By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008
Right tackle Jon Jansen, the longest serving player in the Washington Redskins' organization and a starter since being drafted in 1999, was demoted to second string yesterday, and Stephon Heyer will take his spot in the season opener Thursday against the New York Giants.
Jansen, 32, missed almost all of last season with a broken leg and has struggled in pass protection this summer.
Heyer, a second-year lineman from Maryland, rose from being an undrafted free agent to spot starter in Jansen's absence in 2007. Heyer missed much of this training camp with a knee sprain, but Coach Jim Zorn and his staff liked what they saw in the two preseason games in which he played and made the change ahead of yesterday's practice, the first of the week.
Jansen practiced with the reserves -- taking many reps at the guard spot for the first time -- and, although he disagreed with the move, said he will do whatever he can to help his team.
"I'm disappointed that I'm not going to be out there," Jansen said. "I still believe myself to be the right tackle here, but it's not going to be that way on [Thursday], and that's what I have to deal with."
Jansen missed the final preseason game with a mild foot sprain but practiced fully and said he is "healthy and ready to go when needed."
He was given a new contract, including $10 million in guarantees, after the 2006 season, when some scouts and executives believed he was slipping in his lateral movement and pass protection skills, and he has started just one game since. His 2007 season ended when he broke his leg in the first game.
Jansen was given some explanations for the change, but "nothing that I felt was reason enough," he said. Zorn said the decision to go with Heyer was very difficult, citing the ability to best protect the passer as a key factor.
"We wanted to give Stephon an opportunity," Zorn said. "He really showed in his pass protection that he can really anchor, and that's kind of how we're going to go right now."
Heyer played in 12 games last season as an undrafted rookie, with five starts. He was raw but withstood several challenges, continuing to work on his leverage and on keeping his backside down in protection. Heyer first got a chance to work with the starters when Pro Bowl left guard Chris Samuels required knee surgery early in 2007 training camp, and his rapid rise was one of the more surprising developments a year ago.
"I've been thrown in this spot before and whatever they chose to do I'm ready to board," Heyer said. Heyer said the coaches did not put a time frame on his status, other than telling him he is now the starter. Heyer has continued to impress coaches, showing up for camp in much better condition than a year ago and improving his upper-body strength.
"I think all the training I did in the offseason has helped me be in a position where I can become a useful member of the team," Heyer said. "In the course of camp, I had my ups and downs, and the injury set me back a little bit, but I think I turned it around and I'm ready to go."
Heyer still has much to prove in terms of consistency, and the age and health of the offensive line continue to be issues for the Redskins as well. Jansen is a powerful run blocker but yielded sacks with regularity in the preseason. He and right guard Randy Thomas are both coming off major season-ending surgery and teams seemed to be targeting that side of the line with blitzes.
"When I watch that offensive line, it looks like a last-ditch effort to keep that group together," one NFL personnel executive said. "Guys like Jansen and Thomas, to me it looks like their play is slipping and they're coming in for a landing."
Jansen believed he was improving throughout the preseason and was particularly encouraged by his ability to withstand all of the two-a-days, absorbing the grueling first few weeks of practice with no setbacks. He thought that the move to the West Coast offense, featuring quick drops by the quarterbacks and more pass blocking techniques that allow for aggressive pass protection (and not the usual backpeddling), would play to his strengths.
Working against perennial Pro Bowl pass rusher Jason Taylor every day at practice was pushing him to raise his production, and Jansen said repeatedly through the preseason that he was pleased with his play.
"It really doesn't matter how I grade myself," Jansen said yesterday. "They graded me not the starting right tackle, so that's how it is."
Jansen began to worry about his status a bit Friday, when Zorn spoke at his news conference about Heyer possibly overtaking Jansen at right tackle. At that time Jansen was publicly stoic about losing his starting spot, but he takes pride in his job and approaches it very seriously. Coaches and teammates knew it must have been difficult for Jansen to work with the backups for the first time, especially at a new position.
"I'm going to go out there every day and work as hard as I can, like I've done every day since I've been here," Jansen said. "The decision is the coach's, not mine."
Zorn said he empathized with Jansen, having gone from being the star quarterback and face of the Seattle franchise to the backup behind Dave Krieg after injuries slowed him late in his career.
"For me personally, when I got demoted from a starter position to a backup, it's harder" than being cut, Zorn said, "because you have to come in and face your teammates. I think it's very difficult and I thought Jon did an excellent job today working through those issues, because it is very emotional. It's trying.
"Things changed and he has to be able to live up to that and keep working hard. It's not over for him. He still has to work hard and be ready."
Jansen, entering his 10th season, started the first 80 games of his career after being taken from Michigan with the 37th overall pick in 1999. He ruptured his Achilles' tendon during the preseason opener in 2004 and missed all of that season, then battled through various injuries, including two broken thumbs, in 2005.
Former offensive coordinator Al Saunders had to begin utilizing more pass-protection help from backs and tight ends on the right side than he had imagined in 2006, when the team went 5-11, and Jansen's 2007 season was reduced to just a few snaps of the ball when he broke his leg.
"I hate what he's going through, but this is the way the game is, and I have a lot more things to worry about than somebody else's job," said Thomas, 32, entering his 10th year. "When you get caught up in that, you lose focus on what you've go to do. We all have to go out there and do what's expected of us. That's just the way it is.
"What I want to do is continue to do my job," Thomas added. "Hopefully, Stephon will do his, and I've got confidence in him. He knows we're counting on him and he knows that he has to go out there and get it done."
Staff writer Jason Reid contributed to this report.