When Brandon Scherff finally arrived at Redskins Park last month, signing his contract and plunging himself into the waters of a professional career, Spencer Long was among the first players to welcome him to the team.
The gesture, Scherff later recognized, wasn’t all that surprising. Two seasons earlier, when Iowa defeated Nebraska on the road in 2013, Scherff was approached by Long, who congratulated him on his strong play and a solid day’s work.
“We’re just trying to help each other, and that’s what we’ve got to do as an offensive line,” Scherff said Wednesday, following the Redskins’ fifth session of organized team activities. “You’ve always got to help each other so that all five are playing on the same level.”
That relationship, it seems, could be vital to the Washington Redskins moving forward. The selection of Scherff with the No. 5 overall pick in the NFL draft in April, followed by the release of four-year starter Chris Chester last week, have retooled the right side of the Redskins’ offensive line.
The team’s hope is that by installing the two players, the Redskins will be more adept to incorporate additional power running and gap blocking in their offense — a move Jay Gruden has had his eye on making since he was hired as the team’s coach prior to last season.
“We’re not going to abandon the outside zone,” Gruden said. “Alfred Morris is a great outside zone runner. He’s a great zone runner. I think the ability to do a little bit of both is very, very important to keep defenses off balance.”
Gruden kept the running game mostly intact last season, inheriting a scheme that had been so successful in previous years under coach Mike Shanahan, his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and offensive line coach Chris Foerster.
Washington’s ground attack, though, had not been as successful as it was in previous years — for a variety of reasons. The Redskins totaled 1,399 rushing yards by their running backs last season, down nearly 12 yards a game from the year before and almost 24 yards a game from 2012.
Adding a pair of bigger bodies in Long and Scherff could help stem that trend. When new general manager Scot McCloughan was hired in January, he quickly made known his preference to control the line of scrimmage with larger, stronger, more physical players.
The 6-foot-3, 303-pound Chester, who started every game over the last four seasons and has since signed with the Atlanta Falcons, didn’t fit that mold. The coaching staff had originally hoped that Long, drafted in the third round last season, would be able to push Chester for playing time during the offseason and in training camp, but Long’s recovery from a torn MCL in his left knee sustained during his senior season left him further behind in his transition than was hoped.
Long took all of 16 snaps on offense during his rookie year, including 11 in the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 28 when three other offensive linemen left the game with injuries.
“I had a lot going on my rookie year,” Long said Wednesday. “I was just trying to keep my head above water really, you know? Everything [changed] — a whole new experience, a whole new place, a whole new offense, a whole new tempo, a whole new level of difficulty in competition. So much was new, and this year is just night-and-day difference walking in and feeling that your body is used to it and you know what to expect and you’re used to the speed. The transition has been a lot smoother.”
That transition has also unfolded without the guiding eye of Foerster, but instead the addition of Bill Callahan, a longtime offensive line coach who was hired by Gruden this offseason.
Several offensive linemen have already noticed a difference between the two coaches’ styles — most notably the insistence by Callahan, who has not yet been permitted by the team to speak to reporters, to continue working on their technique during down periods in practice.
“He’s working the crap out of everybody,” said left tackle Trent Williams. “He’s getting everybody ready. He’s a very intense coach, and he’s not going to accept anything but your best efforts.”
Long said he was saddened by Chester’s release, which saves the Redskins upwards of $4 million against the salary cap, because the veteran was so helpful last season.
He understands that looking back does him no good — and that looking forward probably doesn’t help, either, considering that he believes he has much to improve.
“I’m not concerned with the future,” Long said. “I mean, obviously, everyone is a little bit, but I’m saying like, you’ve got to be on your stuff now. You can’t just, ‘Oh, well, now I’m here, so I can be cool with that.’ No. It doesn’t work that way, so you’ve got to always be constantly fighting for your job every day.”