one game the rest of the season.
From then on, the remainder of the year was a constant switching of linemen in and out of the lineup, hoping to find some combination that worked. And given the debacle the offense became, the line actually turned out to be respectable. Nonetheless the instability brought constant upheaval, leaving coaches at times to pare down the offense and hope the unsteady line wouldn't collapse altogether.
So on this brilliant spring weekend with a new coach and new offense, Jansen and Thomas walked onto the field proclaiming themselves healed. They, of course, didn't say it this way because offensive linemen don't use words like "healed," especially ones who have played for a long time like Jansen and Thomas. They say things like Jansen did yesterday when he called himself "as close to 100 percent as I can be this time of year."
Or like Thomas: "I'm just trying to get my job back."
As if he had to worry.
Still, they need to be healthy because the Redskins desperately need their five linemen to stand together all year, working and moving as one to make sure Coach Jim Zorn's offense thrives. No one should know this better than Zorn, who watched as his old team, the Seattle Seahawks, slowly built one of the league's top lines. The group then led Seattle to the Super Bowl, but as it began to crumble with age and free agent defections, the Seahawks' running game fell along with it.
Washington, despite its playoff run last season, is built on a fragile foundation. Both offensive and defensive lines are old. Both have proven brittle, both are lacking good young players on which to build for the future. The quarterback, Jason Campbell, is showing signs of developing into a leader, but the last thing the Redskins need is Campbell running for his life as he tries to grasp the West Coast offense. To expect a march to the playoffs like last season's with a line as patched up as last year's is to expect too much. Miracles like the one of last season come once a decade, if even that.
Last year as the team yearned for leadership -- especially on the offense -- Jansen felt lost. He had always considered himself someone players could go to, a voice that commanded authority. And unable to play, he was stifled. He came to meetings, stopped by his locker and watched practices, but because he was on the injured reserve list, he wasn't comfortable speaking to his teammates. He had nothing to offer. He wasn't out there with them.
Yesterday, he smiled.
"I've been through coaching changes and when you make changes everyone always says, 'Hey, we're going to be better,' " he said. "With this one I think we at least won't lose any ground."
When asked to explain why, he replied: "We have most of the team back and a lot of our coaches are back. We have the same rushing offense. There's still a lot of continuity."
What he left out was the fact that this team has his voice again. Which is also true for Thomas, who despite his gregarious, almost intimidating personality, has helped plenty of young linemen on the team. Perhaps no one in the organization can take more credit for the sudden development of tackle Stephon Heyer last season. It was Thomas who incorporated Heyer in his workouts, pushing him to work harder, to get stronger.
Now Jansen and Thomas are back. And even though Thomas is not taking part in any contact drills, he said he is resting simply as a precaution. If there were a game today, he'd be playing. He joked that in two of the last three years when he went down with what essentially became season-ending injuries, the Redskins went on playoff runs in his absence.
"Maybe you need to get hurt every year," someone said.
Thomas glared. Then he rolled his eyes.
"You know, I was 3-0 as a starter last year," he said. "They should have just introduced me in that playoff game at Seattle."
Right now, they'll take the opening game against New York.