Redskins' Aging Offensive Line Has Been Hit Hard by Injuries, Criticism
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Chris Samuels was leaving the field last month in Seattle, all but dragging his right leg behind him. The Washington Redskins had just beaten the Seattle Seahawks, and Samuels had played every offensive snap at his normal left tackle position, helping running back Clinton Portis gain 143 yards, yet doing so all but anonymously.
"My knee is killing me," Samuels muttered as he limped to the locker room. Yet the following week, he would be back on the practice field, and the next Sunday, he would be back blocking again. Samuels is 31, in almost any other profession a young man. But in football, he is approaching old age, his limbs creakier every year, his ankles immersed in ice nearly every night.
"You get used to it," Samuels said later that week. "It's not harder to deal with than any other year, because you expect to be beaten up by this point."
Two weeks later, Samuels's ninth season would be over, ended when he tore his right triceps in the Redskins' loss to Baltimore.
As the season concludes today in San Francisco, the Redskins' offensive line has found itself not only with the normal bumps and bruises associated with five months of football, but with an inordinate amount of scrutiny as well. When the Redskins started 6-2 and Portis led the NFL in rushing, the line was cited as a primary component, suddenly one of the best run-blocking outfits in the league. As the season collapsed and quarterback Jason Campbell was hit more frequently, the line was derided as porous and ineffective in pass protection.
"The truth," veteran guard Pete Kendall said, "is probably somewhere in between."
Through all that, the five men who started the majority of games across the front -- from left to right, Samuels, Kendall, center Casey Rabach, guard Randy Thomas and tackle Jon Jansen -- have endured as the men the Redskins must turn to, because there is little behind them.
Stephon Heyer, a 24-year-old tackle who went undrafted out of the University of Maryland two years ago, beat out Jansen in preseason for the right tackle spot but lost his job when he was injured and only now is stepping in for the injured Samuels. Jason Fabini, 34, will start for Jansen at right tackle today because Jansen, too, has a knee injury. Chad Rinehart, a third-round draft pick this year, has not played a down. And each day at practice, Joe Bugel, their 68-year-old coach, has prodded them all, simultaneously demanding of and fiercely loyal to his veterans.
"Those guys don't look over their shoulder," Bugel said last week. "They're not afraid of losing their jobs. I've always had a lot of success with older guys. That's why it's sad missing the playoffs this year. They're a year older. It's another year on them."
That, going forward, is enormously significant. The Redskins' starting linemen this season average 31.6 years of age. Rabach and Samuels, both 31, are the youngest of the group of regular starters, and Rabach is the only one who has not endured a season-ending injury in his career. Kendall, 35, is the oldest, completing his 13th season but wanting to come back for at least one more even though he limits his practicing to protect his deteriorating knees. Thomas, 32, survived the entire season a year after playing in only three games because of a triceps injury. And Jansen, 32, the longest-tenured Redskin, maintained his spot at right tackle even though some on the coaching staff wanted Heyer to return when he was healthy again, sources said.
It is nearly impossible to quantify the impact of age on any position, and the line is no different. But the Redskins' ability to improve on this season's offensive performance -- they rank 28th in the league in scoring and have seven touchdowns in their past seven games -- depends at least in part on how well this group handles aging or how quickly the Redskins can replace them. Two measures by which offensive lines are judged -- rushing yards and sacks allowed per pass play -- offer a glimpse. Of the top five teams in each category this year, none has a line whose starters averaged more than 29.2 years old; every one averaged at least two years younger than the Redskins' starters.
None of the Redskins' linemen, though, is considering retirement. But they are realistic.