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Redskins are finally on the right path, but journey will be long

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The NFL’s most successful franchises build through the draft, make wise choices in free agency and develop long-term strategies.

New England. Pittsburgh. Green Bay. That’s how the best of the best roll.

Now, the Washington Redskins are working to join the club. After following the wrong road for so long, the Redskins have found the right path. They’re finally starting at the foundation.

The Redskins have overhauled their football-operation model, emphasizing stable methods of roster construction instead of the quickest.

Washington used to give lip service to being committed to the draft — then repeatedly offered high picks in potential trades for Pro Bowlers. For the first time in the Daniel Snyder era, scouting and development is valued. Cost-effective free agency is en vogue.

It’s the right time for a sea change in an organization best known for sizzle over substance. Actually, this is long overdue.

But don’t call it rebuilding. That’s something successful teams do when they determine they must start over.

The Redskins have finished last or tied for last in the NFC East four of the past five seasons. They’re just trying to build.

The major policy shift began last season under Coach Mike Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen, who inherited a roster in disrepair and a warped organizational culture. Shanahan and Allen slowly began to remake the depth chart in 2010, but were limited in their scope, in part, because of the labor situation, contractual obligations to players and other decisions made before they arrived.

The test of whether they could persuade Snyder to fully invest in a methodical approach would come this season. Washington emerged from the lockout with considerable salary-cap space. This free agent class has significant star-power. Often, that has been a bad combination for the Redskins.

Not this time.

The Redskins have not signed the market’s highest-profile players. They set a budget and are exercising self-restraint.

Allen reached out to some of the top players, agents say. He expressed interest in having serious discussions. When the numbers got too big, however, Allen backed away.

Previously, the Redskins rarely reached that point. Instead, when Snyder simply had to have another trophy player, he would instruct Eric Schaffer, Washington’s talented vice president of football administration, to get it done. Usually, Schaffer found a way to make it work.

Claiming the offseason championship didn’t help Washington succeed in the only arena that matters: on the field. Three playoff appearances during Snyder’s 12 seasons as owner are, understandably, not good enough for fans who still remember what Joe Gibbs accomplished long ago.

Trading away picks and having many draft busts (remember the 10-member 2008 class?) isn’t the way to build a perennial winner. Simple though it seems, the concept was lost on the Redskins, who exercised poor judgment while chasing the biggest names.

Allen is more conservative. He’s not interested in setting new salary levels. He expects a high return for every dollar invested in players, especially those lured from other teams.

Shanahan wants to build around high-motor, try-hard guys younger than 30. He wants up-and-comer types who are hungry. Once Shanahan gets them into his system, if players possess enough talent, he’ll do the star-making on his terms.

In the Shanahan-Allen approach, defensive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen fit perfectly. They have everything Shanahan wants from a football standpoint and work well in Allen’s vision for the salary cap.

Shanahan has player-personnel control. His vote is the only one that matters with regard to roster composition.

But Allen has been an ally for Shanahan, Redskins people tell you, in convincing Snyder that significant change was necessary. With most of Snyder’s former longtime inner circle no longer with the team, Allen has Snyder’s ear. Obviously, he’s making the most of his influence.

As evidence they were doing things correctly, a former Redskins executive once pointed to the team’s 2005 and 2007 playoff appearances, explaining that’s why management worked to keep the core of the roster together.

To what end? The Redskins hadn’t won Super Bowls during that three-year stretch. They won one playoff game. Shanahan and Allen have bigger goals in mind.

In fairness to former Redskins football officials, Snyder ran a bare-bones scouting operation, former team employees say.

For many years, the Redskins had one of the lowest scouting budgets in the league. Snyder also frowned on hiring veteran scouts, who command relatively high salaries, until Gibbs returned for his second stint with Washington. Apparently, he didn’t understand the benefit of having highly experienced scouts.

Shanahan and Allen won’t encounter such resistance from the owner. Snyder is all in on these guys, but that’s not without risks, either.

Shanahan has an uneven record as a talent evaluator. Allen is more of a shrewd executive than a gifted player-personnel man. They both were wrong about Donovan McNabb, and what they’re attempting to accomplish could take several years to execute even if they make sound decisions.

Clearly, though, Shanahan and Allen are doing what they must. They’ve correctly assessed there is no other choice if the Redskins hope to become viable championship contenders again. Snyder should have seen this. But better late than never.

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