What Can Brawn Do for You?
Jon Jansen was at the mall, playing with his children on one of those coin-operated trains most toddlers cannot resist, when his cellphone began to vibrate. With preseason having just concluded, the Redskins had the day off, but during a news conference Coach Jim Zorn had let it be known that Stephon Heyer was on the verge of taking Jansen's starting right tackle job.
Several reporters left messages for Jansen, a starter for the team since being drafted in 1999. Jansen was numb, still in shock, when he called center Casey Rabach, a close friend, explaining he was losing a position he hadn't imagined was in jeopardy.
Zorn prized the health and confidence of Jason Campbell above almost everything else, and with Jansen woeful in pass protection in the preseason, Heyer was his guy. Recovering from a broken leg that ended his 2007 season in the opening game, Jansen wore a grim smile to work, labored through awkward practices while taking snaps as a scout-team guard and wondered if a chance to salvage his career, and reputation, would come.
It did two Sundays ago at Dallas. With Heyer nursing a shoulder injury, Jansen flourished and helped restore an element of brawn to the right side of the line. Tailback Clinton Portis prospered elsewhere than running to the left side, anchored by Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels. In Sunday's victory over the Eagles, Jansen was strong again on running plays and in pass protection.
That puts Zorn and Jansen, a stalwart under former coach Joe Gibbs and a favorite of longtime offensive line coach Joe Bugel, at a crossroads again, with Jansen, 32, still trying to convince the new coach of his worth. On Monday, Zorn was peppered with questions about Jansen, how his ascent would seem to be enough for him to remain the starter even should Heyer, 24, be back at full health this week.
Zorn stopped well short of a commitment. What some teammates believed to be a given -- that Jansen is the starting right tackle again -- remains anything but.
Zorn said he is still "hoping" Heyer (6 feet 6, 314 pounds) can come back to face the hapless St. Louis Rams on Sunday, that he can "step back in." His concerns with Jansen's ability to keep the quarterback protected apparently have not been resolved by Jansen's last eight quarters of work; the trade-off in a markedly more diverse run game with Jansen (6-6, 306) in the lineup has not yet changed his mind.
"He wasn't being punished," Zorn said of Jansen. "We just felt like Stephon Heyer was the guy who could give us that more solid protection in the passing game, and I still think that."
It's hard to imagine the "we" in Zorn's statement would include Bugel, who hashes out the run game along with newcomers Sherman Smith, the offensive coordinator, and Stump Mitchell, the running backs coach. Bugel's belief in Jansen is long established. The old-school line coach may be Zorn's antithesis on many levels, but they get along well, and Zorn's authority is not in dispute.
"I'm not into worrying about making decisions. We're just getting ready for the next game and let the chips fall where they fall," Bugel said. "I don't think you want to play musical chairs. The only thing I'm worrying about with Stephon Heyer is getting his shoulder healthy and making sure we have good depth."
Jansen's teammates have rallied around him. Left guard Pete Kendall noted the recent tendency to run more often to the right side. During a brief chat, Rabach mentioned four times that "it would be very hard to take Jon out of the lineup now with the way that he's playing," stopping short of openly campaigning for his pal, but simply answering a question candidly.
"Jon was definitely bewildered when it first went down," Rabach said. "I think we were all surprised. It would have been one thing if it was a known competition all the way through camp, but everybody thought it was a done deal, that Jon would be our right tackle. And obviously Stephon did some good stuff for us last year when Jon was hurt, and he's going to be a good football player in this league. But for it to happen the way it happened and as abruptly as it happened, it was kind of a surprise."