- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

Once upon a time, offensive lines were built to last. Three of the Hogs Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby and Jeff Bostic played together for more than a decade in the '80s and '90s. (And Mark May was around for nine of those years.)
It's a little different now. With the advent of free agency, teams tend to live more season to season and offensive lines often have a slapped-together, almost do-it-yourself look. That's certainly been the case with the Redskins of late. A year ago, Marty Schottenheimer didn't get his line squared away until Week 6, by which time the club had sunk to the bottom of the NFC East. Dave Szott, the left guard, wasn't brought in until the end of August, and the right guard in the opener was an undrafted rookie, Dave Brandt. This is what's known as flying by the seat of your pants.
The Redskins seem to be playing the same risky game this spring. During minicamp this week, they've been lining up Ross Tucker at right guard and Alex Sulfsted at left guard. If the names don't ring a bell, there's a good reason for that: Neither has started an NFL game. Indeed, only Tucker has even gotten on the field in the regular season three times, briefly, last fall.
The club finds itself in a situation like this because Szott decided to jump to the Jets and right guard Ben Coleman is still unsigned (and looks like he might go elsewhere, too.) Throw in the loss of utilityman Matt Campbell in the expansion draft and center Cory Raymer to the Chargers and you've got a lot of uncertainty in the middle of the line. Granted, it's still early; Steve Spurrier's First Hundred Days aren't even over yet. But you don't like these things to remain unsettled for too long.
"I really try not to think about it that much," says Tucker. He's heard the rumors, heard about the team being interested in this free agent or that free agent. And he can understand the coaching staff's concern. "You don't want to go into the season with inexperienced offensive linemen."
Like Brandt, Tucker was signed as a free agent last spring after he went unclaimed in the draft. He played his college ball at Princeton, the school that gave us F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hobey Baker and the last Division I program to run the single wing. But he's managed to overcome these handicaps by being 6-foot-4, 318 pounds and, like most Princetonians, having a brain. Now he's trying to convince the Redskins' coaches he's worth keeping around for another year, perhaps even as a first-stringer.
"I don't know whether it means anything to them [that he's listed first on the depth chart], but it means something to me," he says. "The way I look at it, I've got five preseason games [instead of the usual four] and an extra minicamp to show them I belong here. My goal is to be a starter in this league. That's what I'm working toward. It's the reason I've put on over 20 pounds since the end of last season.
"But how big you are doesn't really matter. Dave Szott played at 295 last year and did a heck of a job. That's one of the great things about the NFL. They judge you solely on your football productivity."
What Schottenheimer looks for in a guard isn't necessarily what Spurrier looks for, though. So Tucker and Sulfsted are going to have to adjust a little bit. Old school Marty wanted more of a plow horse; home-schooled Steve puts a premium on pass protection, which Tucker admits he "was struggling with" the first day. "But [yesterday] I was doing a lot better," he says.
Hope also springs eternal in Sulfsted, who joined the Redskins last season after being cut by the Chiefs (he was their sixth-round pick) and serving on the Bengals' practice squad. "Toward the end of the year," he says, "I saw there might be some opportunity with Szott's and Coleman's contracts being up. Hopefully, the coaches will leave the line as it is and let us keep building togetherness. I feel like I'm a lot better player than I was last year."
There are several possible scenarios here. The Redskins could sign a free agent guard or two. Or they could draft a guard in the early rounds. Or they could do both. (Standing pat doesn't seem to be a very viable option.)
Which doesn't mean Tucker and Sulfsted are mere stand-ins. There are numerous examples in recent years of undrafted players or late-round selections becoming starting linemen for the Redskins. Bostic and Jacoby, for instance (or, later on, Raleigh McKenzie and Mark Schlereth).
It's clear, though, that the team's priorities have changed. Guards are now thought of as very replaceable parts. That was hardly the philosophy in the glory years, when Bobby Beathard traded a Pro Bowl receiver (Charlie Brown) for a guard (R.C. Thielemann, who had also gone to the Pro Bowl). Imagine the new coach agreeing to a deal like that.


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