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Gibbs Defends Re-Signing Decisions

Redskins Coach Cites Fiscal Responsibility

By Nunyo Demasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page D01

One day after the Washington Redskins lost cornerback Fred Smoot, Coach Joe Gibbs assessed his team's offseason performance and defended its efforts to re-sign Smoot and linebacker Antonio Pierce, who went to the New York Giants last week.

The developments left the Redskins without two starters on the NFL's third-ranked defense, and left Gibbs explaining his team's approach to free agency yesterday at Redskins Park.

Joe Gibbs defends the offseason moves that included trading Laveranues Coles, right, and watching Fred Smoot, left, sign with the Vikings. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)

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"The most important thing we do here is pick our players. It's extremely important to me," said Gibbs, who is also team president. "This is our life; this is what we do professionally. We're out here pounding it. And these are very tough, hard decisions that you make. But I want our fans and everybody that loves the Redskins to understand what goes into this."

During a 35-minute news conference called by the coach, Gibbs discussed efforts to retain key players -- "We went after these guys hard" -- and reasons for ultimately letting them go.

Smoot, who signed with Minnesota, and Pierce departed after negotiations for extensions collapsed last season and they became free agents on March 1. In both cases, the Redskins were outbid for players Gibbs envisioned as long-term parts of Washington's nucleus -- "core Redskins." Gibbs said he has been concerned enough about the losses that he telephoned a few players.

"Big decisions like that, to discuss it with some players, is pretty high class," said right guard Randy Thomas, who declined to say whether Gibbs had called him. "What probably would have hurt in the locker room is if he didn't put the effort in trying to get those guys back."

Trading wide receiver Laveranues Coles to the New York Jets for wideout Santana Moss caused a salary-cap bind after a $9 million cap hit (with a net cap cost of roughly $6 million). Nonetheless, Gibbs indicated the Redskins wouldn't have gone above their budget to sign Pierce or Smoot even if the club had had more cap room. Gibbs added there were sound financial reasons for not being as free spending as in past seasons. Gibbs alluded to the New England Patriots -- who have won three of the past four Super Bowls -- when mentioning successful franchises that have shown fiscal responsibility.

Gibbs stressed Washington had kept the majority of its free agents -- offensive lineman Ray Brown has agreed to return, he added -- while convincing eight players to restructure contracts to improve the salary cap situation. Gibbs also noted Washington has lost only three key free agents in the last two offseasons. (Last year, the Redskins were forced to trade fullback Bryan Johnson, a restricted free agent, to gain value.)

"That stacks up pretty good in the league," Gibbs said.

However, the departures of Pierce and Smoot mean Washington was unsuccessful in two of its three priorities this offseason. Last month, Washington reached an extension agreement with left tackle Chris Samuels.

Gibbs said before signing a major free agent, the team calculates the effect over three years. The Redskins appear to have constructed a new salary cap structure -- or philosophy -- of not paying one of their own free agents more than a better teammate.

"If we go too far on one player," Gibbs said, "it's going to cost us other players."

Pierce left for a six-year, $26 million deal, which essentially included a $6.5 million bonus. The Redskins, sources said, were reluctant to pay Pierce more than linebacker Marcus Washington. Last season, Washington was signed to a six-year, $25 million contract that included a $7 million signing bonus. He was the only Redskins player voted to the Pro Bowl.

Minnesota signed Smoot on Tuesday night to a six-year, $34 million contract that included a $10.8 million bonus; the Redskins did not budge from a $10.5 million bonus offer. Washington signed cornerback Shawn Springs last season to a $10 million signing bonus. Although there was no official designation, Springs was considered Washington's true No. 1 cornerback.

The Vikings ranked Smoot as the top cornerback available in free agency. But according to sources, Smoot's future in Washington was complicated because some members of the staff weren't convinced he merited a rich contract. Walt Harris, who performed well as a nickel back last season, is projected as Smoot's replacement. And members of the Redskins' defensive staff, sources said, did not believe Smoot's departure would be a significant drop-off. Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, was unavailable to comment yesterday.

Smoot and Pierce did not return messages yesterday. But early in free agency, they expressed concerns about Washington's tendency, they said, to pay outsiders more than homegrown players. Pierce joined Washington as an undrafted free agent in 2001. Smoot was Washington's second-round pick (No. 45 overall) in 2001.

"Any deal I got I gave them a chance to match," Smoot said in his news conference in Minnesota yesterday. "I love the Redskins organization, but right now it's 2005, and right now I work for the purple and gold."

Gibbs declined to take questions regarding Coles, who discussed his unhappiness in detail Tuesday, because the trade had not yet become official. It did so when Coles passed his physical last night. Moss passed his exam Monday and is tentatively scheduled to be introduced at a news conference this morning at Redskins Park.

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