By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Before bringing Derrick Dockery back into the fold, Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, said he studied tape and consulted with people familiar with the left guard's time away from Washington.
"I talked with one national guy who was up in Buffalo this year," Cerrato said, "and they said the thing that happened with Dock up there, every Monday they'd catch him in a room by himself, and he'd be watching the Redskins games. It's like his heart was never into it up there."
After spending two years with the Bills, Dockery is back with the Washington offensive line for Sunday's season opener at the New York Giants, not complementing the unit as much as he's completing it.
In fact, everyone from his fellow linemen to quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Clinton Portis agree that with Dockery back, the line should be noticeably better than last season. The Redskins will begin compiling evidence to support such a claim against one of the league's best defensive lines on Sunday, but they already showed modest improvement during the preseason.
Campbell was sacked 38 times last season, which made him the fourth-most sacked quarterback in the league. But in four preseason games this year, the first-string unit didn't allow Campbell to be sacked.
"But we still got to work on technique. He got pressured a couple of times, and we just want to keep him clean," Dockery said.
While the team spent freely to improve its defense in the offseason, many fans and pundits point out that the front office ignored the one of the team's biggest weaknesses -- its offensive line -- in the draft, and Dockery was the only splashy upgrade via free agency. Cerrato disagrees with the criticism, pointing out two of the five starting linemen are new.
A year removed from having the oldest offensive line in the league, Cerrato thinks the additions of Dockery at left guard and a healthy Stephon Heyer at right tackle will pay huge dividends.
The Redskins played the bulk of last season with the oldest line in the NFL -- an average age of 32. With Heyer healthy and 28-year-old Dockery replacing Pete Kendall, the line's average age will be less than 30 to start the season.
"So I think we got younger, which we needed to," said Cerrato, "and we got somewhat bigger."
The preseason included matchups against three of the league's best defenses -- Baltimore, New England and Pittsburgh -- which is a good way to prepare for their Week 1 opponent.
The Redskins' first test also will be among the season's toughest challenges, as the Giants' defensive line is among the NFL's best. They bring a varied, talented attack, with roving defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and bruising tackles Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins. In fact, their second-string tackles -- Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard -- could start for many teams.
Tuck, who had a career-best 12 sacks last season, is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, and Umenyiora, the team's sack leader the previous four seasons, is back in the rotation after missing all of 2008 because of a preseason knee injury, a torn lateral meniscus that required surgery.
While the Redskins' offensive line probably will show on Sunday whether it has improved over the last half of the 2008 season, two players whose success largely hinges on the line's production -- Portis and Campbell -- agree the unit has shown it is better than the one that ended last season.
"Anything about the offensive line has a lot to do with communication and a lot to do with being physical up front," Campbell said. "I think we answered the bell this preseason in those areas. I think we have a unique group that can work together."
Dockery started all 32 games in 2005 and '06 sandwiched between center Casey Rabach and left tackle Chris Samuels. Fellow linemen said Dockery's two-year hiatus in Buffalo did little to disrupt the unit's comfort and rhythm. Rabach said Dockery, aged two years since the last time he wore burgundy and gold, is the "same guy."
"The best thing about Dock coming back is the familiarity he had with us, with the organization, with us on the offensive line," Rabach said. "We just kind of picked up where we left off. Having a new guy come in who hadn't been around us, hadn't been in this organization, would've been tougher."
Dockery was picked by the Redskins in the third round of the 2003 draft and started 13 games as a rookie. He left in 2007 when the Bills dangled a seven-year, $49 million deal in front of him and played in every game in 2007 and '08, helping running back Marshawn Lynch top 1,000 yards both years.
But as Buffalo sought to free cap space and remake its line, Dockery was released in February, and the Redskins signed him to a five-year, $26 million contract, of which $8.5 million is guaranteed. It's a modest deal compared with the one that sent him to Buffalo and included less long-term money than he could've earned in Detroit, which was also pursuing him. But he wanted to come back to Washington.
"This team always had a piece of my heart," Dockery said. "It's where I started, where I played. This is where I plan to live after I retire."
Dockery continued living in the area during the offseason and stayed close with his former Redskins linemates. He doesn't recall specifically seeking out tape of Redskins' games every Monday -- Dockery said he routinely studied tape of linemen from all teams -- but it wasn't at all unusual for him to stay updated on how his former teammates fared each week.
"He would call [guard] Randy [Thomas] or me, and we'd talk about the games," Samuels said. "I think he loves the organization and his teammates. He's meant to be here."