Raleigh McKenzie moved back into the Washington Redskins' starting lineup Sunday afternoon and this time it could be permanent. So what is the scoop? McKenzie has spent six seasons with the Redskins and his coaches say they have considered him a starter the last three.
He has played just about every game over that stretch, and at one time or other started at four of the five interior offensive line positions. He even started the 1986 NFC Championship game as a blocking back, of all things, which brought a rare complaint.
"I didn't like being sent in motion," he said. "I like sitting there waiting to tee off."
But being perceived as a starter and starting aren't the same. McKenzie noticed, but did not complain, because while he subbed for R.C. Thielemann here and Russ Grimm or Jeff Bostic there since 1986, the Redskins seemingly always were on the verge of moving him up.
They never did, because he was so good at everything that they never could bring themselves to make him play just one position.
McKenzie, 27, accepted these decisions more graciously than he may have felt about them, and Coach Joe Gibbs was among those who noticed, frequently mentioning McKenzie as one of his most valuable players.
In locker room talks, Gibbs has used him as an example of how he wants his Redskins to blend talents and goals into the team picture.
In training camp, McKenzie predicted: "I think this is my year." But a month ago, the starters were going so well that he saw the future might be something different: "I might be the Bobby Jones of the offensive line -- the sixth man," he said, referring to the former Philadelphia 76ers forward.
Then again, maybe not.
The Redskins entered this season planning to rotate seven offensive linemen -- the five starters, McKenzie and Joe Jacoby.
That worked for two weeks, but when quarterback Mark Rypien was injured against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3, line coach Jim Hanifan said he felt uncomfortable subbing players. Hanifan wanted Stan Humphries to play behind one unit (particularly one center).
Then when the running game got going against Phoenix, Hanifan didn't substitute much. He said he intended to continue the rotation, but Sunday against the New York Giants, he moved McKenzie ahead of Mark Schlereth at right guard and played the same unit for all 48 offensive plays.
"I wanted to get Joe and Mark in there," Hanifan said, "but it always seemed we were constantly in a touchy situation. The group we had out there felt comfortable with what the Giants were attempting to do and I stayed with them. I didn't want to have to experiment."
Hanifan said the move had been a difficult one, because he did not want Schlereth to consider himself demoted. He did admit McKenzie is the better pass blocker -- "close to the best we have" -- but the biggest reason appears to be that the Redskins thought McKenzie too good to continue spending all but a handful of plays on the bench.
"We really felt we needed to get him more playing time," Hanifan said. "It wasn't anything Mark was doing. I talked to Mark and explained that Rollo had accepted his role and we expected him to do the same thing."
What Hanifan won't say is that the summerlong plan to rotate Hogs probably is over. He said that, ideally, he still prefers to rotate them, but he admitted that "when it's nitty-gritty time, you don't want to throw a guy into the fray when the guys who've been out there are doing well."
Hanifan, new to the Washington staff, said as far back as training camp he traditionally had not run an offensive line like that. He always had named five starters, then told the backups to get their work in practice and to stay prepared in case they were needed.
That could be a tough transition for Jacoby, a 10-year veteran who has been one of the Redskins' best offensive linemen. But he did not return from reconstructive knee surgery until late in training camp, and by then Ed Simmons had taken his spot at right tackle.
For now, McKenzie has moved in at right guard and the line is playing well. After the Redskins averaged 95 yards on the ground in the first three games, Gibbs shifted them back to basics for Humphries and they averaged 171 rushing against the Cardinals and Giants.
The pass protection continues to be excellent; the Redskins have allowed four sacks, three of those against Dallas.
"Rollo will still move around," Hanifan said. "He knows that. We thought Russ got hurt Sunday and Mark was trotting onto the field. Russ shooed him off, but he'd have played right guard and Raleigh would have shifted to left guard. That's one of the luxuries in having a guy who can play all along the line."
McKenzie said that was fine with him. He made the Redskins as an 11th-round draft choice in 1985 (his twin, linebacker Reggie, who was waived by Phoenix yesterday, made the Raiders as a 10th-round pick).
He got his first start in 1986. He started every game in 1987 when Grimm got hurt and 14 of 16 games in 1988 at various spots. He started only eight games last season but played in 15. Gibbs said he proved himself "a complete player."
"Moving doesn't bother me," McKenzie said. "I've been able to move to different spots and play the same. I don't know why, but moving from the right side to the left side has never been a problem. You'd like to get in there at one place and start, but you have to do what's asked. . . . I'm not the type to complain. I think I can last a long time in this league by being versatile.
"When you're sitting behind guys who can't get it done, then it becomes frustrating. But that's not the case here. . . . I go out in warm-ups always expecting to go in there early and I try to stay prepared for that."
Nevertheless he was happy about starting, especially with the rotation of linemen having pretty much stopped.
"I feel good about it," he said. "I wasn't going to get upset. I just worked to stay ready. It feels good going out at the beginning, especially now with the weather turning cooler. It's harder to stay loose when it starts getting cold."
McKenzie had wondered when he would be called and had worried that he might be left out, especially after playing very little against the Cowboys and Cardinals.
"The thought had crossed my mind," he said. "I can't lie about it. I was thinking about it during the week, wondering if I was even going to play, especially with the line playing so good. But that's the way it is here. We've got good people on the bench and it's a tough decision for the coaches.
"Joe Jacoby is over there and he's been a starter 10 years. Mark Adickes hasn't played and he was a starter in Kansas City. He's a proven player. We've got so many players that when your number's not being called, you have to take it in stride. You wait your turn and take advantage of it when you get a chance."