In an NFL season marked by abrupt reversals of fortunes, the Washington Redskins' offensive line has performed one of the more dramatic turnarounds, laying the foundation for what has become the league's most productive offense.
Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson is the NFL's top-rated passer, with five touchdown passes and no interceptions. Running back Stephen Davis is the leading rusher and scorer, with eight touchdowns. And the result--112 points in three games--is drawing national attention.
"A lot of people are watching the Redskins' offense right now," said San Diego offensive line coach Joe Bugel, who nurtured Washington's Hogs in their romp through the 1980s. "When you put a lot of points on the board like they are, somebody is doing a great job. They're throwing a lot. And they have very few sacks. They've done a monumental job of redefining the offensive line."
The line was the Redskins' weak link last year, surrendering a team-record 61 sacks. Its offseason retooling consisted of adding rookie right tackle Jon Jansen, signing veteran left tackle Andy Heck and reshuffling existing components. Many expected similar results.
But the reconstituted line has far surpassed expectations. Davis has twice rushed for more than 100 yards. Last year, no Redskins back gained 100 yards in any game. The line has allowed just three sacks, vs. the 15 permitted through three games last year.
"It all starts with the line," said former Redskins tight end Rick "Doc" Walker. "Joe Namath wouldn't have been Joe Namath without the '69 Jets' offensive line. These quarterbacks can become ordinary in a hurry unless they're mobile--unless you're a guy like Brett Favre, scrambling all over the place."
Several factors account for the line's resurgence:
Continuity: All five linemen have played the same position since the preseason. Last year's Redskins featured five line combinations, with players shifting positions as injuries dictated.
"You get more consistency; you get a chemistry there," offensive line coach Russ Grimm said of the benefit of keeping starters in place. "You kind of build marriages, you hope, where you get everybody on the same page."
Quarterback: Brad Johnson is both accurate and quick with the ball, which reduces the pressure on the line. By Walker's count, as many as half the Redskins' 61 sacks last season weren't the line's fault but a combination of mistakes by quarterbacks and receivers.
"Brad Johnson is doing a phenomenal job getting the ball out quick," said passing-game coordinator Terry Robiskie. "That's a big asset. Other times when a [defensive] guy might have broken free, we would have given up the sack on some of those things. With Brad Johnson, a lot of sacks we have avoided this year."
Scheming: The Redskins are using tight ends and backs to help block for Davis and protect Johnson. Tight end James Jenkins is a terrific blocker; Mike Sellers is formidable, and Stephen Alexander is much improved.
"In the past, the Redskins wanted the line to hold up one-on-one, and it couldn't," said former tackle Mark May, a CBS analyst. "This year they're using tight ends and running backs to help. Last year they were sending three and four and five receivers out. This year, they're keeping a protector in."
Attitude: The unit's more aggressive, determined mind-set is partly because of new owner Daniel M. Snyder, who has said he won't tolerate unfit, indifferent players. It also stems from within.
"It starts with evaluating yourself from last season," said guard Tre Johnson. "Everybody knew we had room to grow. . . . You don't want it to be: 'Everybody is doing their thing but the offensive line. Everybody is doing their thing but Tre Johnson.' "
Both Bugel and May believe Grimm is doing a great coaching job. But any successful football retooling starts with good players. For that reason, May said he believes former general manager Charley Casserly should get consideration as NFL executive of the year. Casserly traded for Johnson in February, drafted Jansen in April and picked up Heck in June.
"Last year they had a bunch of ragamuffins out there--journeymen that four or five teams had released," May said. "Russ Grimm does a heck of a job, and he's finally got some talent."
Of the five starting linemen, only Cory Raymer, the center, returns at the same spot as last year. A second-round draft pick in 1995, he was slowed by injuries suffered in a 1996 car accident. This season, teammates say he is playing with more force and authority.
On the left side, Heck and guard Keith Sims, in his 10th season, have developed a quick chemistry. "We're very thorough in our mental preparation, in knowing what to expect from the defense," said Heck, who has 103 NFL starts at left tackle. "When things start to develop or we see certain looks, we have quick communication to pick it up. Even when there isn't communication, we see things unfold the same way."
Sims, a three-time Pro Bowl selection in Miami (1993-95), has rebounded from disappointing seasons. "He was raised in an offensive system that had no margin of error with a stationary quarterback in Dan Marino," Walker said. "He's a Russ Grimm kind of guy: skillful, but plays with great intensity. And Andy Heck is the consummate professional."
Like Sims, Tre Johnson, who moved from left to right guard, slimmed down over the summer and is in his best shape in years. Even at 326 pounds, Johnson is fast and agile. "He has lost half-a-piano, and I hope he'll continue to remain in shape," May said. "When you're too heavy, you get fatigued and injured, and that's what had happened to him."
Jansen (6-6, 302), whom the heftier Johnson calls "Big Jon," proved his worth by holding off defensive end Michael Strahan in the 50-21 victory over the New York Giants. Coaches and trainers like the rookie's toughness; he plays and practices despite injury, insisting that whatever his ailment, he feels better than the day before.
With this lineup, it has been easier to prepare for opponents. The adjustments have been subtle, Grimm said, but players are handling the shifts and movements better than a year ago.
The synergy between the Redskins' running and passing game is also complicating matter for opponents.
"If they're worried about the pass, you don't get as many eight-man fronts," Grimm said. "If you're worried about the run, you get more eight-man fronts, and they're limited as to the number of coverages they can play."
Still, Grimm stresses that his players have room for improvement.
"Everybody is humble," added Tre Johnson. "Three games is only three games. Unless you do it over 16--or 19, hopefully--it doesn't mean a thing."