Under Mike Shanahan, Redskins’ roster could benefit from more delegation, better scouting infrastructure, NFL observers say
By Rick Maese,
When the Washington Redskins choose their first-round draft pick next spring, it’s a decision that will be several months in the making. It will be a pick that could vault the team back into contention in the NFC East. Or, if the Redskins try and again fail to land a franchise quarterback, it could set the team back several years.
Either way, Coach Mike Shanahan is likely staring at the most important selection he will make as Washington’s leader, and it won’t be a decision he’ll make lightly. When the Redskins ultimately settle on a player — Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, someone else entirely? — they’ll have at their disposal the evaluations, recommendations and opinions of several scouts and personnel officials.
No one in the Redskins organization knows which player the team might eventually target. But the more pressing question for now: How will that decision be made?
While it’s not unheard of in today’s NFL for a successful head coach to wield authority over the team’s personnel, it’s important that he has the proper support around him and a relationship or two he especially trusts. When it comes to personnel, Shanahan, who has final say over all roster decisions, is largely working with people who preceded him in Washington.
The current 53-man roster features just 15 players who predate Shanahan. Since joining the Redskins, Shanahan, who also carries the title of executive vice president, has kept on his coaching staff only two Jim Zorn holdovers; he’s parted ways with 12 other assistants. And he completely overhauled the strength and conditioning staff.
Perhaps more surprising is that Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen have kept the personnel and scouting operations largely unchanged from the tumultuous days of Vinny Cerrato, the former executive vice president of football operations. When the Redskins sift through the fallout of what will likely be a second straight losing season under Shanahan, the franchise may choose to scrutinize the scouting and personnel ends of the operation more than the coaching staff.
Many around the league point to the Redskins’ personnel woes to explain their 4-8 record. Those same people say they expected Shanahan to put more of his own people in place when he took the job here in January 2010. Instead, though Shanahan has the final call on personnel moves, the scouting and personnel operations report directly to Allen and the changes have been minimal.
“They don’t have the infrastructure in place,” one NFC personnel executive said. “They don’t have a football man in place. . . . They don’t have anyone who has changed the tires.”
Said another longtime NFL executive: “Bruce Allen was hired, and he never restructured the personnel department. You see the results they had? And he comes in there and makes no changes. . . . It made no sense.”
To evaluate the Redskins’ personnel operations, several front-office officials, personnel executives and scouting directors from other NFL teams were granted anonymity so they could offer candid assessments. Many focused on the help Shanahan has in making key personnel decisions and ask whether he has too much on his plate to most effectively help the Redskins going forward.
Shanahan says he is constantly evaluating the entire Redskins organization and relies heavily on lieutenants whose full-time job is evaluating personnel. Allen declined to comment for this story.
His front-office team was compiled by owner Daniel Snyder and Cerrato: Scott Campbell, the director of player personnel who first joined the franchise in 2001; Morocco Brown, director of pro personnel; and Eric Schaffer, the vice president of football administration who negotiates contracts and manages the salary cap. Four of the five college scouts who worked under Cerrato are still in place, as is one of the two pro scouts.
Around the league, officials from other teams say it’s not clear just whom Shanahan relies on for counsel. And many ask whether Shanahan heeds the advice he is given and whether anyone in the organization feels comfortable enough to challenge him.
“There’s a checks and balances system, very similar to government. . . . Everybody has a role,” an AFC front-office official said.
During the 2010 draft, some in the organization preferred that the Redskins pursue Oklahoma State tackle Russell Okung as a first-round pick. Shanahan, though, wanted Oklahoma’s Trent Williams, and went that route instead.
“Scott Campbell is pretty good at what he does, but how much weight does he carry with Mike?” a longtime NFC scouting director asked. “With any team, it really boils down to the decision maker. You can have a great scouting staff, but if the decision maker isn’t listening to them, all that work goes for naught.”
‘It takes time to mesh’Some in league circles say the Redskins employ an inexperienced scouting staff — their two pro scouts began the season with a combined four years of experience — and a bare-bones infrastructure, others warn that change for the sake of change isn’t necessarily the best solution.
“A place like Washington has had so much turnover, turmoil and different people — it’s hard,” the AFC front-office official said. “You’re changing terminology constantly, scouts are looking for different things from year to year. It’s really hard to build any kind of stability.”
When Shanahan took over, he changed the team’s systems on both sides of the ball. Shanahan wanted space-eaters on his defensive line and lighter, mobile players on his offensive line. He needed specific types of outside linebackers, defensive backs and receivers. Scouts who had spent two decades evaluating defensive players for a 4-3 scheme and big, powerful offensive linemen, had effectively spent the year leading up to the 2010 NFL draft looking for the wrong types of players. They suggested Okung and his bench-press numbers; Shanahan wanted Williams and his time in the 40-yard dash.
“It takes time to mesh,” said Charley Casserly, a former general manager in Washington and current CBS Sports analyst. “The coaches learning the scouts, the scouts learning the coaches, the front office working with everyone. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight.”
Only four of the six 2010 picks are still with the team, and with Williams suspended for the remainder of the season, only one is in the starting lineup. The Redskins’ scouts adjusted and the team fared better in Shanahan’s second draft. The Redskins stockpiled draft picks last spring, and 10 of their 12 selections have contributed this year as rookies. An 11th — defensive end Jarvis Jenkins — has spent all year on injured reserve, and the 12th — wide receiver Aldrick Robinson — is on the practice squad.
Shanahan said it’s usually not fair to judge a class until its third season.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries, so these guys have gotten a chance to play probably quicker than they’d normally would play,” Shanahan said. “But I think we had a good draft, for sure. Exactly how good it is, we’ll know in time.”
