NFL teams thought Donald Penn was retired. Now he's preparing to start for the Redskins
Donald Penn crouched in his stance, planted his left hand in the grass and tensed. The left tackle was alone. Washington Redskins assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher stood a few feet away and barked, “Go!”
Penn swiveled his hips right and burst ahead. It was Monday afternoon at Redskins Park. The training staff had tried to give Penn time off a few days earlier, but he rejected the idea even though he was hurting. He wanted to recapture his rhythm, and drills such as these were instrumental for a veteran who has “been out of football for a while.” The 36-year-old kept his shoulder pads underneath “the cage” — a red, metal contraption with a mesh top about five feet off the ground designed to force a player to maintain a low center of gravity. As he emerged from underneath, his hands surged up in a mock block.
“I got a lot of work ahead of me,” Penn said. “I’m hard on myself. I’m not where I want to be at. Good thing is, I’m going to make sure I’m ready by Philly.”
Coach Jay Gruden announced Monday that Penn is the Redskins’ left tackle, meaning he’ll probably start in the Sept. 8 season opener at the Philadelphia Eagles. The Redskins signed Penn during the first week of training camp as insurance in case their franchise left tackle, Trent Williams, continued his holdout into the season. There has been no sign of Williams at Redskins Park, though Gruden said Monday he believes “very strongly” the team will not trade its disgruntled star.
Still, every day without Williams increases the likelihood the Redskins will need Penn, as well as the size of his potential role. The stopgap could become the full-time starter. Gruden expects Penn’s experience to get him through the adjustment; he pointed out the lineman hasn’t played since Week 4 of last fall, when the then-Oakland Raider suffered a season-ending groin injury. Penn is just starting to get his legs back under him.
“He’s in decent shape for an old, ugly-body guy,” Gruden said. “He’s seen a lot of football, played a lot of football; he knows how to set on these guys. He’s not quite where he was when he was 22 years old, but he’s still a very functional left tackle in the NFL.”
That Penn is back in the league for a 13th season seems to be a minor miracle. He has ended the past two years on injured reserve, the second of which cost him so much time in rehab that he appeared to fade from the league’s collective mind. Penn said “a lot of teams” called his agent this offseason to ask whether he was retired — between five and 10 teams, according to a person familiar with the process.
Penn laughed while delivering an impression of phone calls between his agent and teams.
“Is Donald still playing?”
“Yeah, he’s still playing! He’s just waiting to get picked up!”
The lineman worked out at Proactive Sports Performance, a Los Angeles-area training facility for professional athletes, and resolved to return to the league after the Raiders released him in mid-March. He believed that Oakland switching him to right tackle hurt him last season and that he could return to his Pro Bowl-caliber play from 2016 and 2017 if given a chance at left tackle, his natural position. Few seemed to agree. Penn heard so much retirement talk that, in early April, he posted on Instagram: “Retired where?” and promised he had two more “good years” left.
Penn endured a long offseason with few prospects, but he trusted that his services would be needed this summer, assuming a preseason injury would help him land a contract by mid- to late August. Instead, the Redskins called six days into training camp, and Penn rushed to join the team in Richmond. He has since worked to better anticipate the quarterback’s tempo on cadences — a task easier now that the team named Case Keenum the starter. He emphasized the need to nail down “rhythm,” a difficult-to-define yet crucial state of mind.
The most obvious example came on the field Monday, when Penn and the starting left guard, another Redskins newcomer in Ereck Flowers, drilled on double-team blocks. They need to be in sync for the Redskins to succeed, and they clapped their pads against undrafted free agent guard Jerald Foster, acting as a defensive lineman.
Penn and Flowers have discussed, among other things, how to approach double teams in each scheme, how much of the defender to hit and what to leave for the other. Penn pointed out he has played “with a lot of different guards in my day” and said he will adapt to Flowers’s preferences. The guard — who was once a top left tackle prospect for the division rival New York Giants — praised Penn’s preparation.
“It’s been fun learning from him,” Flowers said. “He always has something where it’s like, ‘Wow, that makes so much sense.’ ”
Flowers and Penn were doubling again when offensive line coach Bill Callahan stopped the drill. He told Corey Robinson, another acting defensive lineman, to get his butt down and bull-rush the tandem again.
“Get low! LOW!” Callahan hollered.
The whistle shrieked. Robinson surged forward, Flowers and Penn, too. They crashed together, and Penn’s legs churned for a few seconds, no more. It didn’t look like much, but it was crucial to Penn, for whom everything returns to rhythm. That’s what he and Flowers need to solidify before the opener against Philadelphia. It’s why he declined to sit out of practice when his body hurt. It’s how he thinks he’ll become the best version of himself.
“It’s coming, it’s coming,” Penn said. “Not as fast as I want it to, but it’s coming.”