Washington Redskins: Building a team behind the scenes


Eric Schaffer, left, worked on 49 new contracts for the Redskins in the days after the NFL lockout ended in late-July. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
August 7, 2011

The entire plan was months in the making and was thoroughly outlined in a thick black binder that sits on the second shelf of a bookcase in Eric Schaffer’s office. “2011 Free Agency Planning,” it reads along the spine. He’d begun building it in the days after the 2010 season concluded and by late July it was filled with hundreds of pages, detailing free agency targets, statistics, dollar figures.

Schaffer is the Washington Redskins’ vice president of football administration and, along with General Manager Bruce Allen, he had just a few frantic days to bring the binder to life. When the NFL lockout ended on July 25, the most unusual week in league history immediately ensued.

“It felt like the roller derby without rails,” Allen said. “We condensed four months into five days.”

Schaffer, 37, came to work on July 26 at 6:30. That was a Tuesday. He didn’t leave Redskins Park until Saturday, around 4 a.m. It was a work shift that lasted more than 90 hours. Schaffer didn’t sleep and didn’t shave. He was fueled by coffee and sporadic meals. He lost seven pounds.

“It was adrenaline,” he said. “I knew it was my chance to help make the team better.”

The behind-the-scenes choreographing was relentless. Telephone calls, e-mails and text messages kept Schaffer busy at all hours, as he negotiated with rookies and free agents alike. In the end, Schaffer drafted 49 new contracts, and the Redskins overhauled their roster.

Calm before the storm

The action actually began the night the lockout was lifted. Teams were given 30-minute notice that they could start signing undrafted rookie free agents. The Redskins had already settled on three they were eager to lock down, and Schaffer picked up the phone the instant league rules permitted. By the time he left the office at 11, the Redskins had agreed to terms with all three — running back Shaun Draughn, offensive tackle Willie Smith and quarterback Ben Chappell.

The real work was to begin the next morning. That’s when teams could begin to negotiate with veteran free agents. Anticipating the whirlwind, Schaffer’s wife and three kids left town for the week. At 10 a.m., as coaches reached out to players to explain why Washington was the right fit, Schaffer contacted agents. He’d identified eight players the team had pegged as priorities. He had e-mails ready for each agent, outlining proposals and contract structures. Defensive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen were among this group.

The whirlwind of activity was mostly confined to Schaffer’s office, a 10x10 room with a pair of computers, a flat-screen television, photos of his kids on the wall and Joe Gibbs’s book near the doorway. When he hung up with one agent, there were a dozen more to call.

Altogether, he said the Redskins had serious talks with about 35 free agents. Some were top priorities, others were Plan B options and still other calls were made to simply gauge the market value on a player.

“At any given time, I probably had 10 different deals going on at once,” he said. “Agents calling me, I’m calling them. Some are calling Bruce. Coach is popping in, ‘How are things going? This is what we’re thinking. Let’s talk about this and this now.’ ”

There was little time for celebration. Once one player had agreed to terms, there were several other targets that needed immediate attention.

“I remember [Coach Mike Shanahan] coming into my office, and I told him, ‘Cofield’s coming.’ He gave me a high five and then right away said, ‘Okay, so what’s going on with this other guy?’ ” Schaffer said.

Staying up all night

Redskins Park emptied most nights. Schaffer kept going. He read the proposed collective bargaining agreement at 3 a.m. one night to make sure he understood the most minute details. Shanahan and Allen would touch base throughout the night for updates.

“I went home every night,” Shanahan said, “but guys like Eric were texting at 1 or 2 in the morning. . . . It takes everybody. There’s a lot of effort that goes into an organization. Everybody has got to be the best at what they do.”

Schaffer showered at the facility and found clothes in the equipment room. He ate in the cafeteria and scavenged for late-night snacks. At one point, Allen joked that he told Schaffer to go home.

“He disobeyed my order,” Allen said.

Said Schaffer: “I had to make a decision each night, do I need to try to sleep for an hour, hour and a half? Or just keep going. I kept going. . . . I tried to tell myself it was a new day because I took a shower.”

It wasn’t much unlike when Schaffer was younger, attending law school full-time while also working for Tom Condon and the mega-sports agency IMG. Schaffer got his foot in the door early at IMG. As an undergraduate at Michigan, his room at the Phi Delta Theta house was wired with a business line and fax machine.

The more time he spent around Condon and football, the more Schaffer knew he wanted to work for a team. In June 2003, he joined the Redskins and has slowly accrued more responsibility. In 2006, when the salary cap was uncertain, Schaffer was the one who reworked deals to keep the Redskins under the limit. Even as the Redskins sought high-priced free agents — particularly Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall in 2009 — Schaffer always managed to move the puzzle pieces so his bosses could sign the big checks. Schaffer is also the one who worked out Donovan McNabb’s extension, which allowed the Redskins to part ways with the quarterback with little financial obligation.

The work pays off

As the days blurred together the past few weeks, the new deals started piling up. Bowen and Cofield immediately bolstered the defensive line. Right guard was another priority and the team locked up Chris Chester, a former Baltimore Raven. Josh Wilson was signed to play cornerback and the team was able to sign several of its own free agents, as well, including Rex Grossman and Santana Moss. When 12 rookies arrived July 28, Schaffer had 12 contracts laid out and ready to sign.

All the while, he keeps the team’s salary number calculated in his head, always aware how much money the team has to spend. Schaffer and Allen had already renegotiated some contracts a year ago, shifting much of the financial burden to the uncapped 2010 season. The Redskins’ players were able to hit the practice field the past couple of days with the maximum 90 players, and the team was still about $11 million below the cap.

Training camp isn’t over and more deals are expected. For Schaffer, his busy season might be slowing down, but it’s not over.

“What we’re doing, it’s something I really believe in,” he said. “You don’t want to let anyone down, you don’t want to let the team down. This is my job, and all this, it’s exciting for me.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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