Chris Samuels wrapped a beige towel around his waist in the Washington Redskins' locker room, walked through an entrance adjoining his stall and plopped into a hot tub. The 6-foot-5 left tackle is blessed with the uncanny metabolism that leaves a muscular physique -- Herculean calves plus beefy arms -- despite a ravenous appetite. During the offseason, the fifth-year veteran scrutinized his diet for the first time in his NFL career, and shed a dozen pounds to trim to 302.
That is one of several steps Samuels took following perhaps his worst NFL season, which coincided with a loss of confidence unusual for a two-time Pro Bowler.
Since Joe Gibbs was hired as coach in January, Samuels has developed a better weightlifting regimen and studied film significantly more than in the past. He has erased bad blocking habits by embracing the techniques of his new position coach, Joe Bugel, widely considered one of the best assistant coaches in NFL history. And he appears rejuvenated in Gibbs's run-dominated offense.
"From the very first day we came here in January," Bugel said yesterday, "I haven't not seen him in this facility working out."
After yesterday's practice, Samuels remained with a small group of players to run wind sprints in the whipping rain. He trudged off the field with his shirt off, sweat mixed with rain, holding his helmet in his right hand. Bugel says that Samuels has a chip on his shoulder. Samuels disagrees: "It's more like a boulder."
Samuels, 27, was named a third alternate to the Pro Bowl in February. It was a drop for a player who was named to the Pro Bowl in 2002 and 2003 as one of the league's best tackles. Now, Samuels -- the third player selected in the 2000 draft -- has taken the outlook of an unproven rookie to gain redemption and the respect he believes has dissipated.
"Guys were beating me that aren't supposed to beat me," Samuels said yesterday, sitting in the hot tub. "In my first two years I was shutting down Pro Bowl guys. And then all of a sudden, guys were getting by me that really hadn't made a name for themselves. They were actually making a name off me.
"This year I owe myself and my teammates a great season."
During the offseason, Samuels underwent ankle and shoulder surgeries to mend injuries that had plagued him since 2002. But Bugel believes it was Samuels's approach that led to his stellar preseason, during which he helped the Redskins allow an NFL-low three sacks. Samuels was splendid in the season opener, a 16-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Clinton Portis rushed for 148 yards on 29 carries, and the line did not yield a sack.
"Last year, you wouldn't see him running down the field after a play" in case a teammate fumbled or needed another block, right tackle Kenyatta Jones said of Samuels.
The performance was especially gratifying for Samuels because it came against defensive end Simeon Rice, one of the league's best pass rushers. Rice finished with three tackles. During an embarrassing 35-13 loss to Tampa Bay last Oct. 12, Rice recorded four sacks. Samuels allowed only one of them, but received a disproportionate amount of the criticism.
Then-coach Steve Spurrier generally used only the five interior linemen to protect the quarterback. As opponents treated quarterback Patrick Ramsey like a punching bag, the line was battered with criticism. Gibbs usually uses maximum protection, designating an extra tight end or tailback to pass-block.
Because Rice has averaged double-digit sack totals in his eight-year career, Gibbs directed Portis to help Samuels by chip blocking on passing plays; Portis used his shoulder to bump Rice before running his route. However, early in the game, Samuels told Portis not to bother. "That tells you something right there," Portis said.
"Last year, I needed help," Samuels said, laughing. Now, in Samuels's mind, a premier tackle such as himself generally doesn't need assistance. Such swagger was missing from the previous two seasons. Its return has been detected by teammates.
"Chris is back to doing what he was doing when I came here as a rookie," said cornerback Fred Smoot, drafted in 2001. "The way he walks, the way he talks."
Teammates started realizing that Samuels was on a personal mission during Gibbs's first minicamp in March. Four times each week, Samuels would join left guard Derrick Dockery for two-hour lifting sessions. "People said he fell off," Dockery said, "so he took that to heart."
Samuels is a gifted athlete, as fast as some NFL tight ends. (Last year, then-offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said he fantasized about putting Samuels at tailback.) Samuels concentrated on adding strength and shape to his upper frame. Samuels's lower body is ideal for a tackle: Despite huge calves, he has feet quick enough to keep him in front of charging defensive ends.
"It'll probably take me 100 years to get calves like that," Bugel said. "His momma gave him a good body and now he's worked on it. He's really carved up his body."
Samuels's extra work has left him near the ideal weight he had in 2001, his best NFL season. That year, he started every game and didn't allow a sack until Week 14, when Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas got to Washington's quarterback. Samuels also helped Stephen Davis set a franchise mark with 1,432 rushing yards.
Samuels has improved his technique as well as his psyche. Over the past two seasons, his blocking fundamentals had deteriorated. Samuels credits Bugel with erasing bad habits such as dropping his head. But the famed offensive line coach responds that it's easy to motivate a two-time Pro Bowler with a boulder on his shoulder.
Said Bugel, "I've never seen a guy more focused."