Sometime in the middle of Monday afternoon, Austin Howard signed a contract with the Washington Redskins. It had been a whirlwind day for the 6-foot-7, 330-pound offensive tackle who has become something of a football vagabond at 31 years old. In eight years, he has been an Eagle, Raven, Jet, Raider, Raven again and a Colt. Now in a new city, in a new locker room, with new coaches and new teammates, they were handing him an iPad with a new offense and telling him to learn it as fast as he could.
He didn’t leave the team’s practice facility until 10 p.m. The next day, Tuesday, was a little better. He departed at 6:30 p.m. But as he stripped off his Redskins jersey and shoulder pads on Wednesday, his first day practicing with the team, he realized it was going to be a long night.
“It’s a part of the process,” he said. “We’ve been sitting here grinding it out.”
On Sunday afternoon, the Redskins lost two-fifths of their starting offensive line when guards Shawn Lauvao and Brandon Scherff went down with season-ending injuries. Given their star left tackle Trent Williams was already out at least two weeks with a dislocated thumb, and right tackle Morgan Moses hurt his knee badly enough in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta that he missed practice Wednesday, Washington might need four offensive linemen this weekend at Tampa Bay.
This is how Howard wound up with five other free agent offensive linemen sitting on couches in the team’s locker room Monday, as they awaited a tryout for three suddenly open spots on the Redskins' roster. By day’s end two of them had also signed — 27-year-old guard Luke Bowanko, a Centreville, Va. native who has played 39 games with the Jaguars and Ravens, and Jonathan Cooper, another guard, who at 28 has started 27 games with the Cardinals, Browns and Cowboys.
“Experienced,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden called them.
Which is a necessary thing for a team that might need two or three of them to actually start on Sunday, just six days after their arrival.
At some point, every coach has faced something like what Gruden is dealing with. Buccaneers Coach Dirk Koetter, who plays Washington on Sunday, says it “is every coach’s worst nightmare.” Offensive lines are delicate things despite the big men who play on them. Everyone must be in sync, understanding the intent of each play and working in symmetry while blocking the wall of 300-pound men coming at them. Achieving this balance takes months of work. Adding someone from outside, let alone three, is an intrusion no coach wants.
“You’re bringing a guy off the street who doesn’t speak your language and been with you eight weeks, eight games in the season plus preseason plus OTAs, so there’s more to playing offensive line than saying ‘I Right 32 Power,’” Koetter said. “There’s thousands of line calls and different splits and different techniques and different communication who you’re playing next to. It’s not easy.”
And yet the Redskins were trying to make it easy on Wednesday. Offensive line coaches Bill Callahan and Phil Rauscher spent hours on Monday evening and all day Tuesday trying to cram as much information into the new players as possible, so they had an idea what to do on Wednesday when the team practiced together for the first time. To ease their transition, Gruden expanded his morning walk-through of the team’s plays for this weekend from 35 repetitions to 80.
To Gruden, the biggest challenge is mental. His offense has 18 snap counts alone, and then there are blocking schemes from running plays, blocking schemes for pass plays and even for play-action plays.
“Whoever can handle it the best will probably play,” Gruden said.
Maybe this would be harder to do had the Redskins not been forced to piece together an offensive line after a flood of injuries last season. Players who were here then shrugged as they remembered going to Seattle with five new starters on the line and beating the Seahawks last year. Injuries happen. New players come and go.
“It’s November, we’re playing some Thanksgiving football out there,” guard Tony Bergstrom, who has been part of several Redskins offensive line shifts, said after Wednesday’s practice. “That’s what they said to me last year: ‘Anyone who wants to play, we’re going to be in the backyard out there somewhere.”
He looked around at the new players who had practiced that day with him — Howard at right tackle, Cooper at left guard and Bowanko, who was doing a television interview nearby — and shrugged. It’s football, he said. Everyone has to catch up fast. These men have played for years. They’ll know what to do. The coaches won’t change anything just because three new players might be standing on the line.
“[The coaches] won’t switch to a spread offense just to make it easier,” Bergstrom said.
And so they practiced on Wednesday, the new offensive linemen learning a new team. Callahan barked at them for two hours and Bergstrom noticed that nobody made many mistakes. This was a good start, he said.
Sunday might be a different test. Temperatures are expected to be in the 80s, and while the new players have been working out, they haven’t been getting ready to play a football game in the Florida heat. But that is a worry for another day. All that mattered on Wednesday was that the newest Redskins knew something about the next play called. They’ll worry about everything else after that.
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