During 11-on-11 drills yesterday, veteran H-back Brian Kozlowski lined up at the line of scrimmage and used his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame to fend off pass rushers lunging toward quarterback Patrick Ramsey. For the next play, rookie Chris Cooley (6-3, 265) replaced Kozlowski and lined up in the backfield, then sprinted into a pass pattern. Occasionally, both Cooley and Kozlowski watched from the sideline, with an extra wide receiver on the field. Other times, one of them would line up in the slot as a wideout.
The quarterback duel between Ramsey and Mark Brunell is the most scrutinized competition in the Washington Redskins' training camp, with the media even counting to see who gets the most snaps. However, perhaps the most competitive battle involves seven tight ends and H-backs.
"It's going to be a hard-fought thing," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who released tight end Sean Brewer on Sunday. "I think those guys are very competitive. We've got kind of a mix. We've got young guys there, and then we've got guys that have been around a while. I like our tight end situation."
Walter Rasby, a 6-3, 252-pounder, is the projected starter at tight end with Fred Baxter (6-3, 268) or Robert Royal (6-4, 257) to be his backup. The top H-back role is wide open among Kozlowski, Cooley and the 6-3, 260-pound Mike Sellers, who missed the past two days of practice with an ankle injury. The 6-3, 258-pound Leonard Stephens is expected to be a reserve H-back if he makes the team.
Gibbs accumulates tight ends the way the Internal Revenue Service collects taxes because of the position's importance in his run-oriented offense. Gibbs generally lines up two tight ends instead of one -- as most other NFL teams do -- to help on runs and to better protect the quarterback. The pure tight end lines up on the line of scrimmage and is primarily a blocker. The H-back, who mostly lines up off the line of scrimmage or in the backfield, is a hybrid of a tight end, a fullback and even a wide receiver. Joe Bugel, the Redskins' assistant head coach-offense, likes to describe the position as a "tweener."
"We ask him to play so many roles," said tight ends coach Rennie Simmons, who held the same position with Gibbs from 1981 to '89.
In Gibbs's offense, no position besides the quarterback is as mentally challenging as the H-back. The ideal H-back blocks like a pure tight end, possesses pass-catching ability and goes in motion from various spots on the field. "Most guys who played tight end their whole life aren't suited for it," said Rick "Doc" Walker, the local radio personality, who played the position for the Redskins from 1980 to '85.
Besides mastering the traditional role of a tight end, the H-back must also understand the duties of a fullback and wide receiver. Thus, pass protection schemes, routes and formations are part of the learning curve. The biggest difficulty for Cooley, a third-round pick from Utah State, has been learning hot reads -- recognizing blitzes and adjusting to shorter pass routes.
"You really have to know the defense," Cooley said yesterday, carrying a huge playbook. "You have to study what you're up against."
Kozlowski has an edge in experience, entering his 11th NFL season at H-back. Nonetheless, the position is so demanding under Gibbs that the former Atlanta Falcon is also learning how to check for blitzes.
Gibbs "does different things," Kozlowski said. "Down in Atlanta, we had a little bit more free rein. I've had the same offense I played for Dan Reeves for 10 years, so learning a new offense is the biggest change."
The Redskins plan on activating four tight ends on game day, a sharp contrast to most NFL teams that carry two or three tight ends on the entire roster. (Last season's Redskins carried three tight ends.) But Simmons noted that the Redskins don't keep any fullbacks, providing room on the roster for extra tight ends.
The Kansas City Chiefs are the only other NFL team that uses tight ends in the same manner as the Redskins. That's because the Chiefs, under Coach Dick Vermiel, have adapted Gibbs's offense from the 1980s. With perennial Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez at H-back last season, the Chiefs finished first in the AFC West at 13-3. The New England Patriots -- winners of two of the past three Super Bowls -- Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints also frequently utilize two-tight end formations.
Gibbs implemented his two-tight end system as a rookie head coach after Washington started the season with five consecutive losses. Before the change, the Redskins had trouble protecting the quarterback with the two-back system of John Riggins and Joe Washington. So the Redskins went to a single running back, and added an H-back. The Redskins ended up winning eight of their next 11 games to finish that season 8-8. The next year, Gibbs won his first Super Bowl (XVII) during a strike-shortened season.
"People think that some of these modern-day guys were blitz happy, but nobody was more blitz happy than Buddy Ryan," Simmons said, referring to the defensive mastermind who coached the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986 to '90 after being defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. "He blitzed everybody [in the defense]. A lot of our offense was designed to combat some of that."
Another factor was facing Lawrence Taylor, who redefined the linebacker position after being drafted by the New York Giants in 1981.
"Lawrence Taylor had a lot to do with it," Gibbs said yesterday, "because you really are going to be up against it if he gets one-on-one with anybody on a pass rush. Two tight ends would benefit because you put a tight end on his nose, he had to go around the tight end before he got to somebody else.
"When you get used to working with it, it became kind of common sense."
Despite the significance Gibbs places on the position, his tight ends didn't post big numbers during his first stint in Washington (from 1981 to '92). Gibbs's starting tight ends averaged 23.3 catches per season. However, he shaped his offense to suit his personnel. For example, from 1984 to '87, tight end Clint Didier averaged 35 catches per season.
"If he [Gibbs] had a guy like Frog [Didier's nickname], he would take advantage of that," Walker said after yesterday's practice. "He was 6-5, he could really run and could block."
Before choosing safety Sean Taylor with the fifth pick of this year's draft, the Redskins strongly considered selecting his teammate, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., because of his pass-catching prowess and athleticism.
Simmons explained: "If we had a Winslow, he would never get off the field. Maybe we have a guy similar to him. We have to find out."