- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

There are few positive connotations anyone can derive from being called a “dirtbag.” However, the Washington Redskins’ offensive linemen have proudly accepted assistant coach Joe Bugel’s nickname and wear it honorably.

“That’s what we’re playing like,” tackle Chris Samuels said. “Dirtbags — just a bunch of nasty guys up front.”

OK, so it doesn’t have quite the same oomph as “The Hogs,” Bugel’s legendary nickname for his offensive linemen of the 1980s. But it carries the same weight, especially when it comes from Bugel, who was the first of Joe Gibbs’ old assistants to re-enlist when Gibbs was hired in January.

It’s also an accurate description of the Redskins’ O-linemen. They have a nastier edge than perhaps they had shown in the past, and their teammates are noticing.

“I had to tell Buges today, he’s a heck of a coach,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said following minicamp practices yesterday. “I can see everything that’s going on with the linemen. He’s got them crankin’ right now.”

It’s difficult to put into words what’s different about Washington’s front line. The names — Samuels, Derrick Dockery, Lennie Friedman, Randy Thomas and Jon Jansen — haven’t changed from a year ago, when the unit was regularly chastised for poor pass protection.

But make no mistake. Something is different, and the credit for that is given to Gibbs, Bugel and their fellow coaches.

“There’s a mentality that the coaches brought: ‘This is how we’re going to do things. This is how it should be done. Forget anything you had been taught the last couple of years. This is how it’s going to be done,’” said Jansen, who is working under his fifth head coach in six seasons with the Redskins. “It’s just how guys approach practice. There’s a lot more pride that guys are taking in their jobs. That’s a tribute to the coaches.”

Said Dockery: “Buges brings something extra to the table — his demeanor. You see him out there, and he’s excited, he’s enthusiastic. It just rubs off on his players. He’s a role model. He’s going to do things to make you a better player, and you don’t want to disappoint him.”

Bugel redirects the praise, saying he noticed the players’ enthusiasm and desire to work hard from the first day he arrived in town.

“The day Joe got up to speak to them, you could tell how excited they were because they knew they were going to be part of a running offense,” Bugel said. “And when you’ve got the quality of men that we have here — Jon Jansen, Chris Samuels, [veteran center] Cory Raymer, that winning attitude is contagious.”

There’s a bounce in the offensive linemen’s steps these days, one that certainly wasn’t there last fall, when the group became the scapegoats for Steve Spurrier’s faltering offense.

Several linemen individually enjoyed solid seasons. Thomas, a free agent acquisition from the New York Jets, had what some felt was a Pro Bowl-caliber year (he wound up a third alternate). Jansen felt his season was among the best in his career. Even Samuels, who by his own admission did not play up to his career standards, managed to earn third-alternate honors based on his reputation as one of the NFL’s top left tackles.

Perhaps no player has impressed coaches and teammates more than Dockery, last year’s third-round draft pick who was forced into the lineup after starting left guard Dave Fiore injured his knee in September. Dockery, a 6-foot-6, 345-pound behemoth of a 23-year-old, understandably struggled. He was soft-spoken, timid and looked like he wasn’t ready to handle the complexities of the pro game.

Quietly, though, Dockery progressed as the year went on. And as he embarks on his second season, plenty of people have noticed how much he has matured.

“I thought Dock did well his first year. He made some simple rookie mistakes out there, but everybody makes those,” said Samuels, who has taken Dockery under his wing. “Now he’s taking a veteran approach to things, even though he’s not a vet yet. He’s definitely growing up.”

Though there may have been positive signs sprinkled throughout the Redskins’ line last year, the entire offense’s struggles made them easy to overlook.

Bugel doesn’t believe that will be the case this season. He knows Gibbs’ system is built around the offensive line. And he’s convinced that if the system succeeds, it will be in large part because of the gritty play by the five men he so affectionately refers to as “Dirtbags.”

“These guys won’t go unrecognized in this offense,” Bugel said.

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