At the age of 41, Ray Brown knows that his playing days could come to an end after this season. Of course, he could have said that after any of the last five seasons.
But Brown just can't stay away from the game. And he hasn't ruled out playing a remarkable 20th NFL season next year, either.
"I take it one season at a time," he said.
Head coach Joe Gibbs doesn't necessarily want to wait that long for Brown to make a decision.
"I think he can play," Gibbs said. "I'm counting on him next year."
Brown will celebrate his 42nd birthday this Sunday when he lines up at right tackle against the Philadelphia Eagles and Pro Bowl defensive end Jevon Kearse. Brown is the third-oldest non-kicker in the NFL, two months younger than Seattle's Jerry Rice and San Diego's Doug Flutie.
At the outset of 2004 training camps, Brown was home. When the Redskins' right tackle Jon Jansen suffered an Achilles injury in a preseason game, Brown couldn't resist an offer from head coach Joe Gibbs to return to Washington. Then his wife Ashley gave him the go-ahead to play another season. So Brown, who had been staying in shape at his home in Northern California while waiting for one more opportunity, packed his bags for a second stint with the Redskins.
Brown had played left guard most of his career. Proving that NFL veterans can learn new tricks, Brown quickly got up to speed with the offense and was starting by Week 2 against the New York Giants.
"I had to be coached because I wasn't familiar with the position," he said. "I had to familiarize myself with the blocking techniques and that sort of thing. I try to watch a lot of film and how other offensive linemen compete [at the position.] Really, I'm just stealing from other guys.
"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."
And when right guard Randy Thomas went down with a hamstring injury two weeks ago, Brown's versatility came in handy as the team revamped the right side of the line. Brown shifted to right guard while rookie Mark Wilson earned his first NFL start at right tackle.
So what keeps Brown going? Why play the game at the age of 41 when most players of his era have long since retired?
"I hope that it gets me to the Super Bowl or gets me back to the playoffs," he replied. "I checked the ego a long time ago. I wouldn't have minded being a backup and I think they understood that when they brought me here. At the same time, I know the benefit of being under some good coaching and being at a place where you're wanted gives you a certain level of confidence, so that at least you can contribute to the football team."
Said Gibbs: "He's a marvel. I've talked about flexible he is and what kind of person he is--anybody who plays that long, you go back to Darrell Green and remember how he took care of himself. I think for coaches, when they vote to keep guys, they're going to keep guys who are great team guys. He's certainly helped us in the locker room as a leader."
Brown, of course, played for the Redskins from 1989-95--and for Gibbs from 1989-92. (Brown was on the team's Injured Reserve list with an elbow injury in 1991, the Redskins' Super Bowl championship season.)
Brown, who played collegiate football at Arkansas State, saw his first significant NFL action in Washington, then moved on to play six seasons in San Francisco and the last two seasons in Detroit.
Given Brown's experience, he is often asked to assess how well Gibbs is adjusting to the modern NFL. Specifically, how well do the players of today relate to coaches like Gibbs, assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel and the other veteran coaches on the Redskins' staff?
"Sure the league has changed, but at the core is the fact that he's won in this league and that gives him instant credibility," Brown said. "But a lot of these young guys are not aware of how great the Redskins used to be. It's almost like creating a new concept, somewhat like what is happening in Detroit with [Lions head coach] Steve Mariucci coming in there and convincing guys this is the way to do it. We are in the first year of that here."
Most of the players are learning about Gibbs' legacy now, he added.
"A couple of weeks ago, Coach Gibbs got up and told a story about Conrad Dobler and Merlin Olsen--and I think I may have been the only player who knew those guys played football. A lot of them were probably thinking that Merlin was just on The Little House on the Prairie.'
"I think when they walk through the halls [at Redskins Park], they see the three Super Bowl trophies and they get it. They understand because this place is plastered with history. When you are able to see it and understand the greatness of what Coach Gibbs is all about, it'll get you. Gradually it is coming around. We would just like it to come faster."