The "next man up" mentality has proven valuable for second-year guard Spencer Long, who has been a quick learner at the left guard position for the Redskins.*
The phrase "you're always one play away from getting in the game" is thrown around a lot in the National Football League, but Spencer Long has truly taken that theme to heart now in his second year with the Redskins.
Check out these photos of the Redskins' offense preparing for their Week 13 match up against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
The 2014 third-round pick out of Nebraska was inactive for the first three games of the season before a season-ending ankle injury to Shawn Lauvao thrust Long into a starting position at left guard. Since that time, Long, like any other young offensive lineman, has had his ups and downs, but he feels good about his progress moving forward.
His mindset in the weeks he wasn't active earlier this season was "trying to be ready to go at all times if someone went down … make sure everything got taken care of so I can go out there and excel."
It's paid off.
"You get rid of all the noise and think about what you've got to do," Long said. "I really stay focused and just try to bring that every week. Obviously the experience of the season has helped me grow as a player – I'm learning every day."
Washington knew Long certainly had the potential to be a mainstay along their offensive line when they picked him 78th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. He had the build (6-foot-5, 300-plus pounds), intelligence and the strength needed to excel as an interior lineman, and he had veterans like Lauvao, Trent Williams and Kory Lichtensteiger around to show him the ropes.
But he saw limited snaps his rookie year, playing in five games – and, when he did get onto the field, it was mostly on special teams.
Throughout his first season, however, Long learned exactly what "one play away" really means.
"It can mean it could never happen or it can," he said. "Like last year, I was suited up a few times, but it never happened, but you've always got to think like it can. Like this year, you've got to be ready to go."
During training camp, Long was originally tabbed as a potential starter at right guard before the team elected to move No. 5-overall pick Brandon Scherff from right tackle to right guard so that Morgan Moses, who has since blossomed in his second year in the league, could start at right tackle.
But Long wasn't discouraged by the training camp shuffle. Instead, he worked harder – and his coaches took notice.
"We're impressed with the way he's getting better and we're impressed with the way he doesn't harp on a mistake," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. "That's all we can ask."
Since being inserted into the starting lineup this season, Long has been impressive in pass protection – the Redskins' 17 total sacks allowed is tied for the fifth-fewest in the league – and, like the Washington offense as a hole, has been up and down in run blocking.
"It's really just believing in the system and keep pushing through," Long said of the team's inconsistent rushing attack. "If one doesn't work you just have to stick to your fundamentals and trust what the system is trying to do. Just keep pounding away and trust it. Eventually if everyone across the board is consistent those runs will start popping."
Individually, Long said he learns most from "those handful of plays each game where you struggle."
"No one is perfect, but you can always get better," he said. "And there is always a few plays for me that stick out that I need to improve on, and I really kind of hone in on those when the week's up and really watch the film and try to eliminate those just to become a more consistent player."
When the team wins, Long says he gives it about a day before he dives into the game film to correct his mistakes. But coming off a loss, the Elkhorn, Neb., product says sleep is not an option before he is able to see what went wrong.
"I've got to see what happened," he said. "I won't be able to put it behind me until I watch the film."
It's that approach that will pay dividends down the road for Long, Gruden said.
"He's another guy that the more reps he gets in practice and in games is going to be a huge benefit to him down the road towards the end of this year, and obviously next year and in his future," the second-year head coach said.