Last spring, Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen were widely applauded for managing to keep the team’s roster basically intact in the offseason while dealing with the franchise’s salary cap penalty. The Redskins re-signed a group of players that included cornerback DeAngelo Hall, guard Kory Lichtensteiger, right tackle Tyler Polumbus and tight end Fred Davis and aimed to build on last season’s successful run to an NFC East title.
It hasn’t worked out. So far from it, in fact, that the Redskins are buried in last place and can be officially eliminated from playoff contention Sunday. Shanahan and wide receiver Pierre Garcon separately acknowledged in recent days that players and coaches alike have jobs at stake in what remains of the downward-spiraling season.
So it perhaps is time to begin wondering what it will take during the upcoming offseason, regardless of whether Shanahan or someone else is calling the shots, for the Redskins to transform themselves into contenders again. Is it roster tinkering, a roster overhaul or something in between?
Hall said he does not believe that big changes to the roster are required. “I don’t think so,” Hall said. “It’s just about guys going out there doing what they need to do to win games, making the plays they have to make.”
But not everyone shares that view. Some outside the Redskins organization say significant changes are necessary, particularly on defense and along the offensive line.
“You’ve got sweeping upgrades you need to make if you want to be anything better than an 8-8 team,” said Louis Riddick, a former NFL scout and front-office executive for the Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles.
Asked whether the Redskins can make the moves needed to regain contender status in a single offseason, Riddick said: “No way.”
The Redskins will have the ability to spend money on players in free agency with their two-year, $36 million salary cap reduction expiring after this season. The NFL imposed the penalty last year for the way in which the team structured players’ contracts during the sport’s season without a salary cap in 2010. But the Redskins again are without a first-round draft pick after sending three of them, along with a second-round choice, to the St. Louis Rams in last year’s trade that enabled them to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Charley Casserly, a former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans, said it’s “hard to say” whether the team can do enough this offseason to become a winner again next year.
“It’s a challenge,” Casserly said “You don’t have a first-round pick. You can’t depend on free agency because you don’t know who's going to be out there.”
Casserly added that Shanahan and the Redskins’ front office did a good job identifying and selecting players in free agency in the two years before the salary cap penalty was imposed.
“They’ll identify the players. That’s not the problem,” he said. “I don’t think their issue is coaching. I think the salary cap [penalty] hurt them. You traded all those draft choices for RGIII. Last year, that was a plus. This year, I don't know if it’s fair to evaluate him because he was hurt.”
Griffin’s play this season in his return from knee surgery in January has been closely scrutinized and widely criticized. His passer rating of 81.8 for the season is way down from last season’s 102.4. Riddick said it’s “not a given that he ever becomes a really good pocket passer. It is 50-50 for me. It’s a flip of the coin for me.”
Yet Riddick, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, acknowledges the Redskins have far too much invested in Griffin not to stick with him. The idea now, observers say, is to assemble players around him capable of aiding his development as a drop-back passer. That could begin with bolstering the offensive line.
“The offensive line played a lot better last year than this year,” Casserly said. “The circumstances were different. They were ahead more [last season]. But I think work is needed on the offensive line. Right tackle is a spot that you need to look at.”
Riddick goes even further, saying that left tackle Trent Williams is the only reliable starter on the offensive line and the Redskins should consider replacing Polumbus, center Will Montgomery, Lichtensteiger and fellow guard Chris Chester.
“I think with them having gone on that run they went on last year, they overshot what they thought they really had in terms of talent level, particularly on the offensive line. I think that’s where it starts,” Riddick said. “Montgomery, Lichtensteiger, Polumbus, Chester — if the run game is operating efficiently, they’re all right as far as the passing game is concerned. When defenses have adjusted to play the pass, you’ve seen the deficiencies.”
The Redskins seem to have some building blocks around Griffin on offense in Williams, second-year tailback Alfred Morris, rookie tight end Jordan Reed and Garcon. Riddick said Reed is “going to be a superstar.” Riddick also said the team’s wide receiver corps performed well enough to win this season if Griffin had thrown the ball more accurately. But he called Garcon “really a good number two [wide receiver]. You need a real number one.”
Redskins coaches have called Garcon a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Casserly seemed to agree with that assessment but also said: “They need a No. 2 receiver. . . . They need a big guy that can run there.”
On defense, the Redskins’ needs are more glaring, people in and around the league say.
“To me, they’re pretty close to starting from scratch on that [defensive] side of the ball,” said a front-office executive from one NFL team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not feel comfortable discussing another club’s personnel situation publicly. “Other than [outside linebacker Ryan] Kerrigan and maybe [nose tackle] Barry Cofield, who do you build around on that defense?”
Hall’s play has been praised by coaches and teammates after he was released by the Redskins last offseason, then re-signed a one-year deal with the team. Hall, fellow cornerback Josh Wilson, safety Brandon Meriweather, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and inside linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley Jr. are among the Redskins players eligible for free agency this offseason. Fletcher is in his 16th NFL season and will have to decide whether he will play a 17th.
“The secondary, you can overhaul that whole thing,” Casserly said. “The defensive line, depth is a factor there. London Fletcher, he’s up there [in age]. He’s not the player he was. You have to wonder where he’s going to be in a year because he’s in decline this year and he probably wouldn’t be as good next year as he is this year. But if he wanted to come back, I’d take him back. He still plays his position better than anybody in the secondary plays theirs.”
Riddick called the Redskins’ other inside linebacker, Riley, “an average starter in the NFL.” He said Kerrigan and Orakpo “are interesting. [But] is either one of them an elite outside pass rusher in a 3-4 [defensive alignment]? No.”
Orakpo might value himself differently in free agency than the Redskins value him, said Riddick, who added: “You don’t want to get rid of him. But that’s gonna be a tricky situation” to work out a mutually agreeable contract.
Shanahan has said in recent weeks the expiration of the salary cap penalty will enable the Redskins to bolster their roster. He has contended that the team, in the bigger picture, remains headed in the proper direction even with this season’s disappointing record.
“You guys have been with me since I’ve been here,” Shanahan told reporters Tuesday, the day after a 27-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. “You guys understand where I was at . . . the start, where I’m at right now. I don’t have to go through any stats. You guys can look at that and draw your own conclusions.”
But the Redskins, at least under previous administrations, were known within NFL circles for trying — and failing — to solve their problems with big splashes in free agency. Riddick said any notion that the end of the salary cap penalty will be a cure-all for the team is misguided.
“There’s enough of a history there — it’s never worked,” Riddick said. “It hasn’t worked other places. It doesn’t work, period, not when you’re talking about it on the scale being talked about down there with [what the Redskins say about] the cap penalties. They’re going to have to get it exactly right.”