Chris Samuels, Jon Jansen and the other members of the Washington Redskins' offensive line squeezed into desks Monday in their meeting room at Redskins Park. It is a weekly ritual for an NFL team, players piling into a room that looks like it could be used for an Econ 101 lecture to view the tape of the previous day's game. The Redskins' blockers knew they were in for a particularly uncomfortable experience.
After the lights went out, the players watched quietly as unsettling scenes unfolded on the screen, images of rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey repeatedly being given up-close views of the FedEx Field turf by the New Orleans Saints during the Redskins' defeat last Sunday. Ramsey was sacked seven times in the 43-27 loss, and amazed some onlookers by emerging upright. Offensive line coach Kim Helton and assistant offensive line coach John Hunt didn't rant and rave, pointing out mistakes in a reserved but forceful manner as the tape showed one breakdown after another. The players said little.
"You might hear a guy smack his lips when his guy gets his turn to beat him on the film," Samuels said later in the week, "but that was about it."
To Samuels and Jansen, the would-be anchors of the Redskins' beleaguered offensive line, the tape was as disturbing as any film based on a Stephen King horror novel. Jansen called Monday's regrouping the toughest Day After of his four-year Redskins tenure.
"I've been here longer than anyone else on that unit," Jansen said as he sat in the lobby of Redskins Park following a midweek practice while the club readied for today's game at Green Bay. "I may not be the oldest guy, but I'm kind of seen as the leader of that unit. When it's not done well, I really think it reflects on me as a leader."
Samuels was one of the last players to leave the locker room that evening, heading for the exit nearly two hours after practice ended. "I felt the same way Jon felt," Samuels said. "It was tough to watch. . . . It's a young kid out there and you want to give him an opportunity. And he's just getting smacked left and right, left and right."
The Redskins knew when the season began that the patched-together middle of their offensive line was a potential problem area. But they crossed their fingers and hoped they would get by because they had, in right tackle Jansen and Pro Bowl left tackle Samuels, one of the game's best set of bookends to neutralize opponents' top pass-rushing defensive ends.
Jansen mostly has done his part, shrugging off the uncertainty of being in the final season of his contract to continue his steady play. But Samuels is struggling for the first time in his three-year pro career, suffering through two of his three worst games in the NFL within a span of a few weeks. He has played through a sprained ankle, a stomach virus that caused him to lose nine pounds, a strained groin muscle and a bruised thigh. He was beaten by the Saints' Darren Howard for two sacks last Sunday only three weeks after being beaten by 49ers defensive end Andre Carter for two sacks in a defeat at San Francisco.
Redskins quarterbacks have been sacked 16 times this season, and the shortcomings up front often have been a major factor when Coach Steve Spurrier's offense has sputtered. It has been a trying season for the bookends. But such is life in the NFL, and all those issues must be shoved aside this afternoon when the Redskins face the daunting task of trying to right themselves at Lambeau Field against one of the league's better teams.
"When you respect the people you're coaching, they don't expect lovey-dovey when it didn't go our way," Helton said when asked during an interview about his tone during Monday's tape session. "We don't get paid to try hard. We get paid to block. . . . Jon Jansen doesn't get to say, 'Boy, I played pretty good.' Your group didn't play well. I think that good men judge themselves harshly. Jon Jansen is a great man, so he judges himself harshly. I like to think I'm a good man, so I judge him harshly also. . . . I don't think anyone in that room tries harder or feels worse than Chris Samuels does. . . . It's a competitive situation, and we expect him to win every time. We don't pay him to get beat twice."
Everything appeared to come easily to Samuels in his first two seasons after the Redskins made him the third overall pick in the 2000 draft. He moved into the starting lineup immediately, even ahead of fellow prized rookie LaVar Arrington, and last season Samuels joined the linebacker in reaching the Pro Bowl as second-year pros.
But anyone who thinks that he hasn't faced adversity simply doesn't know him, Samuels says. He grew up in Mobile, Ala., watching his mother, Shirley, work at a grocery store and two jobs on the side to support him and his three older brothers. His father, James, was unable to work after being hurt in an automobile accident.
"She made a lot of sacrifices so we could have things growing up," Samuels said. "We went through our rough times. Some times were better than others, but for the most part we always kind of struggled financially."
He was only an average-sized kid until a growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years at John Shaw High in Mobile. "He was kind of quiet and reserved," said Samuels's brother Lawrence, the eldest sibling who is a veteran of nine seasons in the Arena Football League, mostly recently with the Tampa Bay Storm. "As his older brothers, we always picked on him."
But Chris always was a good athlete, and Lawrence remembers his younger brother playing quarterback, then running back, when he joined the local park league. Chris Samuels was a tight end as a high school sophomore when he was riding the bench behind a freshman, Leonardo Carson, who would go on to Auburn University and now is a defensive tackle with the San Diego Chargers. So Samuels was happy when he was moved to tackle, where he found a home while also playing on the defensive line.
He became a standout player and moved on to the University of Alabama, where, after a redshirt season, Samuels became a starter a few games into his freshman year. He started 42 straight games without allowing a sack, and didn't permit so much as a quarterback pressure as a senior. He opened holes for Alabama running back Shaun Alexander, now a star with the Seattle Seahawks, and won the Outland Trophy as college football's top lineman.
His virtually flawless play continued with the Redskins, raising the bar so high that his missteps this season are all the more glaring. The troubles began when Samuels, 25, sprained his ankle in an exhibition game at Carolina on Aug. 10. He missed the remainder of the preseason but was back in the lineup when the Redskins opened the regular season with a win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 8. Since then, however, it's been one nagging injury after another.
"The ankle injury led to the groin injury, I'm sure," former Redskins tackle Joe Jacoby said. "It's hurting his sets, how he's setting up. He doesn't have his base. He's playing without any legs. You can see it, and you can't play the game that way."
