Sally Jenkins: It's a Fine Line Between Blame and Praise

By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's generally not a good thing when offensive linemen are noticeable, and the Redskins linemen have gotten a lot of notice in the last two losses. They play an invisible game, a contest in which the action is indistinct, and beating or getting beat is a matter of an inside foot or shoulder.

It's not easy to rate them since we don't keep statistics on them, and award the yardage and completions they generate to others. But when the quarterback hits the ground, they make quarter-ton targets for blame.

The linemen are taking all the blame for the Redskins' downturn. Quarterback Jason Campbell was sacked three times in their 14-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and each time all eyes went accusingly to Randy Thomas or Chris Samuels as they dawdled over him, hands on their hips and jerseys stretched tight over their bellies, looking vaguely guilty, or as the late George Plimpton once described offensive linemen, "like wildlife of some large species disturbed at a waterhole."

In all of the postmortem discussion by Redskins coaches, players, and fans alike, the linemen are the scapegoats. It's difficult to win, Coach Jim Zorn pointed out, when you're just trying to keep the quarterback "upright."

It's not the job of a line to be identifiable, much less famous, unless it's collectively. As in Tom Brady's "five layers of protection" in New England, or The Hogs, the Redskins' unit of the 1980s that liked to "root around in the mud" as line coach Joe Bugel put it.

It's not their job to be recognizable heroes or game changers -- it's simply their job to use their bulk to protect others so they can change the game.

It's their job to take it as a compliment when they're called "the big uglies." It's their job to convert a good run into a great one, and to make a still-raw quarterback who's slow on his reads or missing them altogether, look smart. It's their job to labor in obscurity, until something bad happens, when they're expected to accept responsibility as if everything they did all game long happened in plain view of everybody.

As the late Gene Upshaw pointed out, "After Paul Revere rode through town, everybody said what a great job he did. But no one ever talked about the horse."

In that respect it's not so much a job as an ethic. And that's why at this point in the season it seems only right to take a moment to praise the Redskins' offensive line, and not just to blame them. The team is 6-4, after all.

When the Redskins were winning four in a row, averaging a league-best 174.6 rushing yards per game over that span, and Clinton Portis was leading the league with five straight games of 120 yards or better, and Campbell was reeling off 249 passes without an interception, there wasn't exactly a lot of discussion about Jon Jansen's great drive blocking.

The offensive line is the core of any team, the gut and innards of the organization. If there is a reason to believe the Redskins may yet have a strong finish, it's because of a veteran offensive line, though aging and nicked, has been responsible for the good things this season, as well as the bad.

Samuels is playing on a bad knee that probably will require surgery after the season, and yet he's been a yeoman. Casey Rabach, Pete Kendall and Jansen remain among the more superior run blockers in the league and the reason why Portis has passed 1,000 yards in only 10 games and is mentioned for awards.

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