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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this column incorrectly referred to Fred Smoot, of the Washington Redskins, as a "Pro Bowl, ball-hawking cornerback." In fact, Smoot was a Pro Bowl alternate and did not play in the game. This version has been corrected.
Mike Wise

As Smoot, Pierce and Coles Exit, Big Questions Arise About the Front Office

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page D03

January, February and March used to be the hopeful months. Dan Snyder opened his wallet, a bevy of big names signed for big dollars and Washington's pro football team went undefeated until August.

But as the NFL's deal-making days roll on and the mass exodus of talent from Redskins Park continues, the FedEx legions are in utter upheaval over one of the worst offseasons in recent franchise history.

Cornerback Fred Smoot, who started 58 of the 60 games he played in during four seasons with the Redskins, the team that selected him in the second round in 2001, will get acquainted with new fans as a member of the Vikings. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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Fred Smoot signed with Minnesota last night because he wasn't a Joe Gibbs guy -- meaning the team did not want to pony up the money for Smoot. The loss of a ball-hawking cornerback comes less than a week after linebacker Antonio Pierce signed with the New York Giants. Pierce was apparently not a Gibbs guy. Laveranues Coles, judging by his comments to The Post's Nunyo Demasio, is definitely not a Gibbs guy. He was traded to the New York Jets for Santana Moss, a wide receiver afraid to go across the middle.

Seems no one is a Gibbs guy anymore. Or is this some wild scheme to rid the roster of non-believers, players who do not wholly buy into the system of the coach and team president? Either way, it's growing sillier by the transaction, with Gibbs's team losing talented players and getting less than nothing back. Losing Smoot borders on catastrophe unless you believe a lot more in Walt Harris than most folks do.

Gibbs says he has a plan, and it apparently involves making sure Snyder's franchise is more fiscally responsible. Maybe this is why the coach and team president let Pierce, a converted middle linebacker who led the NFL's third-ranked defense in tackles last year, sign with a division rival. Maybe this is why Smoot is off to the Vikings.

It's one thing for Gibbs to change the culture so that not every NFL player comes here to open a trust fund for his great-great-grandniece. Fine. But have we seen any signs that Gibbs actually knows what he's doing with the salary cap? After all, he's a fiscal calamity himself, having wasted millions on Mark Brunell, the worst free agent signing in the NFL last season.

And if waving Snyder's money and signing 633 players is out and winning through the draft is in -- if this is a bold, new day -- do the Redskins have the right people in place to make such a strategy work? Do you really want the triumvirate of Gibbs, Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the vice president of personnel, taking you down the path? It's okay to scale back free agency, but do you want Manny, Moe and Jack driving your NFL wagon in a year with one of the most difficult drafts ever to analyze? Remember, the biggest concern about Gibbs during all the hosannas over his return was that he is not a proven personnel guy; he had Bobby Beathard last time.

Already the Redskins have made some awful mistakes this offseason. A year after trading Champ Bailey for Clinton Portis, a back who will ultimately break Gibbs's heart, Smoot was deemed unaffordable. Coles was traded, but not until the team suffered a $9 million salary cap hit. Had the Redskins released him, the $5 million deferred salary cap payment that Coles was willing to skip would have served as $5 million in golden cap space the Redskins could have used to sign two starters, one of them maybe Smoot. Instead they got a player the Jets considered to be no better than a number three wide receiver and had to use all the cap savings from restructuring Chris Samuels's contract to cover the Coles hit.

A real front office would not let the wide receiving corps turn into a bunch of tiny scatbacks. It would have gone out and gotten Plaxico Burress, someone to truly help. Does anyone believe the Redskins are better off without Pierce, Coles and Smoot? Put your hand down, Danny.

Gibbs is letting players walk like he's Bill Belichick and Cerrato is Scott Pioli, New England's bright, young general manager. He wants a lean, mean, salary cap friendly team. The problem is, they can't discard players like Ty Law and Troy Brown, whom the Patriots let walk after their third Super Bowl in four years. Washington is not New England. For all Gregg Williams's defensive genius, this team cannot merely plug players into the system. For starters, they don't even have a working offensive system at the moment.

There is but one solution. The real casualty of this offseason should be Gibbs's ultimate authority. The Redskins need to open Snyder's wallet and give the man some help in the front office.

The image of Gibbs lording over the franchise was a nice, romantic notion in the beginning. The man is sharp, clear and as committed as ever. No doubt by now he understands the machinations of free agency and how to build a new-millennium team. But he is running into the problem all coaches who wear two hats take on: Joe Gibbs is working against himself.

Mike Holmgren fell short in Seattle wearing both hats. Mike Sherman failed in Green Bay. Mike Shanahan is still trying to juggle both jobs in Denver. Their day-to-day, instinctive feelings about players sometimes led them to act impulsively and not in the best, long-term interests of the franchise. They alienated, traded and eventually acquired players based on unsound reasoning.

Who knows if Gibbs has a crystal ball about Pierce and Coles and Smoot. But why play hardball with hard-working, core players? To prove your point about moving players who don't want to be here? Great. They're gone. Now what do you have?

Taking on Joe Gibbs, the coach, is fruitless until next season. He's too beloved and still too sharp to even go there today. But Joe Gibbs, the team president, has left a lot to be desired in a little more than a year. He needs an experienced, respected voice to help him build a winner again. He, Snyder and Cerrato need a final say other than their own. At this juncture, it's the one acquisition that can save his legacy.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company