Samuels has played down the effects of the injuries on his play. But last week, he didn't discount them altogether as he readied to face Packers right end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, a speedy pass-rush specialist who had 131/2sacks last season and has three this season.
"My body is starting to get healthy and I'm feeling a whole lot better on the field," Samuels said. "I believe eventually I'll get back to performing like I performed last year. If I look at it, I had three pretty good games and I had two bad games. . . . I'm not going to hide behind injuries or anything like that. . . . It's tough to deal with, but I'm not making any excuses. Those guys are good players. Those days, they were the better players. I just have to get my stuff together."
Other Redskins players say they respect what Samuels is doing. "You know when a guy is sucking it up for the team -- not just for himself, but for the team," said veteran tight end Walter Rasby. "That creates ultimate respect."
He remains among the Redskins' most affable players, the same guy who used a portion of his $10 million rookie signing bonus to buy his parents a new house in Alabama while leaving his own new home in Virginia mostly unfurnished for about a month.
"It was no big deal," he said. "At times, when you were a kid, you'd sleep on the floor. I just thought I'd save a little money. . . . I'm a firm believer that if you go around thinking you're a big shot, God will humble you."
Said Lawrence Samuels: "We were raised to appreciate the things we had. That goes back to our mother and the things she did to get us through the tough times."
When Tennessee Titans guard Bruce Matthews retired prior to this season, Jansen says he told his wife Martha that his new goal was to play in 297 NFL games. That would be one more than Matthews, the record holder for non-kickers.
Today's game will be Jansen's 54th start at right tackle in the 54 regular season games the Redskins have played since selecting Jansen in the second round of the 1999 draft out of the University of Michigan. He has missed one play in his NFL career, getting yanked by former offensive line coach Russ Grimm for a snap at the end of a 50-21 triumph over the New York Giants in the second game of his rookie season.
"Andy Heck the next morning was like, 'Don't ever let the coaches take you out for one play,' " Jansen said of the veteran who preceded Samuels as the team's starting left tackle. "I didn't understand then why. He said, 'Because you can say you played every play.' I regret not standing up now, but at the time I didn't know anything."
Jansen, 26, spent last week saying he didn't have even a minor knee injury even though Helton acknowledged that Jansen "got hurt twice" during the Saints game. "He's so hard-headed, he won't admit he's hurt," Helton said.
His proud, workmanlike approach comes, he says, from growing up in Clawson, Mich., a tiny town just outside Detroit.
"You grow up where I came from, and we had 18 or 19 guys on the whole football team," Jansen said. "Everybody always tells you, 'Nobody ever comes out of Clawson. Nobody ever makes it big.' . . . People spent so much time telling you to play for other things because you're not going to make it. I always knew I was going to have a chance and I was going to make the most of it. It's my spot and I don't want to give it up."
He was the middle child of three boys with two high school teachers for parents, and he grew up aspiring to be a basketball or baseball player. He was tall but not thick as a kid, going from 235 to 285 pounds during his first year of college. He was a tight end and linebacker at Clawson High, and he went to Michigan expecting to be a tight end.
But the Wolverines already had a future NFL tight end (Buffalo's Jay Riemersma) and brought in two future NFL tight ends (Pittsburgh's Jerame Tuman and Cleveland's Mark Campbell) at the same time as Jansen. Faced with the prospect of being "a slow tight end or a pretty quick tackle," Jansen said, he chose the path of least resistance to being in the lineup immediately. After a redshirt year, the kid from Clawson who had played his high school games in front of "maybe 150 people" was a freshman starting at tackle for the Wolverines before crowds as large as 111,000.
He made 50 straight starts during a college career that included a national championship. He suffered a severe ankle sprain during start No. 48 when his leg got caught beneath Wolverines quarterback Tom Brady during a game at Ohio State, but was back in the lineup for No. 49. "There was no option," Jansen said. "I was going to play."
Said Steve Hutchinson, a former all-American guard at Michigan who now is on Seattle's injured reserve list: "Jon is basically the epitome of leadership. He's a great guy to hang out with or going fishing with off the field, and he's a guy who does everything right on the field, even if it's just in practice."
Jansen was part of a Redskins' draft in '99 that saw Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey chosen in the first round, and he has been a stabilizing force in an organization that has had remarkably little stability around him. Spurrier is Jansen's fourth head coach in four NFL seasons (counting 2000 interim coach Terry Robiskie), and he admitted during training camp this year that the team's poor play and turmoil last season took much of the fun out of the sport for him.
"It's tough to change systems and those things," Jansen said last week. "But in everything that changes, I always want one thing to stay the same, and that's the way I play and what the people who are here can expect from me. I guess in an unstable environment, I try to be the one who's the most stable."
Jansen has been the one bright spot among the Redskins' blockers this season, according to Jacoby. "He's done a great job," said Jacoby, who played on a Redskins' offensive line that surrendered nine sacks in the entire 1991 season. "He's the steadiest of the bunch."
Jansen, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency following the season, doesn't think the contract negotiations have affected his play, but conceded that the uncertainty bothers him. Late last week, negotiations intensified after a two-month lull.
"When I'm out there playing, I don't think about anything but playing," Jansen said. "But it's always a topic. Everybody always wants to know what's going on with the contract. I walk around and people want to know. Teammates are curious. Wherever I go, people want to know if I'm going to be around. I'd love to know what the future holds. It's just been frustrating."
Still, little could be more exasperating these days than being a linchpin of the Redskins' offensive line.
"It's hard to see the guy back there without a chance to throw the ball," Jansen said. "He's got a lot of talent and he's got a lot going for him, and he could do well if we gave him the time. . . . Somehow or another, we've just got to play better as a unit."