ASHBURN, Va. -- When they finally headed to the locker room following their normal post-practice routine on Monday afternoon, Washington Redskins offensive linemen Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas were forced to wade through a foot-deep moat which entirely ringed the field, compliments of a violent storm that had passed through about 90 minutes earlier and temporarily knocked out the radar at nearby Dulles Airport.
That both the veterans successfully navigated the unusual watery expanse, and without having to summon a lifeguard, in retrospect might have been one of the very few residual benefits of having somehow survived an ugly 2003 season in which the Redskins offensive line was forced to sink or swim on an almost weekly basis.
Forget worrying about backing up into the classic pass-block stance. Redskins linemen had to backstroke just to tread water in a scheme that went anything but swimmingly.
"It was hard, really hard," acknowledged left guard Derrick Dockery.
Hard to comprehend. Harder to accept. Hardest to execute.
Despite featuring one of the league's top young tackle tandems and one of its best guards, the Redskins surrendered 43 sacks last year, the fourth-most in the NFL, and a whopping 26 percent more than the leaguewide average. Hardly a collection of bellyachers, 'Skins offensive linemen don't like making alibis, and in this case they don't need an excuse.
All anyone has to do is talk to an opposition defensive coordinator, or flip on videotape from most of the Washington games of '03, and it is clear the linemen were operating in the unconventional protection system that coach Steve Spurrier brought with him from his long tenure in the college ranks.
Using architectural terms, it is safe to say that Spurrier's blueprint for keeping rushers off his quarterbacks suffered from basic design flaws. In laymen's language, well, it stunk.
"Embarrassing, frustrating, any adjective like that sums it up," said Jansen, the team's starting right tackle. "You felt helpless. In all my years of playing football, I can honestly say that it was the first time I ever went onto the field thinking, 'You know, if we win today, it's just because of sheer luck.' It hurt to have to play like that."
It hurt quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who sustained 30 of the sacks in just 11 starts before succumbing to a season-ending foot injury, even more. One could make the case that the systems failure on the offensive line contributed, in part, to the offseason decision to trade for quarterback Mark Brunell.
The system also mentally wounded left tackle Chris Samuels, one of the league's most solid pass protectors. Samuels was certainly affected by injuries that held him back, but the system also made him look bad.
The good news is that one of the first shortcomings remedied by head coach Joe Gibbs was the situation on the line, where he brought in legendary assistant Joe Bugel to take on the challenge of rebuilding the unit's collective psyche. In a rather controversial move last year, owner Dan Snyder and vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato brought Bugel to Washington for a day to review the line's performance, to break down tape, in essence to serve as a consultant.
An extreme measure, the move leaked out in the media, and the Redskins brass was forced to explain its motives. One other messy situation: In late October, during a vocal blowup with Spurrier, line coach Kim Helton either resigned or was fired. Snyder had to scramble to ameliorate the incident and, of course, in true Washington political fashion, attempted to cover it up when ESPN and ESPN.com reported it.
The sack numbers did improve late in the year -- after surrendering 25 sacks in the first seven games, the Redskins permitted 18 in the final nine outings -- but those are a bit misleading. One factor in the decline was that the more mobile Tim Hasselbeck took over as the starter after Ramsey was forced from the lineup. But truth be told, the scheme never really changed all that much.
There were problems in communication, and instances where the protection scheme was simply too unstable, like when the plan called for the Redskins to try to block New York Giants sackmeister Michael Strahan principally with a running back.
"You hate to rip anyone, but it was crazy," Jansen said. "I mean, I'm not the most veteran lineman in the league, but I think I've been around long enough to know what the heck I'm talking about, so I would suggest certain things and they were ignored or dismissed. You'd say something to a coach and he'd just walk away. That's why it's so refreshing now to be in a system that's sound and that plays to our strengths."
Arguably one of the finest line mentors in the recent history of the game, Bugel came to know the Washington personnel during his consulting stint, and he has put some of that knowledge into action. More important, he has restored order, implemented ideas that are steeped in fundamentals and brought sanity and soundness to the dazed unit.
Offensive line play is about communication and simplicity. The fewer moving parts, the better, in a sense. The rules which dictate blocking patterns are simpler, the ambiguity of the Spurrier-Helton design a thing of the past. The emphasis is on protecting the passer at all costs and knocking defenders off the line in the running game.
Said Bugel: "You have to take care of your players and we're going to do that. I think we've put some confidence back in these (linemen). We're going to give them a chance to be successful again. Really, that's all any player asks of you. 'Put me in a position to win the individual battles, coach.' And we're doing that."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.