One day this past spring, still early in free agency, Ereck Flowers found himself in a meeting room at the Washington Redskins’ team headquarters. In front of him was a video screen. Around him were Bill Callahan, the team’s offensive line and assistant head coach, and other coaches and front-office members.
They were showing him video from the first four years of his NFL career. This was not a happy event; Flowers’s time as a tackle for the New York Giants and briefly the Jacksonville Jaguars had been a major struggle.
But as the Redskins’ people showed Flowers the video, they had an interesting proposition for him.
We want you to be a guard.
Flowers was surprised. He had been a tackle his whole career, from high school in Miami, where he was a four-star recruit, to the University of Miami, where he started for three seasons before becoming a first-round pick, to the Giants and Jaguars. But his career had stalled. “Bust” was a word often used about him in New York.
Play guard? What did he have to lose?
It is far too soon to declare the move a success, by Flowers’s own admission. But of all the things that haven’t gone well for the Redskins through the season’s first two weeks, the seemingly most far-fetched experiment isn’t one of them.
Placed on a thrown-together left side of the line with Donald Penn — signed in training camp because of Trent Williams’s holdout — Flowers has been solid. The analytics website Pro Football Focus gives him a grade of 61 on its 0 to 100 scale, which ranks 38th out of 70 players at the position. He has allowed quarterback Case Keenum to be pressured four times and has been penalized twice.
While that might not be a fantastic set of numbers for an offensive lineman, he has survived — an impressive feat at a position he only learned a few weeks ago — against two of the NFL’s better defensive lines in Philadelphia and Dallas.
“I wouldn’t jump the gun yet,” Flowers said Wednesday as he sat in his locker at the team’s practice facility. “It’s only been two games. I’m just trying to get better.”
But he is the happiest he has been since coming to the NFL, playing a position that it turns out he loves. The weird suggestion made in a meeting room upstairs turns out to have been the best thing he could have been asked to do. At guard the game comes quicker than at tackle. It’s more physical, and he has to communicate more with the men beside him. He has found he prefers that to the isolation of tackle, where you are often left alone to deal with what is usually the opposing team’s best pass rusher.
And to think he has a former basketball star at the University of Mississippi to thank.
In 2008, Jermey Parnell was a bruising power forward averaging 13.6 minutes and 2.0 fouls a game at Mississippi, when he decided to try football — a sport he hadn’t played since eighth grade. The Mississippi coaches played him on the defensive line, and he wound up playing the position for parts of two seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, though never in a regular season game. Finally, in 2010, he joined the Cowboys and was converted into an offensive lineman. Callahan became Dallas’s offensive line coach in 2012, and he eventually molded Parnell into a starter. Three years later, Parnell signed a $32 million contract with Jacksonville.
Flowers and Parnell became friends when Flowers signed with the Jaguars after the Giants released him this past October. They talked a lot about Parnell’s story and about the offensive line coach now in Washington who had helped to make him a reliable offensive lineman. Flowers was intrigued. He admired the technique Parnell used, which had been taught by Callahan.
Then, when the Redskins called this past spring, he was very interested.
At first he didn’t get to play guard. Because of Williams’s holdout and injuries to other players, he spent most of the offseason workouts at tackle while trying to think about playing guard at the same time. He struggled in some of the open workouts, leading some fans and media members to suggest his signing was a disaster.
At the time, Callahan insisted Flowers would become a good guard, saying: “It gives us size. It gives us power." But it wasn’t until a week before the first preseason game that Flowers finally went back to guard. The transition wasn’t simple, especially because it was happening in the middle of preseason games with everyone watching — and criticizing.
But he admired the way the Redskins linemen all used Callahan’s techniques. The words of Parnell echoed in his head: “This stuff works.”
And as he adjusted, he kept glancing to his right, past center Chase Roullier to the other guard, two-time Pro Bowl honoree Brandon Scherff. He could see Scherff using the same techniques he was being taught and tried to mirror Scherff’s movements, watching how Scherff attacked the defensive tackles. Soon he found he was getting more comfortable, almost content.
Flowers looked around the locker room Wednesday, at his teammates shouting and laughing, Scherff teasing him on the way back from taking a shower. Flowers chuckled. Monday night will bring another test, an even more aggressive, attacking defense with the Chicago Bears and superstar pass rusher Khalil Mack. This time on national television. He knows it will be a challenge.
But for now, at least, everything is fun.
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