By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
When Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs talks about the core of his football team, he points directly to his first recruiting class, the group of players that arrived with him when he returned to the game for the 2004 season. Recalling those early months reveals in Gibbs a certain feeling of pride, or perhaps even vindication of his personnel acumen, skills that had been unused for 11 years.
But 2 1/2 years later, a group of players considered an initial failure -- the Redskins finished 6-10 in Gibbs's first season after his return to coaching -- are now central to a season frothing with expectations.
The players in Gibbs's 2004 class -- Mark Brunell, Clinton Portis and Chris Cooley on offense; Marcus Washington, Phillip Daniels, Cornelius Griffin, Shawn Springs, Sean Taylor and Joe Salave'a on defense -- are familiar today, but the end of the 2004 season was not an optimistic time.
"I remember being here, and having Coach Gibbs and that big reputation coming, and I was just wondering if I was going to stick around," said defensive end Renaldo Wynn, who had arrived in Washington as a free agent in 2002. "We were like the Bad News Bears, the [Steve] Spurrier holdovers, waiting to get shipped out when all these new guys came in."
Gibbs has the confidence of a man armed with a strong and balanced team as he embarks on the third season of his comeback, and it's because the combination of last season's playoff run and this year's anticipation has freed him of the anxieties that enveloped him in 2004. Entering the first unrestricted free agent period of his coaching career 2 1/2 years ago, he recalled his priority list as "everything." That included his coaches.
"I'll always think back to that group," Gibbs said. "Everyone talks about free agency and what it can do for a football team. I think it was a very unusual group. It doesn't make a difference if it was Cornelius or Shawn or Marcus. They were all our guys. It was a tremendous group."
In reconstructing how the Redskins were able to create such a formidable nucleus in one winter, Gibbs points to a well-worn characteristic of his negotiating style: the long-standing personal connections that his coaches formed with many of the players the Redskins ultimately acquired. Relying on familiarity is a Gibbs staple, and in his return, he counts on it to serve him.
While the Redskins netted key offensive players such as Portis, Brunell and Cooley, it was the construction of his defense that came to epitomize Gibbs's personal style.
"I think we had an advantage. We had just put that coaching staff together, and those guys had come from all over the league," Gibbs said. "You had Gregg [Williams] in Buffalo and Tennessee, Coach [Greg] Blache in Chicago. So what was really good about it was that in many cases, those guys had coached them and they could say, 'Hey, we need to get this guy.' "
Gibbs often uses the phrase "character" to describe the type of football player he says interests him, and there are a few players -- Brunell, for instance -- with whom the coach maintains a spiritual bond that extends beyond football. But there exists a subcategory that fits within Gibbs's description of character. His first class of players all had something in common: Each believed he had something to prove. It is an especially true sentiment on the defense.
Springs, perhaps the most accomplished free agent of the 2004 group, believed his character had been unfairly maligned after developing a reputation for injuries in Seattle.
"They kept saying: 'He can't stay on the field. He can't stay on the field,' " Springs recalled. "They used to call me fragile, but that doesn't take into consideration what I played through. But let me ask you: How many games have I missed in Washington?"
Daniels, perhaps, needed to succeed most. He recalled every slight, real and perceived, that he felt in Chicago. He was the big free agent signing in Chicago in 2000. The money was big -- he left Seattle to sign a deal for five years and $24 million, with $8 million guaranteed in a signing bonus -- and expectations were enormous. Daniels had never achieved double-digit sacks in his career. In his second season with the Bears, he tied a career best with nine. But when his sack totals dropped his final two seasons -- from nine in 2001 to 5 1/2 in 2002 to 2 1/2 in 2003 -- Daniels was released.
Months earlier, Daniels had spoken to Blache, then the defensive coordinator in Chicago, who would head to Washington to join Williams, the newly named assistant head coach-defense. At a season-ending meeting, Daniels told Blache he thought the Bears would release him. Blache was disbelieving but opportunistic. He told Daniels that if it did happen, he should give him first crack at bringing him to Washington. Two days before the free agent period began, the Bears gave Daniels permission to speak with the Redskins, and the deal was done.
"He said, 'They'd be crazy to release their best defensive lineman,' " Daniels recalled Blache telling him. "But it wasn't about me playing. It was more [than] the money. A lot of people asked me why I didn't wait for free agency and see how much money I could get, but it wasn't about that. Coach Gibbs told me all the guys they were going to get, and I said they were putting a good team together.
"It was crazy my last year in Chicago. On third downs, they'd put me in as a tackle, and I'd never played tackle before. I only had 2 1/2 sacks, but I had a lot of pressures, not to mention the young ends losing containment probably cost me four or five sacks. I did everything they asked of me. I played hurt. I had turf toe. I played with it. I did everything I could for that team. When you listen to the other guys and their stories, they had something to prove, too."
While Daniels had signed with Chicago in 2000, the New York Giants drafted Griffin, who registered five sacks as a rookie, recovered a fumble in a 41-0 rout of Minnesota in the NFC championship game and had 1 1/2 sacks in New York's Super Bowl XXXV loss to Baltimore. He was a rookie playing on a Super Bowl team on the same line with perennial Pro Bowl end Michael Strahan.
And yet what Griffin remembers about New York was a label that stuck to him like gum on a wingtip. It was annoying, omnipresent and all of one word: underachiever . On the first day of free agency, March 3, 2004, Griffin signed an eight-year, $31 million deal with the Redskins.
Salave'a wasn't sure he had any football left in him. He was out of football in 2002 after having surgery for shoulder and ankle injuries he suffered during 2001. He joined the Ravens in 2003 but never played a game for them. He eventually played nine games for the San Diego Chargers that season, recording two tackles.
"When you play the game like it should be played, all out, some people are meant to play this game and some are not," Salave'a said. "I felt that my body was in bad shape, but my heart was in the game. But being a realist, I didn't want to kid anyone."
Early in the winter of 2004, on his honeymoon, Salave'a received a call from Williams, who had coached him in Tennessee for his first three years in the league. Salave'a was part of the 1999-2000 Titans team that played in the Super Bowl against St. Louis.
"I was in New Zealand when I got the call that the Redskins wanted to bring me in for a workout, and I called my representative and I told him to let Gregg Williams know I was in no shape for running drills," Salave'a said. "We cut short New Zealand by a week, but talking to the wife, she told me if it was meant to be it was meant to be. I came in for a workout and I never left."
Meantime, Washington nearly had signed with Pittsburgh. He had been an emerging strong-side linebacker with the Colts, but two events conspired against his hopes of remaining in Indianapolis. The first was the money. The team had been negotiating an extension for quarterback Peyton Manning, and Washington did not rank high enough on the priority list. Secondarily, strong-side linebacker was not the area of the defense where Colts President Bill Polian thought big money should be spent. In turn, Washington left.
"We were all brought here for a reason," Griffin said. "Here I am, being called an underachiever in New York, and I wanted to prove something to myself. It was time to prove it. I take pride in what I do. All of us came from different places for different reasons, and now we've formed a brotherhood."