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Trial By Fire The Super Bowl hopes of the veteran-rich Redskins may rest upon Chris Samuels, a 23-year-old rookie left tackle who is being asked to protect his quarterback's blind side

Aug. 28, 2000
Aug. 28, 2000

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Aug. 28, 2000

NFL Preview 2000

Trial By Fire The Super Bowl hopes of the veteran-rich Redskins may rest upon Chris Samuels, a 23-year-old rookie left tackle who is being asked to protect his quarterback's blind side

It wasn't long ago that defensive coordinators lined up their
marquee pass rusher almost exclusively on the right side of the
defense, over the left offensive tackle. Accordingly, their
counterparts on offense wanted their best blockers protecting
the left side, the blind side for a right-handed quarterback.
"Teams wanted great left tackles and got by with slugs at right
tackle," says Green Bay Packers pro personnel director Reggie
McKenzie. "No more." Offense coordinators can no longer assume
that the heaviest defensive pressure will come from over left
tackle. In 1998 the NFL's two sack leaders were left defensive
ends. In '99 three of the top four sackers lined up on the left
side. Translation: If you want to keep your quarterback healthy,
you'd better have a solid pair of tackles.

This is an article from the Aug. 28, 2000 issue

The Washington Redskins found their right tackle in 1999, taking
Michigan's Jon Jansen in the second round. When the Redskins made
a trade with the San Francisco 49ers last Feb. 25 that left them
with the second and third choices in the first round of the 2000
draft, coach Norv Turner knew before his head hit the pillow that
night that he'd be using one of those picks on another tackle.
"It's a great time for me to come into the league," says Chris
Samuels, the man Washington grabbed with the third selection.
"Everybody's concentrating on getting these great pass rushers,
and I want to be the guy who stops those great rushers every
week."

Here then is a chronicle of the education of a rookie who could
have as big a role as any player in determining how far the
Redskins go this season.

MARCH 18: TUSCALOOSA, ALA.

Ten minutes into a predraft workout for the Redskins, Samuels is
blowing it. He looks nervous, tentative, clumsy. With Turner,
owner Dan Snyder and four other members of the organization
looking on, he has picked a heck of a time to start choking.
Line coach Russ Grimm pulls Samuels aside and asks him what's
wrong.

"Nervous," Samuels answers. "I want you guys to draft me."

"Be yourself," Grimm says. "Don't worry about all that other
stuff, the drafting and what we think of you. Just be you."

For the next 60 minutes Samuels looks like the guy who, while
playing last year for Alabama, didn't allow a sack--or a
quarterback pressure--all season. (The Redskins had already
studied every Crimson Tide offensive play on tape.) He was quick
off the blocks, with excellent footwork, and jabbed well with
his forearms.

They hear the right stuff, too. When Snyder mentions to Samuels
at lunch--Dreamland Barbeque, where only slabs of ribs and white
bread are served, with no utensils, eight paper napkins per
guest--that Washington is a party town, Samuels says he's a
country boy and that during the week he likes to get his work in
and go to bed.

During the flight back to Washington, Snyder says to Grimm, "Tell
me what you think." It always comes down to this. The owner or
the head coach looks the authority in the eye and asks for his
unadulterated gut feeling. During an 11-year career in
Washington, Grimm played on the line for three Super Bowl champs.
He knows what greatness takes. Climbing above 10,000 feet over
northern Alabama, he looks Snyder in the eye. "I think," Grimm
says, "he's the best left tackle to come out of college in the
last 10 years."

APRIL 14: NEW YORK CITY

It's the eve of the draft. In his hotel room, 50 floors above
Times Square, Samuels waits for his family to arrive from Mobile.
There's a knock on the door. "Housekeeping," a woman says.
Samuels declines her offer to clean the room. She insists. He
declines again. "I don't like people picking up after me," he
says before making his bed and tidying up the bathroom.

