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Comeback bound

By Jody Foldesy



Washington Redskins tackle Chris Samuels started the jest one day by poking fun at guard Derrick Dockery.

"You're getting big-headed," Samuels said to his rising young linemate and best friend on the Washington Redskins.

Dockery fired back with a mocking impression: "Oh, I'm Chris Samuels, All-Pro."

Samuels shook his head.

"I ain't nothing," he replied. "I've got to work myself up from the bottom to the top."

It has been just two years since Samuels was at the top, but to him it seems like forever. Injuries, substandard play and Steve Spurrier's dubious blocking schemes conspired to erode his confidence in 2002 and 2003 and drop his reputation perceptibly around the league.

Now Samuels is rising again, thanks to a new attitude and an enthusiastic offseason under legendary line coach Joe Bugel. In tomorrow's opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Samuels is as eager to match up with Bucs star Simeon Rice as Redskins fans are for coach Joe Gibbs to make his regular-season return.

"A lot of guys respect me, but last year my play, they didn't really respect that," Samuels said this week. "I want guys to fear me like they used to. That's the approach I'm trying to take going into this season. I've got a chip on my shoulder. I've got to take back what's mine."

The reasons for Samuels' decline remain partly shrouded by his refusal to spread blame. But it was well-known among teammates last season that Samuels and offensive line coach Kim Helton didn't see eye-to-eye.

Samuels only hinted at a problem in this week's interview. When asked directly about Helton, who clashed with Spurrier over the Fun 'n' Gun's fit for the NFL, Samuels took the high road.

"I respected my coach," he said. "He did the best job to prepare me to play. I respect him for that. There were some things I'd like to change, but every year you're going to feel that way. I'm not going to bad-mouth Kim at all. I'm just going to look at myself in the mirror and know I could have done some things better."

In any case, their relationship was just one factor in Samuels' frustrating season. Also an issue were ankle and shoulder injuries that hobbled him in 2002 and didn't quite heal until surgeries this offseason. In addition, Samuels didn't play particularly well when he was asked to block opposing ends — and all too frequently that job was left to others.

Take last season's loss to the Bucs on Oct. 12. Rice, one of the NFL's premier pass rushers, recorded four sacks that day, but just one came against Samuels. The others were attributed to Dockery, tight end Robert Royal and running back Ladell Betts.

"Different coaches do different things," said Lawrence Samuels, Chris' brother and football confidant. "At times he felt frustrated. Chris wants to be in position to block their best player. A lot of times he wasn't in position to block their best player."

It was a year of sacks, false starts, injuries and misappropriated duties. But Samuels never showed much outward frustration. Instead, he internalized it. Few Redskins teammates got a sense of Samuels' emotional state. Said Dockery, "Chris is one of those guys who's very hard to read."

However, some very real changes had occurred.

"I just kind of lost confidence in myself," Samuels said. "My first three seasons, except when I had the ankle injury, I knew couldn't nobody beat me. I went out there with the mindset, 'I can't be beat.' I would be out there relaxed, just playing ball. It got to a point my fourth year ... I didn't feel like I was that player that I know I am."

The turning point came when Samuels injured his knee Nov. 23 at Miami. The sprain caused him to miss the next three games, and the time on the sideline provided a new perspective on his problems.

"It was just a bad season for me," Samuels said. "But in my opinion, it was also a good season for me. It opened my eyes up to a lot of different things around me. I re-evaluated myself, got back focused on what I had to do. Not that I wasn't then, but when I got hurt and missed those three games, I allowed myself to look at it from the fans' perspective, from my teammates' perspective, from the sideline."

The maturing process was aided by his brother, who had battled tough times in his own football career and learned that defeats actually can be victories.

"That's one of the things we talked about: bouncing back," Lawrence Samuels said. "We all go through adversity at times. It's all about learning, and he learned a lot last year. He wants to get back to the player he was his first two years."

Then, after Gibbs replaced Spurrier, Bugel began boosting Samuels' ego and working him into the ground. The coach, who in the 1980s molded the Hogs, told Samuels in their first conversation that he'd get him back to Pro Bowl status.

"I wanted to lay the foundation right away, because I really respected the kid coming out of college," said Bugel, who coached the San Diego Chargers' offensive line in 2000, when the Redskins made Samuels the draft's third overall pick.

"I thought he was the best player at that time," Bugel said. "He slipped a little bit the last couple years. I told him, 'I can help you, if you're a good listener, a good worker. We'll get you back to where you should be, and that's All-Pro caliber.' "

Samuels and Dockery practically lived at Redskin Park this offseason. They spent extra time watching tape. They practiced their footwork. And they lost considerable weight. Samuels is down to 305 pounds after entering the offseason program at 317, and he's not far above the 295 he played at in 2001.

"Every time we came in, we hit it hard," Dockery said. "We had a goal. We were on a mission. We wanted to be the best we could be. If you're the best you can be, everything else takes care of itself."

Now immersed in Bugel's world of proper technique, Samuels pointedly questions the habits of many other NFL offensive linemen.

"A lot of offensive linemen around the league, I look at the techniques of them, and they're really not doing what we're being taught," Samuels said. "I think the way we're being taught is the way to knock guys off the ball."

The list of little tips is voluminous: "Coming off low, good leverage, neck bridge, arm pumped, thrusting your arms into a guy's chest, hand placement," Samuels said. By combining such technique with his natural athleticism, Samuels has a chance to return to the elite realm of Willie Roaf, Orlando Pace and Walter Jones.

For Bugel, though, the real key is Samuels' determination and the work ethic it has wrought.

"He did things in the offseason to prove that he does have a chip on his shoulder," Bugel said. "He was here every day, worked out twice a day, and he did more than I asked him to do. That's the sign of an All-Pro. He proved to us that he's a legitimate, legitimate, big-time player."

None of which means Samuels will dominate Rice tomorrow. But clearly the journey back to the top has begun.

"It's going to be a tough one," Samuels said of his battle with Rice. "I don't know what's going to happen out there. The only I can guarantee is I'm going to give it everything I have."

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