What the Redskins need most this season, an offensive line more effective than five wooden Indians, is football's most vexing problem. There is no equation that nayone, even the Computer Cowboy's, can plug in and be guaranteed a versatile, cohesive unit, for many splendid ones seem as much a function of luck as imagination.
What's my line? Early-'70s Miami Dolphin fans still scratch their heads in wonderment that NFL culls such as Larry Little, Jim Langer, Bob Kuechenberg and their pals keyed perfection, 17-0, one season and another Super Bowl victory the next. Or that arguably the best tackle alive at the moment, Leon Gray, could be drafted and then dismissed quickly, later to become an all-pro in New England and Houston.
If the Dolphins could find a line of gems at K Mart, the Raiders and Jets shopped Tiffany's using high draft choices for blockers who give relatively tame runners tigerish statistics. The Dallas Cowboys have been wildly successful lately with reformed defensive linemen. The Steelers give the back of their hand to any blocking candidates who cannot bench press Pennsylvania, so dedicated are they to strength.
Without tooting his own bugle too loudly, Joe Bugel believes he knows blocking timber and how to mold it into a force powerful enough so that the Offense of the '80s will not be destroyed before it gets airborne. He volunteered that the Redskins will have "a good offensive line this year," and who could expect him to say much more? Or less?
Like his colleagues, Bugel is far from mastering the chemistry of offensive lines. Aftger nearly 20 years, he does know what an offense cannot consistently move without.
"If you have two tackles and a fullback," he said, "you're gonna win your share of games. We proved that (with Gray, two 300-pounders alternating at the other tackle and Earl Campbell) at Houston."
Why is tackle so vital?
"That's where you start the running game. And the passing game."
The Dolphins to the contrary, Bugel believes you get what you pay for in the NFL.
"If you're gonna build a great offensive team," he said, "you have to draft great offensive tackles. You can get receivers in the middle rounds; you can get running backs in the middle rounds. To get an established lineman, you have to move in the first two rounds."
The Redskins' marathon man, General Manager Bobby Beathard, sprinted through the draft this year, grabbing a mobile mountain (Mark May) on the first round and surrendering a firstround choice in '82 to maneuver for guard-center Russ Grimm on the third.
A few Redskins snickered at May during a minicamp. One promised indedcent acts in public if he plays well this season. But anyone who gets into two scrimmage scraps his first day at training camp, as May did Tuesday, can't be all bad.
Skilled as the Grimms and Mays may be, an all-neophyte line is dommed, Bugel said. Some canny vets are necessary because of all the blocking-assignment chatter done in fractions of seconds. The old-timer provides whatever calm is possible in such situations, he having experienced the worst outcome of every call.
Bugel has coached lines and linemen in all sizes and shapes. And for every method of attack, from the tank corps of Woody Hayes at Ohio State seven years ago to the missile militia of Joe Gibbs here this season. When he relaxes and fixes on the line of his dreams, Bugel sees the Cardinals of the mid-'70s: Tom Banks, Dan Dierdorf, Conrad Dobler, Bob Young and Roger Finnie.
"They wre close to being an offensive line with a defensive temperament," he said. "They were nasty. That's really what you try to do offensively, get controlled aggression. But if you can ever get your offensive lienmen to get that (hellbent) defensive temperament you've got some rugged individuals.
"People have a misconception of offensive linemen. You cannot be a passive guy and play in our offense. You do like a more patient, reserved kid on the offensive line, but he ought to have a little mean streak in the back of his mind."
And a bulldozer of a fullback behind him. A John Riggins, which the Redskins did not have last season. Or an Earl Campbell, which Bugel did with the Oilers.
Most backs need a hole; Campbell needs a crack. Sometimes not even that. Against the Rams once, Campbell started a sweep left and somebody failed even to touch linebacker Isiah Robertson, an all-pro at the time. Even Bum Phillips was worried about the collision, to the point of nearly swallowing his chaw.
When the dust cleared in the L.A. Coliseum, there was Robertson on the ground. Prone. With cleat marsk about his chest and a broken face mask. Campbell had turned a probable loss into a 40-year gain.
"To this day they have a picture of th play in the Oiler offices," Bugel said. "Torgy (LaVern Torgeson, the Redskin defensive line coach working in a similar capacity for the Rams at that time) said it was the most devastating thing he'd seen.
"Earl came off and we said, 'Sorry about missin' that block.' He said: 'What block?' He didn't even remember runnin' over the guy."
Washington will remember Great Blocks of '81. Bugel will not allow it to be otherwise. If he has to rent a plane and drop leaflets over the area, Bugel will draw attention to his blockers when they pancake somebody. His KO Club has been moved from Houston.
"Nice beautiful shirts we bought for guys on offense who knock a guy down on his rear end with a legitimate block," he said. "That's a KO. And not only does he get a shirt, but we're gonna broadcast it all over town, really blow this out, brag on our people.
"So often, you only notice offensive linemen for something negative, a penalty or sack. We want our guys to go for the big block, the hustle block, and when they make it we're gonna let everybody know."