If the 2004 Redskins' offense is a machine, then the screws that hold it together may be the H-Backs and tight ends. H-Backs are in many respects grouped with tight ends; the position demands a tight end/fullback hybrid.
In any respect, the H-Back and tight end roles are expected to be key ones in the Redskins' offense and the competition for those positions has been keen throughout the preseason.
Says veteran tight end Walter Rasby, referring to both his position and that of the H-Back: "As far as responsibility, if we're not on top of our game, the offense may not be able to click."
Of course, the conventional tight end lines up on the line of scrimmage, in most instances. The H-Back more often than not lines up in the backfield like a fullback normally does.
Joining Rasby in the mix at tight end this preseason have been Robert Royal, Fred Baxter and Leonard Stephens. Brian Kozlowski, Chris Cooley and Mike Sellers have seen action at the H-Back spot.
"We have to be prepared to do a lot of different things," said Kozlowski, who played H-Back for the Atlanta Falcons before signing with Washington as a free agent this past offseason. "Our offense gives a lot of different looks with the H-Backs out of the backfield and on the line. We have to be very versatile, blocking on the line, being the lead blocker for the running back, and doing whatever else is demanded in this offense."
Kozlowski started a career-high nine games last season while playing alongside and is a 10-year NFL veteran.
The Redskins drafted Cooley in the third round out of Utah State after they selected Sean Taylor of the University of Miami with their first-round opportunity.
Cooley played a more conventional tight end role in college and has been adjusting to H-Back duties during his first NFL preseason.
"It's not too much of an adjustment, physically," he said. "Mentally, it's a big change. There's so much to learn at the H-Back position. We have so many checks and reads to make."
Sellers, who played for the Redskins from 1998-2000 before joining Cleveland, was slowed early in the preseason due to an injured ankle while Stephens played in NFL Europe earlier this year.
In the first two preseason outings--versus Denver and Carolina--Sellers served as the lead blocker at H-Back for Clinton Portis.
In terms of tight ends, Rasby, who played for the Redskins for two seasons beginning in 2001, has returned to the club after playing in all 16 games for the New Orleans Saints last season.
Royal is back for his third preseason with the Redskins and was hoping to escape the injury bug. After spending all of 2002 on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain, Royal injured his hip last year against Tampa Bay and missed 10 games.
"I'm feeling good," Royal said early in training camp. "I can't ask for anything else. The trainers did a good job in the offseason preparing me for training camp. I'm out there just going as hard as I can."
Fred Baxter, an 11-year veteran, is also in the mix. Baxter signed with the Redskins in June as an unrestricted free agent. He played for the New England Patriots last season and appeared in 12 games. Baxter suffered a sprained right knee in the game against the Panthers and was expected to be slowed for at least a couple of weeks.
The depth at tight end and H-Back has led to a tough position battle in training camp. Head coach Joe Gibbs and tight ends coach Rennie Simmons would expect nothing else.
"It's going to be a hard-fought thing," Gibbs said. "I think those guys are very competitive. We've got kind of a mix. We've got young guys there, and we've got guys that have been around awhile. I like our situation. It's good because good players make each other better."
Said Royal: "We've got a great group of guys, probably the most talented group I've ever been around. We've got a lot of veterans that have been going through this for a long time. They're all here helping each other out and trying to get the best out of each other."
"This is a very thorough coaching," said Cooley, who had two catches for 36 yards in the pre-season outing versus Carolina. "Anything that's in question is covered 100 percent. You know what you're supposed to do before you come out on the field."
Among the group of tight ends and H-Backs that played for Gibbs during his first tenure with the team are Clint Didier, Don Warren and Rick "Doc" Walker.
Now, a new crop of players is competing to earn those spots in Gibbs' offense. How the eventual players at those positions perform this season could be vital to the Redskins' chances of success.