With time to kill, he walks down Broadway. He stumbles upon the
crowd gathered outside the MTV studio where Total Request Live is
being broadcast. He loves the host, Ananda Lewis. A producer
spots him, knows he's somebody and offers to let him introduce
The Thong Song by Sisqo. Samuels readily agrees. After the song
ends, Lewis gushes, "That was Chris Samuel down there, people.
He's probably, um, going to be a third-round NFL pick!"

APRIL 15: ASHBURN, VA.

Um, Samuels is the third pick in the draft, behind Penn State
teammates Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington, a couple
of--surprise!--pass-rushing specialists who are taken by the
Cleveland Browns and the Redskins, respectively. Samuels, along
with Arrington, is whisked from New York to Washington aboard
Snyder's jet and then taken by helicopter to Redskin Park. Upon
finishing with the press, Samuels is greeted by Grimm, who says,
"Your scholarship's over. You're starting the Carolina game on
Sept. 3. You better get ready, or you'll embarrass yourself."

Five days later Samuels would have his playbook. If he were a
quarterback, Samuels would never be able to learn the myriad
plays and formations in Turner's complex offense in time to start
the opener; a weekly Redskins game plan features roughly 150
plays. Samuels has to learn only about 20 protection schemes, and
later he'll have to memorize adjustments he must make on stunts
and blitzes. Usually he'll have to block the right end, sometimes
the right tackle, sometimes the weakside linebacker. His
tutors--Skins end Bruce Smith and tackle Dana Stubblefield--will
toughen him up. The race to get Samuels ready for opening day is
on.

MAY 1: MEMPHIS

Samuels has been driving a 1990 Nissan Pathfinder, but after a
minicamp he flies to Memphis to pick up a new ride. The car, a
2000 Mercedes S500, is waiting for him outside the airport
terminal. It's jet-black and has a navigational system that looks
like a portable TV. Samuels takes a deep breath. "I'm in love
with this car," he says.

He's so much in love that he spends the next four hours driving
around Memphis, playing with the gadgetry. When he presses a
button near the sunroof labeled SOS, a voice from the Mercedes
emergency center says, "Yes, Mr. Samuels. How may I help you?"

Cost: $86,000, borrowed from his Memphis-based agent, Jimmy
Sexton, against the promise of a signing bonus that is expected
to be in the $10 million range. This is a kid who grew up with
nothing. Like most high draftees, he will shower himself with the
toys of the very rich. "Money won't corrupt me," he promises,
knowing that's a vow every rookie makes. "There are guys whose
goal is to get rich. I just want to play, be great and make some
money. If I'm great, the money will come."

MAY 23: ASHBURN

Samuels, as yet unsigned, is nursing a sore right hamstring, so
he isn't participating in every drill during minicamp. He spends
25 minutes working up a sweat on the treadmill while the rest of
the players are on the practice field. When he gets outside,
Stubblefield starts into him. "Hey, Chris!" he yells in a shrill
voice. "Thanks for coming!" A minute later: "You poured water on
yourself! Made it look like you're sweating!" Samuels says
nothing. A few minutes later, throwing a 20-pound medicine ball
while kneeling (to increase upper-body strength while simulating
a jab move), Samuels hears more: "Only time you work is when the
photographer shows up!"

Samuels knows he has to get into the drills, but for now he can
only respond to a spot quiz from Grimm.

Grimm: "Scat Right 335. Chris, you got who?"

Samuels: "Defensive end."

Grimm: "Right. Ace Right. Who?"

Samuels: "The end guy on the line."

Grimm: "Right. Doesn't matter if it's a defensive back,
linebacker or defensive end. If you're not sure who you got, if
you have a brain fart, what do you do?"

Samuels: "Hit somebody."

Later, in the offensive line meeting room, Grimm explains how he
is unlike some of his peers, who expect linemen to know every
word in every call. "My job is to keep it simple for him," Grimm
says. "Usually, either you block the man over you, or you block
one of the guys to the side."

