Less than one quarter into the 2004 preseason, one of the Redskins' worst fears materialized. There on the artificial grass at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, lay right tackle Jon Jansen with a season-ending Achilles tendon tear.
Questions immediately arose about how the "Dirtbags," as offensive line coach Joe Bugel deemed them, would respond to losing their leader. Jansen is the longest-tenured Redskin and had not missed a game in his five seasons leading up to the injury.
Moments after Jansen's injury was diagnosed, Bugel was visibly dismayed on the Redskins' sideline. He certainly knew Jansen's value to the team and the offensive line.
Considering Bugel's past success coaching Washington's line, no one was better suited to lead the group through such a predicament.
"That's what Buges brings to the table," right guard Randy Thomas said. "He gets us ready and motivated. He wants you to be the best player you can be. When you mess up, he lets you know. He's a positive criticizer. He will criticize you for the best, knowing that you're a pro and that you're going to respond to it."
Without Jansen, the offensive line struggled for consistency last season. Still, without one of the NFL's best right tackles, the offensive line paved the way for running back Clinton Portis's 1,315 rushing yards.
And head coach Joe Gibbs pointed toward improvement at the end of the season. In the Week 16 game at Dallas, the offensive line struggled to open up running lanes in the fourth quarter, allowing the Cowboys to eventually get the ball back on several occasions. Dallas ended up winning the game with a late touchdown.
A week later, the Redskins were in a similar situation in the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. This time, the offensive line would not be denied.
"We learned a lesson in the Dallas game about finishing and making first downs," Gibbs said. "Against the Vikings, those guys came out in the fourth quarter and they were bound and determined to make some first downs. They did that. We congratulated all of the linemen."
Looking ahead to next season, the return of a healthy Jansen should help shore up a unit that finished 18th in the NFL last season with 38 sacks allowed. Jansen is expected to be fully healthy when offseason workouts begin in late March.
"Jon got turned loose by the doctors," Gibbs said on Jan. 31. "So that's good news for us. One of the things I said about the end of the season is that I couldn't wait to get back to a healthy football team again. I think Jon is a big part of that. I think he makes a big difference, not only by playing but in the locker room, too. To lose him in the first preseason game was a heartbreaker for everyone."
According to Thomas, the ideal situation would be to keep last year's unit together and get a healthy Jansen back on the field. Continuity seems to be a theme surrounding the Redskins this offseason, and Thomas hopes that applies to the offensive line.
Regarding left tackle Chris Samuels, some have speculated that he may be a salary cap casualty in 2005. But Gibbs has said that Samuels is in the team's plans for next season. And Samuels reiterated his desire to be with the Redskins.
"It's a great organization, a great area," Samuels said. "I'm positive I'll be back."
Looking back at last season, Kenyatta Jones started the regular season opener in place of Jansen at right tackle before being replaced by 19-year veteran Ray Brown. At age 42, Brown started 14 games at right tackle and one at right guard.
Brown played left guard for most of his 18 NFL seasons leading up to his arrival in Washington. With Bugel's help, he was able to make the transition to tackle rather smoothly.
"I had to be coached because I wasn't familiar with the position," Brown said. "I had to familiarize myself with the blocking techniques and that sort of thing. I never envisioned playing right tackle, but in this system, they figure if you know what the guy next to you is doing, then you probably have a good chance of doing it also in a pinch."
At left tackle, Samuels started all 16 games for the third time in his five-year NFL career. After Washington's 21-18 win over Minnesota in the season finale, Samuels expressed his feelings about playing for Gibbs and how Gibbs handled some of the offensive line's shortcomings last season.
"He's probably the best head coach that I've played under," Samuels said. "He never pointed the finger at anybody. Guys were jumping off-sides getting silly penalties--and that falls on us. So we have to look ourselves in the mirror."
Derrick Dockery continued his development in his second year at left guard. After starting 13 of 16 games as a rookie, Dockery started all 16 last season. After the win over the Vikings, Dockery said he was looking forward to the offseason and a chance to continue learning under Bugel.
"This offseason, I'm going to focus on getting stronger, getting my body right," he said. "I think I have a bright future. I need to be humble, but at the same time be hungry."
At right guard, Thomas suffered a hamstring injury in November and missed the Redskins' Week 12 game with Pittsburgh. It was only the third game he had missed in his six-year career. Thomas proved his dependability by returning to the lineup only a week later in a 31-7 win over the New York Giants.
Thomas, a former New York Jet who recently finished his second season with the Redskins, said he was proud to be part of a unit that battled together after Jansen's injury.
"We just tried to stick together and believe in each other," Thomas said. "No one outside of us believed in what we could do. But we fought to the end in every game. Every guy on this line fought every play."
Cory Raymer took over at center in Week 3 and started every game from that point on. He replaced Lennie Friedman, who started the first two games. Raymer was among a group of Redskins that returned to the team this season after a two-year stint with the San Diego Chargers.
The Redskins drafted a pair of offensive linemen last April and both benefited from Bugel's tutelage. Mark Wilson was selected in the fifth round and earned his first NFL start against Pittsburgh after Thomas suffered his injury. Wilson played right tackle while Brown shifted over to right guard. The University of California product was thankful for his chance to learn under a position coach as accomplished as Bugel.
"I feel like I've improved drastically," Wilson said. "I've always worked hard, ever since I was able to put on a football helmet. I think what helps is that I've got a great coach in Coach Bugel, and the great guys I'm working with on the offensive line."
Jim Molinaro, who the Redskins drafted in the sixth round out of Notre Dame, played mostly on special teams and even once on the defensive line during a goal-line situation.