C/G Todd Washington is the likely candidate to back up all three interior offensive line spots this fall
Last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' interior offensive line trio of center Jeff Christy and guards Randall McDaniel and Frank Middleton started all 176 of the team's regular season games together. Would you like to know how often that has happened in the Bucs' 25-season history?
Twice. The interior group of center Steve Wilson and guards Greg Horton and Greg Roberts also turned the trick for Tampa Bay's 1979 NFC Central championship squad. At this rate, the team should expect another season of such stability, oh, around 2021.
Useless trivia? To some, but to Todd Washington it is a fact that helps determine how he approaches his job each day.
Washington, heading into his fourth season with the Buccaneers, is the player most likely to serve as the back up to all three of those interior positions. It would be a surprise, given precedent, if he does not play a significant role in the offense at some point this fall.
And Tampa Bay knew this when free agency was kicking off back in March. As the Bucs gauged whom among their 10 unrestricted free agents they could afford to sign, one departure the team was prepared to handle was that of Middleton, the primary starter at right guard for the past three seasons. That's partially because second-year man Cosey Coleman, a second-round draft choice last year, had impressed coaches and partially because Washington has proven over three seasons that he is ready to play.
"All those things come into play as you determine what you have and how much you're going to offer a person for him to stay," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We liked Frank an awful lot, but we knew we had Cosey and Todd and we knew they were both capable of playing well for us. They both have played well when they've had the chance. It made it easier to set a limit on what we could offer Frank."
It does not necessarily make life easier for Washington, who unlike Coleman, will not be stepping into a more sharply defined role. While Coleman has been asked to learn the left guard spot and prepare himself to start, Washington expects to be needed at all three interior spots.
"I think that's the plan, and I'm comfortable with that right now," said Washington, the team's fourth-round draft pick in 1998. "Nobody likes to be a backup, but if you know you're role and do the best you can with it, you can contribute for a longer time. When your number's called, you've got to be ready to go."
So far, that call has come for only bits and pieces of 20 games over three seasons. With the departure of Middleton and Kevin Dogins, however, Washington finds himself much closer to the front line. In fact, minor injuries to Christy (left calf pull) and rookie guard Russ Hochstein (left foot sprain), have made Washington one of the busiest men on the field during the current four-week run of voluntary practices.
"They want me to primarily stay at center and back up Jeff," said Washington of his duties at the moment. "While Russ is injured, I have to do a little bit of left guard, so it's almost the same routine that I've had for the past two or three years now.
"That's the value of a lineman that can play three positions and not just one. You don't have to sign other players to fill those roles or keep more players active. A guy that can play three positions takes a lot of the load off, but it's tough. Sometimes the plays run together on you and you think you're at one spot when you're at the other. Being able to do it is a big plus for me."
The soft-spoken Washington calls himself a team player, and how can you argue? To the public, the term 'offensive line' means the five starters. The job of backup lineman, no matter how important it truly is, falls into that thankless category reserved for the likes of holders, special teams aces and blocking tight ends. And, simply put, players want to play. Washington has found a way to balance his impatience with motivation.
"Oh, yeah, I'm very impatient," he admitted. "Coming from a strong football program at Virginia Tech, where I was a three-year starter and started four games my first year … it's tough, you know? Starting all those games (in college), then getting drafted and not starting or playing any full games, except for the preseason – it's very frustrating."
His motivation is twofold, coming from on the field and off. During practice, he maintains maximum effort for the coaches, knowing that an impatient attitude can turn into a downward spiral.
"You learn a lot of patience because it will eat you up if you don't," he said. "It will eat you up and your performance on the field will start to show it. You won't have the practices that you need to have.
"The coaches need to have confidence in your performance and your abilities. They have to feel confident that they can put you out there when something goes wrong and the team won't miss a beat. If they don't have that confidence in you, they won't do it. The only way you're going to instill in them that you can play is to do it in practice. That's what I've been doing."
And between plays, in the wet, wilting heat of Florida, or between practices, he gains motivation from his young son, Cameron. Washington, who grew up in Melfa, Virginia and was coached on the gridiron by his father, Tony, wants to provide even greater opportunities for Cameron.
"He needs a good life, a better life than I did," said Washington. "That's what keeps me going, no matter how tired I am or how beat up I feel. I just want to make sure that he doesn't have to fight for the things I can give him."
So he heads into a fourth NFL season, perhaps more determined than ever. He is among the younger wave of Bucs who want to earn starting or expanded roles as the inevitable turnover continues – the Dexter Jacksons, the Nate Websters, the Brian Kellys, the Cosey Colemans. But, while Jackson or Webster can point to regular-season game film to prove they're ready, Washington has to constantly stay in the coaches' eyes with his midweek performances.
"I just try to be aggressive," said Washington of his practice approach. "Knowing what to do is one thing, but if you can take that and be aggressive, and still be under control, they like to see that. They like to see how intense you are. Anybody can go out there and finesse it and get the job done, but if you add a little bit of extra effort to what you're doing and concentrate on the little things, that's what they like to see."
At the moment, that means not just playing with the first team group at center, but making all of the line calls against a veteran defense that is using June for some experimentation.
"The center position is very tough," said Washington, who filled in at spot for Tony Mayberry during a few games in 1998. "Like today, our defense put in a new alignment and they were shifting on the go. It's very hard for the center to recall and re-recognize the fronts. The more we see it and the more we recognize it, it will become more like second nature to get the calls right. But it is tough at center. You have to make the calls and be on top of it, because if you're wrong, then everybody's wrong."
Often, the center will get to the line and indicate to the rest of the group which linebacker he intends to block. That call will in turn determine the duties of the guards and tackles, and if the center has picked the wrong man, it's likely that some defender will be unblocked and waiting in what is supposed to be the back's running lane.
So, on any given play on a June morning, Washington has to prove he can make the line calls at center and that he can then follow through and aggressively block his man. Later in the same workout, he may find himself at left guard, with a whole new set of duties. Apparently, he has done nothing this spring and summer to change the opinions of the Bucs' coaching staff.
"We feel good about Todd," said Dungy. "He hasn't played much at center (during the season) because Tony and Jeff have played so much, but he's filled in at guard. When he's played, he's played well. We're certain he can step in at any of those positions and play well for us."
Washington believes the coaches wouldn't even notice the difference, and that is exactly what any football team would want out of the 'second string.'
"I think it would stay the same," said Washington. "I know it would be hard to beat out Jeff Christy or Randall McDaniel, that it would be hard to beat out Cosey right now, but I can always push them. I can let them know that I'm behind them, ready to take over if something goes wrong.
"I don't wish anything bad to any of those guys. I'm as much of a team player as anybody out here. But I would like to play. Everybody wants to play, but you've just got to wait your turn. Whether it's this year, two years from now, with another ballclub, even – you just never know. When my time comes, I'll be ready to jump at it."