“I need centers,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said, speaking in a radio interview after the draft. “That’s my biggest fear as a coach.”
Centers. Not a blindside hit to the quarterback. Not a non-contact knee injury at one of the skill positions. Centers.
Fear can be worsened by experience. A turbulent cross-country trip can increase a fear of flying. One flub of a phrase can exacerbate a fear of public speaking. Gruden has seen Kory Lichtensteiger convert from guard to center only to get hurt repeatedly, prompting a similar conversion for Spencer Long. Now, Long is expected to miss about two weeks while recovering from a knee arthroscopy, according to a report from CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora. No wonder Gruden worries.
Long, entering his first full season as the Redskins starting center, is expected back by or around Week 1 of the regular season. He may not have played in the fourth preseason game regardless, meaning that Long could effectively miss just a handful of practices and in-game snaps this preseason. A minor knee surgery is nothing to write home about as far as NFL injuries go.
Still, Long’s minor absence raises a question that gets at Gruden’s fear and that will likely come up again at some point when the games count. The Redskins have an excellent starting five along the offensive line. But will they be able to play 16 games together?
Offensive linemen don’t get hurt as often as players at more mobile, but still hard-hitting, positions like running back or linebacker, but a lineman still has a 60 percent chance of ending up on the injury report at some point during a given season, according to a Football Outsiders study. The study used NFL injury report data gathered from 2000-2014 in its analysis.
Redskins offensive line coach Bill Callahan knows this from experience.
“I remember one year in Dallas I went through seven centers,” Callahan said in June.
“I remember being out in the hallway at 12 o’clock at midnight teaching the shotgun snap to [Cowboys guard] David Arkin so, yeah, it can get crazy,” said Callahan, who held the same position in Dallas from 2012-2015 as he does now. “It can get absolutely crazy.”
To avoid that craziness, the Redskins traded up to draft backup center Chase Roullier in the sixth round. Roullier is the player Gruden was speaking to ESPN 980 about when he mentioned that a lack of centers is his greatest fear.
“Something happens to Spencer, where do you go?” Gruden said in the same interview. “Teach a guard to do it again? You’ve got to have a guy that can play center, in my opinion.”
The Redskins will almost certainly turn to Roullier, who has stood out during training camp and in preseason action with the second-team offense, in Long’s absence.
Roullier filled in for Long during practice Aug. 1 when Long was out sick with a stomach virus. Roullier looked fine snapping the ball to Kirk Cousins and playing with the first team. At a position where mistakes stick out, solid play blends in and communication responsibilities are significant, that’s saying something. Roullier has a strong base and the former mechanical engineering major doesn’t often get confused.
“Great kid,” Callahan said. “Smart. Really smart. It starts there. He’s smart, he’s intelligent, he’s got great character and he’s just learning the ropes. The pro game is a little bit different and I think any of these guys, any of our players could tell you that when you walk into our language it’s a little bit foreign so it’s like learning a new language in a sense.”
Behind Roullier, the Redskins have Ronald Patrick as an additional backup. The guards are also cross-trained as centers for emergency purposes. Or, Washington could sign someone. Former New York Jets center Nick Mangold’s name has been thrown around.
Sure, Callahan coached Mangold to four of the golden-haired giant’s seven Pro Bowls. Mangold was cut by the Jets in February and has said he’s interested in playing a 12th season in 2017. He was still rehabbing a foot injury when the Ravens brought him in, but didn’t sign him, in April.
Mangold, however, has earned over $55 million in his career and is interested in opening a winery upon retirement. Would you sign on as a temporary fill-in at a reduced rate if you had $55 million and Cabernet to sample? Unlikely.
The fact that a minor surgery can even bring up the idea of spending a chunk of change on a 33-year-old coming off an injury to fill in on a unit expected to be one of the Redskins’ best and most stable indicates how quickly things can, to borrow from Callahan, “get absolutely crazy.”
And lest anyone think that doesn’t matter, and that any ‘ol line can block if the quarterback can just get rid of the ball, Football Outsiders also keeps track of a statistic called Offensive Continuity Score. A team that starts the same five linemen in the same spots all 16 weeks would have an score of 48, and the numbers go down from there based on number of starters used and the number of week-to-week changes in lineups.
The average team’s score used to be a lot higher than it is now, signaling that injuries and shuffling along the offensive line are increasingly prevalent. The average score was 33.4 in 1999 and 35.5 in 2000 but 30.3 in 2015 and 29.8 in 2016.
Continuity is incredibly important for a unit as co-dependent as an offensive line. Need convincing? Only one team had a perfect continuity score in 2016: The NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons. The next best team? The Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.
The Redskins starting offensive line has taken some lumps so far in the preseason. The group can still match up with the best in the league, though, in terms of where they start out in talent and continuity. Where a line starts out, is not often where they end up.