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.
Certainly the line bears plenty of responsibility for the struggles of the last two games -- especially the fact that the Redskins have scored just 16 points, and Campbell suddenly has begun throwing interceptions. They haven't protected the quarterback enough for him to make plays. "The frustrating thing is seeing things well down the field and not having time to execute them," Zorn said.
But nobody recognizes this more than Thomas, who verbally beat himself up for Campbell's sacks in postgame interviews. "Bottom line we gotta stop getting Jason hit," Thomas said. "Everybody has got to do a better job. I can only speak for myself, but we're not going to be able to do what we want to do unless we can get Jason protected better."
So what does this mean for the Redskins going forward? A pessimist would say it doesn't bode well for the future that their linemen are an average of 32 years old, and all at least in their ninth season.
Obviously the team needs more youth and depth, two things it can't acquire until the offseason, and which it should've acquired through the draft before now. But that's a long-range concern. In the short term the Redskins are performing better than they're being given credit for, and their weaknesses are correctible.
Only one team really has overwhelmed them, the Steelers, with perhaps the single best pass rush in the league. On every other occasion they've been competitive, and the difference against the Cowboys was a matter of two or three plays. "It's not like we're getting blown out here," tight end Chris Cooley said. "We're four points away from a win. We're a good football team."
According to Zorn, the line had breakdowns in "technique" against the Cowboys that are fixable. Against a bull rusher like DeMarcus Ware, the breakdowns were magnified into disasters. A duck of the head, or a pair of tired feet, and the play imploded before it started. "There's a great chance, if we change a handful of things, that we can flip that game," Zorn said.
But the main reason to remain optimistic about the Redskins' line play is this: As a group, it's demonstrated competitive heart time and again. The line is one reason why, whenever observers count the Redskins out, they manage to exceed expectations. Last season it was a four-game winning streak to finish the season, when they seemed on the brink of collapse.
This season it was a four-game run after a discouraging season opener against the Giants. Their response to defeat is invariably healthy -- it's hard to remember an occasion over the last few years when their sound veteran line didn't bounce back.
"I could see if teams were just whippin' our behinds up and down the field," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "But that's not happening."