By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Jon Jansen was at the mall, playing with his children on one of those coin-operated trains most toddlers cannot resist, when his cellphone began to vibrate. With preseason having just concluded, the Redskins had the day off, but during a news conference Coach Jim Zorn had let it be known that Stephon Heyer was on the verge of taking Jansen's starting right tackle job.
Several reporters left messages for Jansen, a starter for the team since being drafted in 1999. Jansen was numb, still in shock, when he called center Casey Rabach, a close friend, explaining he was losing a position he hadn't imagined was in jeopardy.
Zorn prized the health and confidence of Jason Campbell above almost everything else, and with Jansen woeful in pass protection in the preseason, Heyer was his guy. Recovering from a broken leg that ended his 2007 season in the opening game, Jansen wore a grim smile to work, labored through awkward practices while taking snaps as a scout-team guard and wondered if a chance to salvage his career, and reputation, would come.
It did two Sundays ago at Dallas. With Heyer nursing a shoulder injury, Jansen flourished and helped restore an element of brawn to the right side of the line. Tailback Clinton Portis prospered elsewhere than running to the left side, anchored by Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels. In Sunday's victory over the Eagles, Jansen was strong again on running plays and in pass protection.
That puts Zorn and Jansen, a stalwart under former coach Joe Gibbs and a favorite of longtime offensive line coach Joe Bugel, at a crossroads again, with Jansen, 32, still trying to convince the new coach of his worth. On Monday, Zorn was peppered with questions about Jansen, how his ascent would seem to be enough for him to remain the starter even should Heyer, 24, be back at full health this week.
Zorn stopped well short of a commitment. What some teammates believed to be a given -- that Jansen is the starting right tackle again -- remains anything but.
Zorn said he is still "hoping" Heyer (6 feet 6, 314 pounds) can come back to face the hapless St. Louis Rams on Sunday, that he can "step back in." His concerns with Jansen's ability to keep the quarterback protected apparently have not been resolved by Jansen's last eight quarters of work; the trade-off in a markedly more diverse run game with Jansen (6-6, 306) in the lineup has not yet changed his mind.
"He wasn't being punished," Zorn said of Jansen. "We just felt like Stephon Heyer was the guy who could give us that more solid protection in the passing game, and I still think that."
It's hard to imagine the "we" in Zorn's statement would include Bugel, who hashes out the run game along with newcomers Sherman Smith, the offensive coordinator, and Stump Mitchell, the running backs coach. Bugel's belief in Jansen is long established. The old-school line coach may be Zorn's antithesis on many levels, but they get along well, and Zorn's authority is not in dispute.
"I'm not into worrying about making decisions. We're just getting ready for the next game and let the chips fall where they fall," Bugel said. "I don't think you want to play musical chairs. The only thing I'm worrying about with Stephon Heyer is getting his shoulder healthy and making sure we have good depth."
Jansen's teammates have rallied around him. Left guard Pete Kendall noted the recent tendency to run more often to the right side. During a brief chat, Rabach mentioned four times that "it would be very hard to take Jon out of the lineup now with the way that he's playing," stopping short of openly campaigning for his pal, but simply answering a question candidly.
"Jon was definitely bewildered when it first went down," Rabach said. "I think we were all surprised. It would have been one thing if it was a known competition all the way through camp, but everybody thought it was a done deal, that Jon would be our right tackle. And obviously Stephon did some good stuff for us last year when Jon was hurt, and he's going to be a good football player in this league. But for it to happen the way it happened and as abruptly as it happened, it was kind of a surprise."
Jansen, who received $10 million guaranteed as part of a contract extension after the 2006 season, has been motivated by the demotion. An emotional player, he ached to get this chance. To perform well -- especially against two tough defenses -- and then lose the job again would be doubly painful.
"I was upset about it then, and I'm still upset about it now," said Jansen, who, when healthy, had started every game before this season. "But that's the business, and if you let it affect your performance then you're not being a professional. If I said it didn't bother me, or it still didn't bother me, I'd be lying. But I'm going to go out there every chance I get and prove that the decision was not the right one, and that's all I can do."
Becoming a reserve was a blow to his ego, and looking like a novice lineman during some practices, trying to learn to be a depth guard or center on the fly, was "humbling."
"This is why I respect the man," Bugel said. "He didn't balk when I asked him to work on right and left guard. He jumped in right away."
For a while Jansen said he "didn't want to hear what anybody had to say," even Bugel, as he worked through his anger, then focused on showing that Zorn had made a mistake.
There is no disputing Heyer, an undrafted free agent out of Maryland last year, is younger, quicker and more athletic than Jansen, with better lateral movement in pass protection. Jansen's struggles in pass protection in the preseason led several scouts and NFL executives to reach the same conclusion as Zorn.
But Jansen was stout against the pass rush of Dallas and Philadelphia -- a blitz-heavy team that overloaded Jansen's side when possible -- and the running game has blossomed since his arrival. He is more aggressive in his drive blocking, opening lanes on the outside. Portis averaged 2.8 yards per carry to the right side in the opening three games, with just two carries of five yards or more, and four rushes for zero or negative yardage.
In two games with Jansen, Portis has averaged 5.1 yards per carry to the right side (15 carries for 76 yards), with nine runs of five yards or more and one for zero yards or less.
"It's up to the coaches to make that decision," Jansen said of who will start. "I've learned that the hard way. I'm not making that call. I'm going to take every opportunity I can to go out and prove that I should be the guy."