While some teams will rely on their general manager to run the draft and merely consult the head coach, Shanahan has final say in Washington, as he did with the Denver Broncos. But in Denver, he had more support — all of it hand-picked — in place around him.
In 2008, Shanahan’s final season there, Jim Goodman served as the team’s director of football operations, in charge of personnel. He had two assistant general managers serving under him: his son, Jeff, and Brian Xanders, who now serves as Denver’s general manager. Beneath them, the Broncos had 18 other employees with various responsibilities in scouting and personnel, including seven dedicated scouts and coordinators responsible for both pro and college scouting — significantly more resources than Shanahan has in Washington.
Still, everything funneled up to Shanahan.
“Denver was always a place where the scouts were information gatherers,” the AFC front-office official said. “They weren’t really that involved in building the draft board or making decisions.”
Those familiar with the Redskins’ operations say Shanahan still has his fingerprints on virtually every aspect of the organization.
“I’ve never seen anyone who wants to have his hands in on everything — everything — to this level,” said one person with knowledge of the Redskins’ operations. “Some of that’s fine. He’s the head coach. It’s his record. But the stuff that’s not part of coaching the football team, you have to delegate.”
Importance of scouting
“The lifeblood of a football organization is going to be evaluation of personnel,” said Andrew Brandt, a former front-office executive in Green Bay who now runs NationalFootballPost.com.
For most teams, the scout’s role is vital.
“The scouts are the most unappreciated guys in professional football. . . . They’re involved in making multimillion dollar decisions,” said the longtime NFC scouting director, “yet they’re making maybe $75,000 a year.”
The 32 teams might organize their scouting and personnel departments 32 different ways. Teams such as Baltimore and New England pay their scouts more. General managers such as Green Bay’s Ted Thompson personally visit college campuses throughout the fall. And one franchise — the Cincinnati Bengals — employs just one full-time scout.
“If I was an owner — any owner — whatever is being spent on scouting, I’d double it,” said Jack Bechta, an NFL agent.
The Redskins’ staffing numbers on the scouting side aren’t completely different from the rest of the league. The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys have a similar number of scouts, but each has more people working in those departments, especially Dallas. They have more support in place and more people who carry titles that don’t exist in Washington: “assistant director of pro scouting,” “scouting coordinator,” “college scouting coordinator,” and “director of football research.”
The Redskins employ two pro scouts and six college scouts. While they haven’t necessarily beefed up their infrastructure since Shanahan arrived, they did begin to subscribe to the BLESTO scouting service. It’s a cooperative undertaking that costs a team about $100,000 a year and gives it a scout who shares much of his information with other BLESTO teams. In turn, the Redskins have access to evaluations from other BLESTO scouts around the league.
“It’s better to have the right people,” said Michael Lombardi, a former team executive who worked with Allen in Oakland and is now an NFL Network analyst. . “. . . More never is better. Right is always better. It’s hard to get the right people making the right decisions.”
A difficult question for each team is how much it is willing to rely on those scouts. It can be a balancing act, but in Washington, Shanahan’s opinion is still the one that matters most.
“Coaches are professional coaches. They’re part-time scouts,” the longtime NFC scouting director said. “And you can’t be a part-time scout. . . . When you’ve got a guy who’s wearing all the hats, there’s just too much work to do to think you can still do everything really well.”
“Coaches have tunnel vision,” he continued. “They want the quick fix. They’re not always looking at what is the best for the franchise in the long haul.”
A constant evaluationThere are only a handful of NFL teams whose head coaches also play the deciding role in personnel decisions. In New England, Coach Bill Belichick will run his team’s draft in the spring, but he also relies heavily year-round on Nick Caserio, his director of player personnel.
“It’s a full-time job for me to prepare our team on a weekly basis,” Belichick said.
Similarly, Shanahan said he can’t follow college prospects throughout the fall. When the NFL season ends, he’ll begin evaluating his own players, then turn his attention to the free agent market, and finally to the draft.
“I get everybody heavily involved,” Shanahan said. “Our scouts are heavily involved, our pro personnel, our coaches. And the one thing we do is look at a lot of film. Then a decision is made.”
That’s not to say the Redskins aren’t focused on the college prospects in December — or in September, October or November for that matter.
“We’ve got people that that’s all they do all year,” Shanahan said. “They’re looking at these people, putting them in a pecking order, they’re studying film, putting film together.”
It’s difficult to wear multiple hats, which is why so few organizations entrust the head coach with personnel duties. Shanahan said, though, he doesn’t feel he shoulders too heavy a load in Washington.
“You really don’t juggle,” Shanahan said of the dual roles. “We have people that do the salary cap, you have people that do the personnel. You’ve got to find those people. What you do have is final say. That does sometimes help, but most of the time you don’t need final say. You count on the people to do their job. I don’t think any one person can make those big decisions without an unbelievable support staff.”
The two highest-ranking members of Washington’s front office are Campbell and Allen. Campbell takes a lead role in evaluating players, but must defer to Shanahan on final decisions. Allen might deal with contracts and manage relationships inside and outside the facility, but he doesn’t have all the traditional general manager duties.
Allen “has no idea about player personnel. . . . That’s not his expertise,” said a longtime NFL player personnel executive. “He’s an administrator. He was a cap guy. He’s not a scout.”
Still, Shanahan says having Allen as general manager is critical to him running the organization the way he sees fit. “It’s really having confidence in a guy like Bruce that can handle most of those areas,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan doesn’t rule out changes down the road. He views the organization the same way he views his locker room: It’s under constant evaluation.
“You have to make sure you have everything you need,” Shanahan said. “And a lot of it’s an ongoing process. . . . All of those things are evaluated and upgraded every year to make sure you do have everything you need.”
Staff writers Jason Reid and Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.