As Joe Bugel sorted through the wreckage of Sunday's 36-0 loss, dissecting the Washington Redskins' game film for any bright spot on an offensive line that was pillaged by the New York Giants, the coach found one cause to celebrate. As bad as it was, not all five of his starters had played poorly.
"Not everybody stunk," said Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense. "[Right guard] Randy Thomas played hard, and he's been playing very hard and consistent for us. But overall as an offensive line we did not have a good football game, and if you don't dominate at that position you're going to struggle."
The Redskins pride themselves on being a physical club, but they were utterly overpowered at the line of scrimmage last weekend, something they cannot afford to duplicate tomorrow night against another fierce NFC East rival, the Philadelphia Eagles. New York gained an early lead, forced Washington to abandon its running game and then teed off on the blitz, knowing the Redskins had to throw. The Giants found weak spots all over the line, with tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels having problems on the outside, and linebackers bursting up the middle on other occasions.
For years players and coaches have talked about the talent and athleticism of Washington's line, yet it remains inconsistent. The linemen are capable of shoving opponents back, grinding out yards on the ground and keeping the quarterback's uniform clean even against some elite pass rushers, then faltering in all aspects the next week. But they have yet to go a month straight, much less the better part of a season, compiling consistently strong performances under this staff, and therefore remain prisoners of those lofty expectations.
"If we want to be considered a good offensive line," Jansen said, "then we've got to do it play in and play out, and it has to be full game and it has to be a full season. Until we can be consistent like that we're going to be known as an offensive line with potential. But we have to turn that into promise."
"We have all kinds of potential in this offensive line," Samuels said, "but like I've said before, we have to play up to our potential. We can't go out there and play well for a game or two and then slack for a game or two. We've got to put a string of games together throughout the course of a season and play well every week, and maybe then people will recognize us as one of the best lines in the league."
On paper, all of the components are present. Both tackles are former high draft picks in their prime, the kind of bookend players teams covet. Guards Thomas (6 feet 5, 306 pounds) and Derrick Dockery (6-6, 345) are huge but able to get downfield and lead block or pull. Center Casey Rabach (6-4, 301) was part of Baltimore's offensive line that helped running back Jamal Lewis gain 2,000 yards in 2003. All but Dockery, a third-year player, have great experience and were heavily compensated either as free agents or signed to hefty extensions to prevent them from departing via free agency.
Bugel, the architect of "The Hogs," Washington's staunch offensive line during Coach Joe Gibbs's Super Bowl seasons, was immediately smitten with them when he returned here in 2004, and they quickly earned an affectionate nickname, "The Dirtbags." Jansen missed all of last season with an Achilles injury, and the line was never the same. But the unit has yet to find its stride in 2005, despite Rabach's addition and with no starter missing a game to injury yet.
Every few games there are major breakdowns. Dallas pounded quarterback Mark Brunell in Week 2 -- en route to five sacks -- but the protection improved drastically in the final minutes, and the Redskins pulled off a stunning 14-13 comeback on two late, long touchdown passes. The line was flawless in the next two games, shutting down two big-play defenses -- Seattle and Denver -- and getting the running game going as well. Then Kansas City end Jared Allen led the Chiefs' four-sack drubbing, getting the best of Jansen and Samuels at times, and after a stout outing against San Francisco everything fell apart against the Giants.
"They played really good coverage defense," Rabach said of New York, "and obviously we got away from the run, which is what we try to hang our hat on. And any time we do that, the defense pins their ears back and has their way with us. As players and as a coaching staff we all kind of pinpointed the problem, and we've got to stick to game plan and grind it out this week."
Returning to a run-first ethos would surely alleviate pressure on the line but renewed individual efforts are also in order. Bugel and Gibbs felt confident that the entire team was primed to perform well in New York, when instead a collective breakdown was brewing. As a result, the Redskins are eighth-worst in the NFL in sacks allowed (2.86).
"When we walked off the field last Friday I was talking to coach," Bugel said, "and he said, 'I think our team is ready to play.' We had a really good Friday practice and we went to bed feeling good about ourselves, but we just did not match the Giants' intensity. That's the bottom line."
Samuels and Jansen dictate the tempo. Bugel demands much from his tackles, often leaving them to fend for themselves against the game's premier rushers while tight ends, H-backs and running backs aid the interior pass defense. When the tackles falter, the Redskins tend to have offensive problems.
"It's a tough position to be in," said Samuels, who received a franchise-record $15.75-million signing bonus in the offseason, "but that's what we get paid for. We get paid the big bucks to go out and shut guys down and be one-on-one, and that's what we're expected to do, and that's what we have to do every week. That's our challenge."