By Tracee Hamilton
Saturday, August 14, 2010; 9:34 PM
There were a lot of questions surrounding the 2010 Washington Redskins entering Friday night's exhibition opener. Would Albert Haynesworth last an entire series? Who would step up in the wide-open wide receiver race? How would Donovan McNabb perform in burgundy and gold, and most important, would he have time to show us?
It's no secret that in a 2009 season full of problems, the biggest was the offensive line. Quarterback Jason Campbell at times looked like a duck in a carnival shooting gallery, running sideways (or backwards) while desperately trying to elude defensive fire. The line was what many Redskins fans thought needed the most offseason attention, and the area that most feared would not get it. You don't make a big splash on the free agent market by signing offensive linemen.
But the Redskins instead made their seasonal splash by signing McNabb, then got busy building a wall in front of him. They resisted all the medium-rare quarterbacks available in the draft, the flashy wide receivers, all the temptations of old, and picked left tackle Trent Williams out of Oklahoma with their top pick. They also replaced the right side of the line, trading for tackle Jammal Brown and signing guard Artis Hicks as an unrestricted free agent. Only left guard Derrick Dockery and center Casey Rabach remain from last season's starting line.
And they didn't stop there. They also bolstered the pool of backups, signing Kory Lichtensteiger and Clint Oldenburg and drafting Selvish Capers and Erik Cook. With returning veterans Edwin Williams, Will Robinson, Chad Rinehart and Stephon Heyer, the line is unquestionably deeper than a year ago, when injuries meant the weekly lineups were like snowflakes: No two were alike.
"Now that we have some depth we don't have to worry about somebody getting hurt, we have somebody who can come in," fullback Mike Sellers said.
And yet Sellers and the linemen say that the more important change is not to the roster, but to the system. A new blocking scheme is the reason there were holes for running backs Clinton Portis (22 yards), Ryan Torain (62) and rookie Keiland Williams (51)on Friday night. It's the reason McNabb and backup Rex Grossman had time to check more than one receiver and spent no time on their backsides.
"We've got a whole new blocking scheme that we put in this year under [offensive coordinator] Kyle Shanahan and [offensive line coach] Chris Foerster," said Rabach, who admitted that what we saw of the playbook Friday night was "vanilla."
"We really like it. There were some growing pains, obviously, with it but it's really coming along. Obviously we've got a ways to go yet. We really do."
True. The Redskins were 4-12 last season; you don't recover from that with one preseason win over a team that was 6-10 a year ago. There are still question marks after Friday's game, no doubt, and Brown has yet to play. One that seems to have been answered, however: Trent Williams was absolutely the right draft choice. He looked like a rookie at times - he was flagged for an illegal-formation penalty in the second quarter - and admitted he was "gassed" after three plays, but his mistakes were few.
"I thought he did a good job," Coach Mike Shanahan said. "It is hard to say for sure until I look at the film. He had one penalty in there, that one dump that he had called back. We had him lining up too far in the backfield, but I am very pleased for the first game."
"That's typical for a rookie," Sellers said of the errors, "but he's playing like a vet and he doesn't let anybody intimidate him and that's what we appreciate the most."
In their first series of the second quarter, with a 14-3 lead, the Redskins ran three times in 10 plays - all to Trent Williams's side of the line. The gains were not spectacular - one and 15 yards by Torain, six yards by Williams - but Grossman was able to mix the running and passing game in a way that seldom came together a year ago. The result was a nine-yard touchdown to Fred Davis that gave the Redskins a 21-3 lead and their first comfortable margin in a long, long time.
"To be a first game for a rookie . . . I think he did a great job," Hicks said. "We're all still out there chasing that perfect game but I think that was a great start for him. He's got so much potential, I think the sky's the limit for this young kid. He's going to be the future for these left tackles for the next few years."
There is much work to be done. Hicks pointed out that only Dockery and Rabach had played next to each other before Friday night's game. "Just building the chemistry is probably the biggest thing we have to do and that's going to come with repetitions and us playing together," he said.
Hicks isn't worried about overconfidence, either. It's one win in the preseason, and while it feels good, it doesn't count for much more than giving the players and fans a bit of a glow. For the players, that will last until they get back on the practice field, where they'll find out all the things they did wrong. And that's okay with Hicks.
"If you're very critical of yourself, you're harder on yourself after a win," he said. "It's easier to come in when everyone's high-fiving you and patting you on the back and say, 'I had the best game in the world.' If you're hard on yourself you'll break yourself down even moreso after a win than a loss."