Just then the linemen trickle into the room for more tutoring.

Grimm: "Chris, 40 Kick. Your job?"

Samuels: "Hinge to the back."

Grimm: "Eighty-eight Fullback Stutter."

Samuels: "I pull, regardless."

Grimm: "When I say, 'Scat Left,' what are you thinking?"

Samuels: "I've got the end, unless the center and guard are
covered. Then I've got the most dangerous guy. So I, uh...."

Grimm: "Sit and wait for a rusher."

Samuels: "Sit and wait for a rusher."

After Samuels leaves, Grimm says, "He's getting it."

In fact, driving from the complex that afternoon, Samuels is more
concerned with Stubblefield's head games than Grimm's pop
quizzes. "Why does he have to do that?" Samuels asks.

Hazing, he's told. Tough love. Samuels's reaction is interesting.
Outside the lines he's amiable. On the field he is exactly what
Grimm wants: tough, not giving an inch to the veterans, even one
who might be trying to help him. "I don't care," Samuels says.
"Nobody does me like that. I don't like it. I'll tell you this:
I'll get my revenge."

Stubblefield is happy to hear he's having an impact. "My job is
to get him ready," he says. "He's going to be a great player.
When I came into the NFL with the 49ers, Ted Washington and Kevin
Fagan made my life hell. It helped. So I will push Chris, and
push and push. I want to see how long it is before he explodes."

MAY 25: ASHBURN

Samuels's home for now is a five-room town house he shares with
Arrington 10 minutes from Redskin Park. It's perfect for two guys
who use it to sleep, eat, watch TV and talk on cell phones. Late
this afternoon Samuels returns home to finds Arrington in front
of the tube, remote in hand.

"What you doin'?" Samuels says.

"Just sittin' here," Arrington says. "Dreamin'."

Arrington is staring blankly at the Redskins' 1999 highlight
tape, a game-by-game look at last season, set to a disco beat.
Samuels falls into a couch, entranced. Neither guy has seen much
of his new team, so this is an education. And motivation. The two
of them watch defensive end N.D. Kalu sack the New York Giants'
Kerry Collins in Week 10, with defensive end Marco Coleman
picking the fumble out of the air and returning it 42 yards for a
touchdown.

"Man, we're good," Samuels says.

"Damn!" Arrington says. "I'm ready now."

"I thought it would be a lot tougher mentally," Samuels says over
the din of the TV, "but Russ makes it pretty simple."

Samuels is borderline carefree. The fact that a Super Bowl
favorite has drafted him to play the most important spot on the
offensive line seems to roll off his back. "I don't let that get
to me," he says. "I never have, really. In the life of a left
tackle, the quarterback can go back to pass 40 times, and if you
give up one sack, you've had a bad day. I've dealt with that
every day I've lined up. It's the job."

JUNE 21: NASSAU, THE BAHAMAS

Sexton has taken his football and basketball clients and their
significant others to the Atlantis Resort and Casino for three
days of fun. One of his clients, Chuck Smith, 30, is the Carolina
Panthers' defensive end who will face off against Samuels in
Samuels's first regular-season game. Good player. A wily
nine-year veteran with 30 1/2 sacks over the last three years. "Is
that your boy?" Smith says to Sexton as he eyes Samuels walking
the beach with his girlfriend, Eugena Samuel. Later a couple of
people in the travel party relay to Samuels that Smith told them
in a kidding tone, "I'm going to eat his lunch."

Samuels's gut tenses, but he doesn't let his emotion show. Later,
the two talk about life in the NFL, and Samuels finds he likes
Smith. But he'll replay Smith's words many times before Sept. 3.

