A year ago, they were the unsung heroes of Washington’s surprising NFC East champions, the guys who opened the holes for rookies Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III and the league’s top rushing attack and usually also gave Griffin enough time to find his targets and set a rookie passer rating record.
Today, in the wake of the Redskins’ first-to-worst plunge, the starting offensive line is facing a barrage of criticism equal to the pass-rushing onslaught that took Griffin down 24 times in his last five starts before then-coach Mike Shanahan yanked the quarterback, supposedly for his own good.
Jay Gruden, who was hired from Cincinnati to replace Shanahan, has spent his entire career coaching offense, as had his predecessor. Gruden retained Shanahan’s offensive line coach, Chris Foerster, and quite possibly will use much of the zone-blocking scheme which relies on smaller, nimble blockers and in which all five starters have at least three years of experience.
In fact, left tackle Trent Williams, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and right tackle Tyler Polumbus — even though he appeared in 20 games for Seattle, starting seven – haven’t played in another NFL system. Center Will Montgomery played in 29 games, starting nine, for Carolina, the New York Jets and Washington before Shanahan came to the Redskins in 2010. Only right guard Chris Chester had truly extensive experience in another blocking scheme before coming to Washington. And even Chester played his first two seasons under Foerster in Baltimore.
Of course, even though Foerster is back and all five starting linemen are under contract for 2014, don’t expect Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen to stand pat. The Redskins ranked ninth in yards, fifth in rushing, but they were just 16th in passing and 23rd in scoring.
Lichtensteiger, who had major knee surgery in 2011, is considered very small by NFL offensive line standards at 6-foot-2 and 284 pounds. So is Polumbus, whose 305 pounds are undersized for his 6-8 frame. The 6-3, 309-pound Chester, who just turned 31, really struggled in pass protection last season. The 6-3, 304-pound Montgomery, who’ll be 31 next month, and Lichtensteiger didn’t distinguish themselves in that area either. Polumbus simply can’t handle speed rushers.
That leaves the 6-5, 325-pound Williams, who was superb for much of the last two seasons before fading down the stretch last year. The fourth overall selection in the 2010 draft is easily the most gifted of Washington’s linemen and was chosen for a second straight Pro Bowl.
Not that replacing any of the incumbent starters will be that simple although Gruden might make a big push for 6-6, 308-pound Anthony Collins, who’s just 28 and started at right tackle down the stretch for the AFC North champion Bengals.
The best other potentially available right tackles are Baltimore’s Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe, each of whom has also played the left side, Miami’s Tyson Clabo, New Orleans’ Zach Strief and the New York Jets’ Austin Howard.
The top free agent-to-be guards are led by Kansas City’s Geoff Schwartz, who at 6-6, 332, wouldn’t fit with the rest of Washington’s line, Chicago’s Matt Slauson and maybe Minnesota’s Charlie Johnson, who turns 30 that month. Seattle’s Paul McQuistan can play guard and tackle but will be 31 in April. Kevin Boothe of the New York Giants is also versatile and will be 31 in July. Carolina’s Travelle Wharton will be 33 in May. Danny Watkins was a bust in Philadelphia. And let’s not even discuss Richie Incognito. Maybe Mike Pollak impressed Gruden while starting five games for the Bengals last year at 28.
The one pending free agent lineman without a question mark is Cleveland’s Pro Bowl center, Alex Mack, who has started all 80 games during his five seasons. New Orleans’ Brian Del Puente is another fine center. However, the Browns and Saints will likely fight hard to keep these guys. Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith became a starter in his fourth season last year and is a reasonable alternative.
As far as in-house replacements are concerned, tackle Tom Compton, a sixth-round choice in 2012, didn’t play as a rookie but saw some time in jumbo packages and when Williams got banged up last year. That was also the case for 2012 fifth-round guard Adam Gettis when Lichtensteiger got hurt in the finale. However, 2012 third-round guard Josh LeRibeus didn’t play at all in 2013 after seeing a little action as a rookie because he fell out favor with the coaches after reporting overweight last offseason.
Mo Hurt, who started the final eight games in place of the injured Lichtensteiger as a seventh-round pick in 2011, was also out of shape last offseason and was never activated after having a knee scoped in May. J.D. Walton, Denver’s starting center in 2010 and 2011, has played in just four games since. He was signed in December with the idea of giving him a look-see this spring.
With all of these possibilities and a few rookies, too, Gruden and Foerster should be able to begin reconstructing the line this year although their work might well linger on into 2015.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.