By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Nine offensive linemen -- from perennial Pro Bowl picks to journeymen to undrafted rookies -- started games for the Washington Redskins last season. Injuries and bad luck conspired to leave the team scrambling for bodies at times, and Washington never had the same group of starters for more than four games in a row. The Redskins used six unique combinations over 16 regular season games.
By Week 3, two stalwarts -- right tackle Jon Jansen and right guard Randy Thomas -- were lost to significant injuries, an increasingly common occurrence for both players, and the cycle of maladies began. The left side stayed intact -- tackle Chris Samuels and guard Pete Kendall started every game -- but everything else was in flux.
The Redskins enter this season with questions of age and health looming over the unit. All of this season's projected starters are 30 or older, and all are coming off of some medical procedure, save for center Casey Rabach, 30.
"As we get close to the preseason, and start putting the game [plans] together, we will discuss . . . very specifically not only when, but how many plays" the starting line takes part in, Coach Jim Zorn said. "All those things will be discussed, and who fits with who. With an 80-man roster [the NFL's new mandatory limit for training camp], it makes it much more difficult for us as coaches to find that right combination, and even older veterans have to play a little bit longer this preseason than seasons past."
The first real test for the veteran linemen comes this morning, as they check for aches and pains following yesterday's physical training camp sessions, the first full-contact, full-pad practices of the summer.
Samuels, 30, whose surgically repaired elbow has been stiff and sore lately, did not participate but is expected to be back next week, offensive line coach Joe Bugel said. Kendall, 35, has arthritic knees and is always monitored closely, while Jansen, 32, is back after breaking his leg in Week 1 of last season. Thomas, 32, is coming back from a torn left triceps.
"Sometimes you've just got to accept what you've got, and I'm not 23 no more," Thomas said. "I've got a different approach to practice now. I'm just glad to be out there, and I'm appreciative of my teammates supporting me and accepting me.
"We've got 40 days before we open up against the Giants, and preparing for that is just day-to-day. This is one of those years where, hey, we're all getting older, and we need something to show for it"
A year ago, the Redskins were forced to turn to reserve guard Jason Fabini (13 starts), tackle Todd Wade (10 starts) and rookie free agent tackle Stephon Heyer (five starts). All are back as valuable depth players. Joining that group is third-round pick Chad Rinehart, who is working as a left guard and left tackle.
The Redskins lack a proven backup center, and Bugel, who had one of the finest years of his storied career a year ago, said Kendall would move there from left guard if Rabach were injured.
"I don't know if I'm really comfortable with the backup center situation yet," Zorn said. The team also is trying to develop Justin Geisinger as a center.
None of those role players possesses the strength and athleticism of the starters, however, who when healthy can thrive in run blocking and pass protection. They can handle zone blocking and straight-ahead assignments as well.
Zorn, who maintained all the existing terminology for the linemen to ease their transition to his system, wants to protect young starting quarterback Jason Campbell from physical abuse, and that requires keeping the first-string offensive line on the field for preseason games.
Yet Zorn also must limit exposing the linemen to unnecessary injury risk, needing to develop a rotation in which at least four regulars are together.
"That's exactly what's going to happen," Zorn said, "and Pete Kendall is probably the first guy out to save his knees."
Samuels has played the least so far, running alone with the training staff to improve his conditioning during team drills. Bugel said Samuels's weight peaked at 335 this offseason, but he is quickly shedding pounds. Thomas is working back into form after having his knee scoped this offseason and his biceps repaired last season.
Jansen is far along in his recovery -- "He's a fast healer," Bugel said -- and is trying to stay healthy after being dogged by injuries in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Jansen had never missed a game prior to rupturing his Achilles' tendon in the first preseason game in 2004. "I'm really happy with how I'm moving," Jansen said. "I feel great."
Zorn said he expects Jansen and Thomas to start every regular season game "and play the whole game. If we have to give them a rest we will, but they have worked out so hard this offseason, and I haven't seen a glitch. I haven't seen any gimping around or complaining."
Wade, 31, is healthy after struggling through an injury-plagued 2007, while Heyer, 24, showed he can contribute after being a huge surprise last year. His body is much more defined now after an offseason spent working out with Thomas -- "He thinks he's Tarzan now," Bugel said -- and Fabini, 33, is a slow starter but became a vital stopgap lineman during the playoff push last season.
Bugel's ability to juggle personnel and coax strong play from reserves saved last season, and he aims to do the same with Rinehart in 2008. Bugel welcomed the rookie to the league yesterday by immediately lining him up against Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor.
"You give these kids a lot of repetition in the preseason to see if they can pass the test," Bugel said. "You've got to gain trust. The players have to gain trust on them, and you have to gain trust on them."