JULY 20: ASHBURN

Samuels feels good about the mental aspect of the game. Now, on
the first day of training camp, two days after signing a
seven-year, $38.6 million contract (which, sure enough, included
a $10 million signing bonus) and eight days before his 23rd
birthday, he needs to get physically hardened. In the first
full-contact, 11-on-11 drill of his pro life, Samuels lines up
with the first unit opposite 10-time All-Pro Bruce Smith. The
ball is snapped, and Smith tries to beat Samuels outside. The two
hog wrestle. Samuels holds Smith out. As Brad Johnson completes a
long pass, Smith knocks Samuels down. On the next play Samuels
pushes a wide-rushing Smith to the ground. On the third snap
Smith beats Samuels to the quarterback with a swift move inside.

On one play near the end of practice, Stubblefield loops around
end. Samuels engages his tormentor, his 325 pounds on
Stubblefield's 315, his hands covering the front of
Stubblefield's jersey, and drives him to the left, out of the
play. Their momentum carries them far from the quarterback, but
instead of disengaging, Samuels gives Stubblefield a hard shove.
The latter responds by snapping Samuels's head back with a pop of
his right hand. "Hey!" a coach yells, but it is too late. Samuels
goes after Stubblefield, throwing a roundhouse right that
connects between the helmet and shoulder pads. Stubblefield
counters with two uppercuts to the chin. A scrum ensues as others
separate the two.

That night, Samuels lies on his bed in room 301 of the Dulles
Airport Hilton, the camp hotel. He's watching Analyze This as he
ices a sore right calf and reflects on his first day. "You knew
that was going to happen, Stubby and me," he says, chuckling.
"He's been on me since Day One. Now maybe he'll respect me."

Samuels had battled hard this day. He had won some matchups,
probably lost more. Kalu and Smith each beat him a few times.
There's a camp subplot that affects Samuels as well: Rumors are
rampant that Andy Heck, Washington's insurance policy at left
tackle, will retire before the season starts because of
persistent back problems. The Redskins have no other left tackles
remotely capable of starting. The heat has been turned up.
"They're worried about me, aren't they?" Samuels says, half an
eye on the movie.

"Maybe they are," he's told.

"I feel it," he says. "But I'm not scared. I'll show 'em I can
handle the pressure."

AUG. 1: ASHBURN

Pass-rush drills. Smith, a future Hall of Famer, versus Samuels.
Smith beats Samuels outside. Smith fakes inside, then
speed-rushes Samuels, beating him outside. Smith fakes outside,
then powers by him inside. "A clinic," says Vinny Cerrato,
Washington's director of player personnel. "Embarrassing,"
Samuels says.

"Hey, Bruce," Samuels says later, looking glum in the locker
room, "I was feeling pretty good until the way you done me
today."

Smith laughs. Grimm isn't worried. It's all part of the
indoctrination that the kid must go through to be ready for
Carolina.

AUG. 4: TAMPA

"Hey, Mook!" a wide-eyed Samuels yells to his pal, Redskins
rookie guard Michael (Mookie) Moore, in the tunnel at Tampa's
Raymond James Stadium. "I'm in the NFL!"

Buccaneers fans are getting their first glimpse of their
Keyshawn-fortified Super Bowl contenders, and the 65,003 loonies
are making playoff noise as the 7:30 starting time approaches.
The Redskins will receive the opening kickoff, and the line
assembles on the sideline near midfield. Grimm and Samuels each
make a fist, and the two knock knuckles. "Welcome to the NFL!"
Grimm shouts into Samuels's left ear hole. "Let's get it done!"

In the huddle before the first play, Johnson calls, "Queen Right
Rip, 989 Swing." Rip is all Samuels needs to hear. That means if
Tampa Bay defensive end Steve White rushes straight ahead,
Samuels blocks him one-on-one. If White stunts and a tackle or a
linebacker rushes his way, Samuels chips guard Keith Sims's man
and then picks up the stunter. At the snap White bull-rushes, and
Samuels holds his ground. Johnson's pass falls incomplete. On the
second play Samuels walls off a wide-rushing White. Johnson steps
left, up into the pocket, and the end on the other side, Chidi
Ahanotu, busts in for a sack. White jumps on the pile, and
Samuels is chagrined. It isn't his fault, though, and Grimm will
exonerate him later.

