How Will They Line Up?
By: Mark Solway
Category: Washington Redskins News
Obviously the performance of an offensive line has a lot to do with the success of a ball control offense. Even more obviously, the Redskins' ball control offense experienced very little success in 2004. The team struggled to move the ball effectively all year long and it was only late in the season when they appeared to start coming around.
Redskin fans were undoubtedly disappointed in the results last year when you consider that Joe Bugel returned to help right the ship. One of the greatest offensive line coaches to ever walk on to the field, Bugel was charged with the task of making significant adjustments to an already maligned line. 'Buges' was faced with converting an offensive line that had grown accustomed to going backwards in pass coverage, to once again making run blocking a priority. Frankly, the adjustment was not as smooth as hoped.
A lot of the trouble can be pin-pointed to one exact moment of 2004 -- August 9th, the Hall of Fame game. It was early in the first quarter, when ironman Jon Jansen went down against the Broncos. The collective hush from the Redskin fans in attendance in Canton was deafening. As it turns out, it was rightfully so.
The behemoth right tackle has been a stalwart on every line he had played on since high school. He had never missed a start as a Redskin. Yes, when Jansen went down, Redskin fans knew that he would not, in fact could not, be replaced. His loss was magnified by the fact that at the time, left-handed Mark Brunell was the Redskins starter and thus, Jansen was the blind side protector.
Suddenly the Redskins were faced with having lost arguably the most important player on the offense -- the guy who keeps the quarterback from getting drilled. And having lost him when options for replacements were very limited.
Ray Brown was brought in to try and patch the hole as Washington felt it was a little unfair to throw either of their two rookie tackles Mark Wilson and Jim Molinaro into the fray so quickly. This does point to an obvious issue of depth on the line. Brown performed admirably considering that he is more comfortable at guard. But despite an inspiring effort from the 42-year old, there were times when he was outclassed by the league's elite ends. And when you're the blind side protector, that is a problem.
There is also a residual effect inside when your guard is constantly leaning outside to 'help' the tackle. It creates a larger gap for the center to try and protect. Initially the Redskins went with Lennie Friedman at center, but a few botched snaps and average play led the coaching staff to try Cory Raymer instead. Raymer was an improvement, and captained the line better, but there were still performance issues. And in an offense searching to find a new identity, every minute without one is magnitudinal.
By mid-season, it became apparent that Brunell's struggles had grown beyond what this developing offense was capable of sustaining. Joe Gibbs made the decision to pull Brunell and give Patrick Ramsey a shot. But you have to stop right here for a second when you're talking about the offensive line. Because not only was the entire offense faced with the natural adjustments that a 'different type' of quarterback brings, but suddenly the entire line dynamic had changed. The differences for a line protecting a right-handed quarterback versus a left-handed one are significant. Essentially, nearly everything changes. It's a lot like putting the steering wheel on the other side of the car; sure the driving isn't any different, but it takes some time to get your proper bearings. The line did improve towards the end of the year; both in pass protection and run blocking. They began to show signs of a line that was capable of at least moving the ball.
But that was then and this is now.
Why didn't the Redskins make more offensive line additions in the infancy of free agency?
Well they did make one significant move when they added Casey Rabach. Rabach was thrust into the spotlight last year in Baltimore and responded extremely well. Bringing in Rabach not only improves the team slightly at center, but it affords the Redskins a little bit of depth. Raymer and Friedman would seem to be a luxury that is tough to afford in today's cap-strapped NFL world, but both have played guard as well as center and may both be kept for depth. Molinaro and Wilson have a year under the belts in the offense and will both be much more viable alternatives should someone go down with an injury. Brown will return again and be able to line up at guard as well as tackle in a pinch.
But the most significant change to the 2005 offensive line will be provided by the return of the 'Rock'. While a torn achilles is never an easy injury to come back from, all indications are that Jansen has made a full recovery and will be able to pick up where he left off. If anyone could hope to, it would be a guy who started 132 consecutive games in college and the NFL. This is undoubtedly the single biggest 'offseason improvement' for the Washington Redskins. Jansen's return will actually mark the first time that this Gibbs' offense has been able to line up with one of the NFL's premier right tackles actually lining up in a run-blocking role. Jansen spent two years going backwards for former coach Steve Spurrier and even before he was injured last season, he was playing right tackle for a left-handed quarterback.
Together with Randy Thomas, Jansen will make a formidable force. Thomas is also known for his run-blocking prowess. Clinton Portis struggled with patience at times last year. Some of Gibbs' plays take some time to develop in the backfield. Portis might have a little extra incentive to wait when he knows that Jansen and Thomas could be providing him with a clear path.
You cannot under-estimate the value of the return of such an integral part of a ball control offense. This offense was made for a lineman like Jansen. When you put a run blocker in a position to bury linebackers late in the fourth quarter, you're touching chords that non-offensive linemen will never understand. Hopefully Jansen will be brought along slowly to allow the ankle further time to heal properly and adjust to the rigors of playing tackle. But as the season wears on, expect to see Jansen grinning late in games as he helps the opposing linebacker up.
Despite all of it's struggles in 2004, the 2005 offensive line has the potential to not only be better, but to be dominant. The name 'Dirtbags' should be buried along with last season's play. It's time to try and live up to the name Hogs.
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