- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Lost among fourth-quarter collapses, questionable play-calling, quarterback injuries and the general dismay surrounding the Washington Redskins these days is this surprising nugget: The offensive line is actually playing pretty well.

Often criticized and occasionally lampooned earlier for its poor pass protection and penchant for jumping offside, the line has strung together several weeks of solid performances. Now the guys up front may finally get the respect they have been seeking.

“I think they’ve taken a lot of bumps and verbal abuse that sometimes is justified and a lot of times is not,” said line coach Kim Helton, who has come under plenty of fire himself. “But as a unit, they try hard, they work hard and the last couple of weeks, they’ve been pretty productive.”

Both the numbers and the naked eye back up Helton’s assertion.

• After getting sacked 29 times in the club’s first nine games, Redskins quarterbacks have gone down just five times over the past three weeks, none last Sunday against New Orleans.

cAfter struggling at times to open holes for a revolving door of running backs, Washington’s linemen paved the way for last week’s 161-yard ground total. The team averaged more than 6.0 yards a carry against the Saints.

• And after a painful period of jumpiness on the front line, the Redskins have gone four straight weeks without a false start. Their last one came Nov.2 in the third quarter at Dallas, when tight end Zeron Flemister was flagged.

“I think everybody up front has been playing a little bit better,” right tackle Jon Jansen said. “We’ve been playing better as a unit, and I think that’s been making the difference.”

So what happened? What allowed a line that had become the poster child for the Redskins’ failures to become perhaps the team’s most reliable unit?

“Time — it’s just been time,” Jansen said. “We had a lot of new components this year. It’s just taken time to come together.”

Washington opened the season with two new guards (Randy Thomas and Dave Fiore) along with returning tackles Jansen and Chris Samuels and center Larry Moore. When Fiore went down with a knee injury three weeks into the season, the Redskins were forced to insert rookie Derrick Dockery.

The result wasn’t pretty as Dockery struggled in his first games. He was frequently beaten by defensive tackles, and in a humiliating 24-7 loss at Buffalo, the 6-foot-6 guard inadvertently knocked the ball out of quarterback Patrick Ramsey’s hands at the Bills 2.

Now, with nine consecutive starts under his belt, Dockery has blossomed into a solid rookie lineman who has justified being a third-round draft choice.

“I’ve come a long way, just in my confidence level, in my abilities and in my performance,” he said. “I’ve been very pleased because I’ve been getting better each and every week. That’s my goal.”

Dockery wasn’t the only one struggling in the early going. More experienced linemates were having a hard time trying to stay still before the snap. Unable to maintain their discipline while Ramsey was changing the play at the line, Redskins linemen committed false starts at a staggering rate. During one agonizing sequence late in the win over New England on Sept.28, Samuels was flagged for false starts on consecutive plays.

After weeks of special emphasis and the addition of college referees to practice sessions, the Redskins no longer have happy feet when they come set at the line.

“We had such a bad time of not being focused on that,” Helton said. “We emphasized it so hard that they’ve done a better job. Now they think every play’s going to be an audible, so they’ve taken the other attitude: be late off the ball.”

Making Washington’s line transformation all the more impressive is that it’s happening with a host of backups taking over starting jobs. Said Helton: “When I think about it, the tight end [Robert Royal] is out. The left tackle [Samuels] is out. The left guard [Fiore] is out. The center [Moore] is out. And the quarterback [Ramsey] is out.”

Last Sunday, the left side of the Redskins’ starting line boasted Brandon Winey (in his first career start) at tackle, Dockery at guard and Lennie Friedman at center. The trio will be back together this weekend, hoping to duplicate its performance against New Orleans with one difference — a final score that shows the Redskins on top.

“I’m excited that we’re playing well,” Dockery said. “But still, it’s about winning and losing. You don’t feel good after a loss. It hurts. All you can do is take good things out of a loss and move forward.”

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