The Washington Redskins face an obviously crucial seven-game homestretch, because without six to seven victories, their playoff hopes will be shot. For a significant collection of players, the final seven games also represent an audition for the future.
Seven starters and nine key backups or longtime members of the team will see their contracts expire this offseason.
All seven of the starters play on defense. Inside linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley Jr., outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, safeties Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty and cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson will become unrestricted free agents.
Wide receivers Santana Moss and Josh Morgan, tight end Fred Davis and linebackers Rob Jackson and Nick Barnett are among the backups with expiring deals.
Davis’s time as a Redskin appears to have come to an end. He has been inactive for five games, and rookie Jordan Reed has emerged as the top pass-catching threat at tight end.
Uncertainty hovers over many of the others. Fletcher hasn’t revealed his plans for the future, but the 38-year-old’s production has begun to diminish, and the Redskins likely will look for his replacement this offseason.
The roles of Moss and Morgan have changed this season. Moss — among the longest-tenured members of the team — said he would like to return, but he doesn’t know where he fits into his coaches’ plans. Morgan sounds as if he knows his time with his hometown team also is drawing to a close.
Meanwhile, others like Hall, who is playing at a high level, and Doughty, who once again has proved himself as a reliable veteran, are making strong cases for their futures with the team.
Others, like Orakpo or Morgan, have had mixed results so far. They could use some big games to improve their earning potential or improve their standings in the eyes of team officials.
Regardless of the various situations, Mike Shanahan and team officials — who are expected to have significant cap space to work with this offseason — are watching to see how players perform, and how instrumental they are in attempting to save the season.
“I think I made a comment last year along the same lines that you always see when you have a little adversity how hard people work in practice, how they play in the game, and that’s a constant evaluation, especially when you’re 3-6,” Shanahan said. “You find out which guys are mentally there, which guys practice well, which guys play well, if they give you effort for 60 minutes. It’s all part of the process.”
Players for the most part share the same philosophy for the mind-set they must have . Most said they don’t think about the impending uncertainty. It could serve as motivation for some, but more times than not, it serves as added pressure, and so most agree that they’re better off not entertaining thoughts on contracts.
“I think some guys let it creep in their minds,” said Barnett, who signed a one-year deal with Washington and has played sparingly as Fletcher’s backup while also contributing on special teams. “But you have to think about what’s at hand and the rest will take care of itself. I’ve heard about guys who didn’t want to hurt themselves or go hard if they didn’t have a contract. But if you don’t let yourself worry about that, you’re better off.”
Said Moss: “I’ve been around a lot of different guys that handle it differently. I’ve always been the guy that ‘you can only control what you can control.’ But, even though it’s hard, even as I’m saying it, that’s what it is. When you go out there, only you can control what you control. That’s just to play the game.”
Jackson, who like Barnett is a backup, said that he thinks about his status from time to time. He said the hardest part is not having any control of his situation.
As a non-starter, he knows his opportunities are limited and his chances to prove himself aren’t as plentiful as some of his teammates. But once Sundays arrive, he said contract thoughts are replaced in his head by his assignments and a desire to win.
Doughty, now in his eighth season, has found himself in this position before. However, he said his sense of urgency is just as high as ever, but only because he and his teammates need to climb out of their current 3-6 hole.
“I honestly believe that you should always be playing your best, and if you’re playing your best within the team concept, you’re helping yourself out in the long run,” said Doughty, who has started four games this season and has 41 tackles. “So, I think that’s just a testament as to why I’ve been here. I’ve tried to play good ball the whole time, but I’ve also always felt that I played the best down the stretch. That’s the plan. Hopefully we can get on a run like we did last season, play well as a team and play well personally.”
Of all of the impending free agents, Orakpo probably has the most at stake. The fifth-year pro has said that he believes he’s among he elite players at his position, although he hasn’t recorded double-digit sacks since his rookie year. He lost last season to injury and hoped to rebound in a big way this season. But thus far, he has four sacks in nine games. A strong finish to the season, especially in sacks, could determine if he earns a $15 to $20 million-a-year payday like the elite players at his position, or a more modest contract.
But Orakpo, who is earning $5.1 million this season, insists the money and long-term security doesn’t weigh on him.
“The only thing that weighs on you is getting the Ws, and then the contract stuff will come into play. If you’re winning ball games, the contract will take care of itself,” Orakpo said. “I’m going to play football regardless. It doesn’t matter to me. That’s what people need to understand. Contract year? I’m going to continue to play football, just hopefully, it’ll be here. Like I said, Ws will make it a lot easier.”