In his first full season as a starting tackle for the Washington Redskins, Stephon Heyer has struggled to open holes in the run game and in pass protection.
But there's no disputing the former Maryland standout's toughness. Heyer has been playing with an ailing left knee for two months, and he crumpled to the field with an injured right knee during the third quarter Sunday night against Dallas.
"I don't know how he got up," offensive line coach Joe Bugel said. "I had [backup Will Robinson] ready to go, and he said, 'No. I'm playing.' "
Heyer didn't miss a snap even though the going-nowhere Redskins were trailing the Cowboys 17-0.
"Stephon's a tough kid," said left guard Derrick Dockery, who knows something about that attribute after starting 108 consecutive games. "He's playing pretty much injured the whole year. Even with the tough year we're having, I never wonder if he's going to play. I know Stephon. He's going to be out there. I'm real proud of him."
So is quarterback Jason Campbell, who was shaken up on the same play that Heyer injured his right patellar tendon against Dallas.
"Sometimes [Stephon] misses practice all week so he's able to play," Campbell said. "I commend him for his effort. He understands there's not a lot of depth. If he can't play, it puts us in a lot of trouble."
When it appeared Heyer might not be able to play two weeks ago, the Redskins were planning to start the untested Robinson against Justin Tuck, the New York Giants' standout pass-rusher. But Heyer sucked it up and started as usual.
"Each year, Stephon has gotten tougher and tougher," Bugel said. "He understands there's a lot of pain in the National Football League. You never wake up and feel good during the season."
Heyer, whose 18 consecutive starts rank sixth on the Redskins, has lined up next to four right guards and will make it five Sunday at San Diego if Paul Fanaika or Will Montgomery replaces the injured Mike Williams. Heyer also started three games at left tackle in place of the injured Chris Samuels.
"It's football, there's no guarantee that you're going to stay healthy," Heyer said. "You just gotta keep going. No one really cares if you're hurt. You just gotta keep playing even when there's nothing to play for except personal pride. Finishing, that's what I'm about."
The offense hasn't finished well the past two games, scoring just 12 points since Bruce Allen was named general manager Dec. 17. So Heyer, whose contract is expiring, knows Sunday could be his final game with Washington.
"It's an interview process," he said. "Every game is important. You gotta show that you can play."
Heyer blew out his left knee during two-a-days before what should have been his senior year at Maryland. He returned the next year and surprisingly made the Redskins in 2007. He missed time with a sprained shoulder last season - losing his job to right tackle predecessor Jon Jansen in the process - and hurt the knee again late in training camp this summer when Samuels rolled him up from behind. Heyer missed a couple of practices but was in the lineup for the opener. And he has been there every week.
Ever a realist, Heyer knows he hasn't had a stellar first full campaign.
"I think it's about average play," he said. "I've had my games here and there where I've played pretty well and had my games where I didn't play so well."
Bugel said Heyer has improved as he came to accept "hard coaching." Dockery has liked what he has seen from the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Georgian.
"Stephon has a lot of heart, and he has played pretty well on that knee," Dockery said. "He has the size. He has all the tools to be a really good tackle if he puts it all together."