The mere sound of certain words coming from quarterback Mark Brunell can cause lineman Randy Thomas's pulse to rise in the Washington Redskins' huddle. Should Brunell utter, "Counter load," or "Semi," Thomas's pupils invariably expand, his feet start pumping up and down, and he immediately turns to running back Clinton Portis, his mouth now keeping pace with his legs.
Those are but two of Washington's running plays that feature Thomas pulling from his right guard position -- stepping back from the line and charging in either direction before heading up field -- to serve as a lead blocker and deliver the kind of pounding blocks he so loves to execute. He is the rare lineman with the power to hold his own on explosive inside running plays, the dexterity and technique to withstand on-rushing defenders in pass protection, and the athletic ability, balance and conditioning to haul his 6-foot-5, 310-pound frame 15 yards from the line of scrimmage to continue clearing a path for the running back when he pulls. It is then that Thomas has been most dominant this season, wiping out linebackers and safeties with Portis churning a few yards behind him.
"For Randy, every time we have an opportunity to pull, he almost gives the play away in the huddle," Portis said, "because he'll be so happy. He'll say, 'Get right on my butt, man. Get right on my butt.' "
"When you know that play is called, you've got to do something with it," said Thomas, a seventh-year player who dabbles in competitive eating. "You can't just go out there and be laying around. I take it personal when I pull, because this is your chance to make a play, and before the play is even run I'm thinking about what I want to do. I run it through my mind and see how big of a play it can be."
This season, Thomas, 29, has performed all facets of the game at a superior level, one his teammates say merits his first Pro Bowl appearance. Washington's middling record (6-6) and the overall inconsistency of the offensive line might preclude Thomas generating much national recognition, but he has been at the essence of many of the Redskins' most significant ground gains this season, including Portis's 47-yard touchdown and reserve running back Rock Cartwright's 52-yard blast in Sunday's crucial 24-9 win in St. Louis. The Redskins anticipate having to continue that power-running attack in the final four games to have any shot at the postseason -- including against Arizona's suspect run defense Sunday -- and are quite comfortable with Thomas leading the way.
"We tell our backs to just get on the back hip of that guy on those pulling plays and just ride it out," running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "Randy does an excellent job of that. There were a couple of times where he's actually been looking back over his shoulder to say, 'Hey, where are you, baby? Come on! Come on!' We love to see that and we love to execute those kinds of plays."
Thomas's contributions were imperative to Washington taking the lead Sunday and establishing a physical tempo that resulted in 100-yard days for Portis (136) and Cartwright (118) and 257 yards rushing in all. On the Redskins' second drive, he shoved his defender off the line on a "Semi" play (most of the team's power plays have truck references), with tight end Robert Royal, H-back Chris Cooley and right tackle Jon Jansen doing the same. Then Thomas, an outstanding all-around athlete who did not play football until the 10th grade, pulled to the right, outside of Jansen, sprinted 17 yards and pancaked (flattened) a defensive back to allow Portis to cut back inside and race untouched into the end zone. ("I knew that little DB didn't want to take him on," Portis said.)
That sequence is indicative of the kind of overlooked yet inspired effort Thomas has produced in victory or defeat; on days the entire line has excelled -- such as Sunday -- or when others in the trenches have faltered.
"He has been so consistent this entire year," said assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel, who oversaw Washington's outstanding offensive line during its first two Super Bowl victories. "I'll tell you what, the guy has really become one heck of a football player. If he's not one of the top guards in the league, then something's wrong, because he's a great puller, and he's been consistent in his drive blocking and pass protection.
"He's really the type of leader who says very little, but when he talks everybody listens. Like right before a game when they go on the field, I can't repeat some of the things he says, but he gets the point across, and he backs it up. I've never coached a guard who can pull like that. I mean, he pulls and gets his shoulder square and makes those knock-down blocks. He delivers a blowout there."
Thomas's play was more erratic last season, his first under this staff. The Redskins signed him to a seven-year, $27 million free agent deal in 2003 under then-coach Steve Spurrier, but Bugel's sometimes combative nature was a departure from past regimes, and the loss of Jansen for the 2004 season because of an Achilles' injury resulted in shuffling on the right side of the line. The pass protection sagged, the yards per carry did not nearly meet expectations and penalties haunted the line weekly.
Some of those concerns still linger, but Thomas, a likable character considered the team's premier barbecue maestro, has rarely been beat one-on-one in pass protection and has been called for one penalty all season, a false start in Week 2 at Dallas.
"Now I think he really understands what the expectations are under Coach Bugel," said 20-year veteran lineman Ray Brown, who filled in for Jansen last season. "And Buges is going to coach him hard and he's going to demand a lot from him, but I think Randy has responded. People aren't recognizing how great he's playing. He's a Pro Bowler, man.
"He's doing some things with his hands that's just violence on the football field where he's throwing guys around, and he's getting around the corner pulling on plays, getting his shoulders square to where he can block inside and outside. And he's blocking people that can run and move."
For all of his pulling acumen, Thomas, selected 57th overall from Mississippi State by the New York Jets in 1999, said he prefers straight-ahead drive blocking. "My favorite part of the job is being around my guys in the trenches," he said. "When I pull, you're in space, and I like having my guys in the mix with me."
Thomas revels in the relative obscurity of his profession, manning a position that has no place on the stat sheet, and aspires for collective achievement -- not individual accolades. Incidentally, he is not entertaining thoughts about the Pro Bowl.
"I hear the stuff the guys tell me [about the Pro Bowl], but I'm a humble guy," Thomas said. "I take things in stride, and if I sat back and thought about all of that my head would be blown up like a T.O. [Terrell Owens] kind of thing, you know? I'm O-line, man. We live to be dirty and live to play good. The damn Pro Bowl, and [contract] escalators and bonuses, all of that does nothing for me. Give me a win, and that's better than a million bucks."
Guard Randy Thomas (77), a barbecue connoisseur and competitive eater, has committed only one penalty this season and is having a Pro Bowl year, according to his Redskins teammates.