By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"You got to be ready to go at any time because you don't know when it's going to be that nobody's going to want you or you get hurt bad enough that you can't come back," Jansen said. "You think about it more every year."
For the most part, the offensive linemen have declined opportunities to evaluate their own play over the course of the year. Sitting in front of his locker after a devastating loss at Baltimore this month, Thomas said only: "I just know I got to look in the mirror. I know I've got to play better."
"They've been extremely tough," Coach Jim Zorn said last week. He thought back over the course of the season, to how they have looked during practice, Samuels struggling to move on his knee, Kendall shuffling from one end of the field to the other when his teammates run.
"Everybody's looking stiff and everything," Zorn said. "But when you watch them on video, they actually can bend and turn and actually get down and move. I've just had faith, I guess, all year long, and they have as well, that their bodies are going to work on Sundays."
Kendall was a first-round pick in 1996, and he considers sitting out practice on Wednesdays, his normal routine, "the smart way to handle my situation." It is one reason he has been able to start every game this season, he said. He was asked, though, if he notices a difference between, say, a 27-year-old Pete Kendall and the 35-year-old version.
"There's definitely a difference, but I also have experience on my side," Kendall said. "I understand the game. Anybody who's 35 isn't physically who they were when they were 26 or 27, but maybe it's my biased opinion: I don't think the drop-off has been precipitous."
Ray Brown played nine of his 20 years in the NFL with the Redskins, the last in 2005, when he was 43. He now serves as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills. He said the first indication of whether linemen are aging is apparent on the videos coaches and players watch on Mondays, reviewing their own performances.
"They're catching, not bending, not playing with leverage," Brown said. "And by catching, I mean absorbing the defender rather than getting after it. Some guys just play it safe, play not to get hurt. That's the one thing I did not want to do. I wanted to be physical."
That is, above all else, what Bugel wants, too. He likes his veterans because with younger players, "you have to spend so much more time with them," and he refers to his old group with the testosterone-laden affection of a man who has spent 31 years in the NFL. Thomas, Bugel said, "is a slugger," Jansen "tough as nails," Samuels "the epitome of what you look to coach."
"You become attached to the guys," Bugel said.
But at some point, the Redskins will have to become unattached to this group. The Redskins' only offensive lineman younger than 30 with any experience is Heyer. Bugel believes Heyer's long arms and athleticism indicate he could "develop into one heck of a football player," particularly in pass protection. But given the fits and starts to his season, Heyer has struggled.
"The speed's gotten a little bit better for me," Heyer said after last week's win over Philadelphia, his sixth start of the year. "I'm starting to read things on the ground a little bit. But it's tough to watch film and be able to perform on that. What I've learned is you've got to be in there in order to get used to it. It's not the same watching from the side."
Rinehart came from Northern Iowa, not a major college program, and the NFL, Bugel said, is "kind of a culture shock." Devin Clark, an undrafted free agent from New Mexico, was elevated from the practice squad because of the injuries to Samuels and Jansen late in the year.
"It's been a great experience, more than I would have imagined," he said this month. "I'm just glad I made it this far."
The Redskins' line made it this far in varying degrees of health. Jansen and Samuels will watch the finale on television. Kendall, Rabach and Thomas will line up side by side for the 16th game this year. Whether it is the final time they do so will be determined in the offseason, when each of these men is recovering from yet another long season, uncertain what the next one will bring.
Staff writer Jason Reid contributed to this report.