Three blasts of the air horn bring satisfaction to the Washington Redskins players. The trio of alerts means practice has ended, they can step out of the heat and wander back into the main building at Redskins Park. That is, if they are not part of Bill Callahan’s offensive line. For that group, the horn merely delivers respite before reassembly. A full team meeting takes place, dozens of players turn toward the locker room and, like a batch of troublemakers, the offensive linemen shuffle in an opposite direction to an adjacent field for more work.
Callahan’s hard-driving style embraces a simple core concept: Work, followed by more work, until it no longer feels like work. Still fit at 58 years old, nothing about the sweat-filled afternoons at Redskins Park appears to be work for Callahan. His notes are folded and tucked vertically into the backside of his shorts. He walks fast, talks loud and stands in the middle of operations for his unit. The only indicators of age are lines around his eyes and gray that is weaving through his still full head of hair.
“I love it,” Callahan said. “I absolutely love it. I look forward to practice every day. There’s nothing like it. I’m just an old-school ball coach.”
Linemen have noticed. After the first organized team activities of the season, center Kory Lichtensteiger wiped the sweat from his head and noted the unit was no longer taking a knee during special teams drills. It continued to work. Left tackle Trent Williams has not taken part in practice yet because of an injured ankle. Still, Callahan’s push is clear.
“I mean, he’s working the crap out of everybody,” Williams said. “He’s getting everybody ready. He’s a very intense coach, and he’s not going to accept anything but your best efforts.”
Last season in Dallas, where Callahan also had “offensive coordinator” next to his title of offensive line coach, running back DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing yards. It was not close. Murray’s 1,845 yards were almost 500 more than his nearest competitor. To get there, the Cowboys eschewed their traditional pursuit of glitz in the draft when they used first-round picks to select three offensive lineman over the previous four years. Callahan arrived in 2012. Combined with the young offensive line, an already capable passing game and Murray’s progressing abilities, Dallas was able to produce the league’s top back last season. It finished seventh in total offense.
The result put fresh polish on Callahan’s star. After winning the AFC West and appearing in the Super Bowl in his first season as the Oakland Raiders’ coach in 2002, Oakland plummeted to 4-12. Callahan was fired by Al Davis, then hired by Nebraska. His four seasons with the Cornhuskers did not go well. From 2007 through 2010, Callahan was 27-22. He was fired again, but rebounded back into the NFL. The New York Jets hired him to run the offensive line from 2008 through 2011. He joined the Cowboys in 2012.
Throughout the 1980s, Callahan was a collegiate assistant coach. The Chicago native started at Illinois and spent a year with Northern Arizona before becoming offensive coordinator at Southern Illinois. In the summer, Callahan ventured to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to watch Redskins practices. His affinity for the work of Washington offensive line coach Joe Bugel began then.
In the late 1990s, he ran the offensive line of the Philadelphia Eagles. His first season in Philadelphia, Callahan coached former Hogs member Raleigh McKenzie. After being hired by the Redskins, Callahan hung a photo of The Hogs in his office. It’s his carrot.
“We’re trying to emulate that and carry on that tradition here and try to live up to the standards that they have,” Callahan said.
Changes to the Redskins’ offensive line since Callahan arrived have been swift. Right guard Chris Chester, who made 64 consecutive starts, was released. Guards Josh LeRibeus and Spencer Long, penciled in as Chester’s replacement, are receiving more work. Callahan said every guard other than Shaun Lauvao is “cross-training” at center. Rookie right tackle Brandon Scherff, selected fifth overall, is learning how to hold up outside.
According to Jay Gruden, Callahan will be advised for play-calling input, particularly in the running game. Murray’s success in a power running scheme last season in Dallas prompted wonder about the style Callahan and the Redskins will use this season. At this point, Callahan said the line will be flexible, whether its approach is more downhill or zone-oriented.
Callahan is soon to go through a withdrawal period. The Redskins have one practice still on the schedule before a six-week break until training camp opens in Richmond on July 30. He can watch tape and continue to explore technique — the latter something he feels is an endless pursuit. Through the downtime, if he needs a reminder of what his new batch of linemen are after, he just needs to look up from his office chair.