Samuels is sucking wind when the Redskins go into a two-minute
drill near halftime. On the seventh snap of a 12-play drive,
defensive end Marcus Jones bull-rushes the fatigued Samuels. A
steamroller couldn't have leveled Samuels any better. "I was
mad," Samuels would say. "I do not like to look bad."

Good players find something in reserve when they have to. On the
next play Jones tries a wide rush. Jones is chipped by running
back Adrian Murrell, who is on his way to the left flat, and
Samuels finishes the job, forearming Jones in the gut and pushing
him hard to the turf. Jones gasps as he gets up, then raises his
hand for a sub.

Samuels plays 27 snaps and makes one minor mistake, on a running
play. The Skins run one time behind his block, and Adrian Murrell
gains five yards. The most impressive thing is that on
Washington's 20 pass attempts, Samuels doesn't get beaten once,
either by a speed rush on the outside or by a power move to the
inside.

In the Bucs' locker room Jones is laudatory. "He's going to be a
hell of a player," he says. "I'll show you." Jones grips his
hands on a reporter's shirt and says, "He uses his hands like a
veteran. When a guy his size locks his hands onto you like this
and starts moving you, you're done. He's going to frustrate a lot
of pass rushers."

AUG. 6: ASHBURN

"No physical errors and no mental errors that I saw," Turner says
after reviewing the video. "Very good for a kid playing a full
half his first time out. He's more ready to play at this stage
than any rookie we've had since I've been here."

AUG. 8: ASHBURN

At practice Stubblefield sees Samuels leaning forward
aggressively. Run play, he reads. When Samuels lunges forward,
Stubblefield lets him charge like an angry bull, moves around him
and fills the hole, stopping the toss sweep before it can get
started. But Stubblefield isn't celebrating. "Hey, I can read
your stance," he says. "I know exactly what you're doing. Stay
back."

AUG. 19: CLEVELAND

"Queen Left Motion Broom 90," Johnson says in the huddle, and
Samuels has never heard a sweeter play call. There's no score
early in the second quarter of Washington's third preseason game,
and Broom 90 means the Redskins, at the Cleveland 12, are going
to run Skip Hicks into a hole that they expect Samuels to create
on the left side. "They want to see what I'm made of," Samuels
would say later, "to see if they can rely on me once the real
games start." At the snap, Samuels mashes end Keith McKenzie so
far outside that Hicks could drive an SUV through the hole.
Touchdown.

By the end of this night, Samuels has been in for 96 plays during
three exhibition games. He has made no mental errors. He has
allowed one quarterback pressure and no sacks. Walking toward the
team bus afterward, Turner doesn't know if Samuels has matured
two years in three months, as he'd hoped in May. "I do know,"
Turner says, "that I feel comfortable running or passing over
Chris's side. That's a big deal in this league."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO TAKE THAT! Samuels (60) went toe-to-toe with future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith early and often in training camp.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES LOOKING GOOD On draft day Samuels got an assist from his brother, James Jr., awaited word backstage with his family and then showed off his new duds with Eugena.COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (RIGHT) [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES ALL IN A DAY'S WORK Samuels got down at minicamp and tossed a medicine ball to improve his strength and his jab move.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES SUMMER CAMP After a long day of work with Grimm, Samuels (near right) kicks back with roommate Lloyd Harrison.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES OFF THE BLOCK Samuels made but one error in his debut, leading Turner to say Samuels was further along than any rookie he has had.
"We need Chris Samuels to age two years in the next three
months."
--REDSKINS COACH NORV TURNER May 25, 2000
"I think he's the best left tackle to come out of college in
the last 10 years," Grimm told Snyder.
That a Super Bowl favorite has drafted him to play the most
important position on the line seems to roll off his back.
"He's going to be a hell of a player," says Jones. "When
a guy his size locks his hands on you, you're done."