When the Washington Redskins lined up for the first play of 11-on-11 drills in the swelter of Saturday morning, the right tackle was Clint Oldenburg, whose only snaps during a regular season NFL game came in 2007. The right guard was Artis Hicks, a veteran whose poor performance last season cost him his job, one he lost to Will Montgomery, a journeyman who had been cut three times in his career. Montgomery himself lined up at center, because 48 hours earlier the Redskins cut Casey Rabach, a staple who had started 95 of Washington’s 96 games over the previous six years.
“You’re always going to be in the huddle with new guys every training camp, guys at different positions,” Hicks said. “You have to get used to it.”
The Redskins have grown used to churn along the offensive line recently, and it’s something they’re trying to stop. They took a step Sunday, re-signing Jammal Brown — the veteran who started at right tackle a year ago — to a five-year, $27.5 million deal that helps establish what Coach Mike Shanahan wants up front: continuity.
“People thought the Redskins were going to make a bunch of big signings,” Brown said by phone. “But chemistry is what Shanahan cares about and we’re building it across the line.”
When Shanahan took over as head coach prior to the 2010 season, he pleased a fan base yearning for improved play up front by selecting tackle Trent Williams with the fourth overall pick in the draft — a change in course for a franchise that had selected just five offensive linemen, and none higher than the third round, in the previous nine drafts.
That was, though, just the first bit of change for a franchise that, as recently as 2008, boasted a pair of tackles each with a decade of tenure with the team, Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen. The shift in Shanahan’s tenure has been dramatic. The Redskins’ starting offensive line for the first game of the 2009 season was Samuels, Derrick Dockery, Rabach, Randy Thomas and Stephon Heyer. Samuels retired a Redskin. The others were cut. And as training camps opened throughout the league last week, none of those players’ names appeared on any NFL roster.
Even with the Redskins’ camp under way — workouts resume Monday after the players had Sunday off — Washington’s current offensive line is still morphing. Brown should be in camp Monday, increasing stability.
“He struggled a little bit early last year, getting over an injury,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said of Brown before he signed. “But he made a lot of progress those last few games. I want to get him back in here so we don’t start back over.”
That is perhaps the most essential aspect of Washington’s line play this season: having players who know the system, an increasingly rare zone-blocking scheme that Mike Shanahan made his staple during his tenure in Denver. Though there is still flux along the offensive front, the Redskins expect to have mostly players with whom they are familiar, and who are familiar with what they do. Only Chris Chester, a guard who spent the first five years of his career with Baltimore and signed a five-year, $20 million deal as a free agent, is likely to be a complete newcomer. Chester can begin practice with his teammates Thursday, assuming the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified by then.
“We have a good feel on who fits in our system,” Mike Shanahan said. “We have a good feel right from the beginning what positions they can play. . . . All the things that you’re looking for you kind of get a feel who can do it going into your second year. You’re hoping your first year, but you really don’t know until you put them through those situations.”
At this point last year, none of the Redskins had been through those situations, so the team was reduced to watching others play out their roles on film. They watched the Houston Texans, for whom Kyle Shanahan had worked the previous year. They watched old tape of the Broncos in their glory years under Mike Shanahan, running the zone-blocking scheme to near perfection.
“It’s a little bit different when you’re trying to learn watching other guys,” Hicks said. “Eventually, you get to a point where you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. Now, you can see what you did wrong as opposed to watching another guy. You can go out and work on the stuff that you need to correct to do your job better.”
None of those jobs, save for perhaps that of Williams, is particularly safe at the moment. Kory Lichtensteiger, for instance, beat out Dockery prior to the third game last year and started the remaining 14 games at left guard. Yet his attitude as he approaches this camp, his first as a presumably entrenched starter?
“At this level, there’s never any comfort,” said Lichtensteiger, who was cut by Denver and Minnesota in 2009. “I’ve been axed too many times to try to get comfortable with my life. I’ve been on the bubble my whole life, so just because I’m coming in as a returning starter, I’m not really taking that to mean anything other than I’ve got a better opportunity to start with than I did last year.”
Williams had every opportunity to start from the first day of training camp last year.
“He had a lot of pressure on him,” Hicks said, and he delivered a performance typical for a talented rookie, a mix of promise and inconsistency. Redskins coaches believe that must change this season.
“We need a huge jump from Trent,” Kyle Shanahan said. “He needs to get just more detailed with his technique. He’s one of the better athletes I’ve ever seen at the position, but what makes a good player: after 60 plays, how many are you winning? We need to have him be more consistent, get rid of those bad plays and grade out a lot better.”
What’s true for the potential star is, too, true for the group. In 2011, the excuse of adapting to a new system is gone, and everyone along the offensive line — players and coaches alike — expects better.
“You got to have a standard which way you’re going to operate,” Mike Shanahan said, “especially up front.”
Staff writer Mike Jones contributed to this story.