By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006
On paper, the moves made perfect sense to the Washington Redskins last winter as they embarked on their annual sweeping foray into the free agent market. Sign a couple of big-name wide receivers, a pass-rush specialist, a hard-hitting safety, then hire an offensive guru and a 10-6 team reaches new heights, maybe even the Super Bowl.
Instead, with the bye week at hand, the Redskins are mired at the bottom of the NFC East with a 2-5 record, three straight losses and scant playoff hopes. The chemistry and momentum born in a six-game winning streak that got Washington into the second round of the 2005 playoffs is gone. And the newcomers acquired with so much fanfare seven months ago have failed to make a positive impact, save for wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.
As the NFL season nears its midpoint, some executives around the league are privately marveling at how, once again, the annual roster overhaul that has characterized the Redskins in the seven years under the ownership of Daniel Snyder has yielded so little except to set new records for player payroll and coaching salaries.
Joe Gibbs, the team's Hall of Fame coach who won three Super Bowls with Washington from 1981 to '92, has repeatedly defended the annual personnel changes, saying the aggressive pursuit of free agents is the best way to build a winning team.
"You can't go back, but I think those decisions were made the right way, they were made for the right reasons," Gibbs said. "And we've got players here and coaches here that can help our football team."
But the Redskins are 19-22 since Gibbs returned from a lengthy retirement before the 2004 season, and their poor start this year could point to deeper problems in the organization -- to its emphasis on free agents over draft picks, its evaluation of talent and, perhaps most centrally, its lack of a general manager with authority to oversee player personnel.
The offense has been erratic in the first seven games under Al Saunders, the former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator whom Gibbs hired in January to bring a new dynamism to the unit.
The players and their new coach are still adjusting to each other. Stalwarts such as tailback Clinton Portis and tight end Chris Cooley have slumped, while questions continue about the ability of 36-year-old quarterback Mark Brunell to execute the new system beyond the short-passing game.
Randle El, who left the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers to come to Washington, has been spectacular returning punts, but as the No. 3 wide receiver has been given only a limited window in which to shine. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, acquired from San Francisco for two high draft picks to be a complementary deep threat to Pro Bowl wideout Santana Moss, has flopped.
Christian Fauria, signed to be a blocking tight end to bolster the running game, has provided no significant help. Running back T.J. Duckett, acquired when Portis injured his shoulder during the preseason for the steep price of a high third-round draft pick, has carried the ball five times.
Free agent quarterback Todd Collins has yet to take a snap.
On defense, free agent end Andre Carter was supposed to be the energizing pass rusher the Redskins have lacked, yet opposing teams have attacked him in the running game and he has just two sacks. Adam Archuleta, another free agent who was considered a more rugged safety than former starter Ryan Clark, has failed both on the blitz and in pass coverage.
Like Carter, he spent long stretches of last Sunday's 36-22 loss to Indianapolis watching from the sideline.
While the Redskins went after a big-name safety in Archuleta, they signed journeyman Kenny Wright for a veteran-minimum salary as the team's third cornerback.
Wright has been victimized since injuries forced him into a starting role. Meantime, Clark and cornerback Walt Harris are having strong seasons with other teams.
The Redskins outspent every other team in the league in free agency last winter by signing Carter, Archuleta, Lloyd and Randle El to nearly identical contracts worth at least $10 million and up to $30 million apiece over six years. It followed the big-spending pattern set by the franchise in recent years, one that runs counter to that set by successful NFL teams such as Pittsburgh, New England and Philadelphia, which build through the draft and use free agency to supplement their homegrown stars.
"The draft has to be the foundation of your team," said Bobby Beathard, the architect of Washington's Super Bowl clubs as general manager, who declined to speak specifically about the Redskins and only shared his general thoughts about how to assemble a successful team. "Free agency can be very dangerous, and you can't approach it like a kid in a candy store; you have to find a way to show restraint.
"It can be a very destructive force if you don't have self-discipline, and a lot of the time you can end up with somebody else's problems. Eventually, it will catch up to you and disrupt your team. All it takes is one or two mistakes, and you've screwed everything up."Gibbs Gives Up Calling Shots
Washington's big-spending approach on players was nothing new this past offseason, but the decision to lure Saunders from the Chiefs in January caught many by surprise.
Saunders's hiring was a significant concession by Gibbs, and a considerable gamble as well. Gibbs's legacy was at stake, and it was inconceivable for many around the league to imagine him no longer designing the game plan, calling plays, retaining authority over every detail of the offense.
But Saunders and Gibbs share a mentor, former San Diego head coach Don Coryell, and value the same core offensive principles. They also have known each other for 36 years. When Gibbs flew to Saunders's house to woo him, he emphasized that he would become more like a CEO this season and would be less involved with the offense. In one long evening, they ironed out the arrangement that is paying Saunders $2 million a year to be the Redskins' associate head coach.
"Of all the things they did, that was the most shocking thing to me," said one NFC personnel executive whose team has faced the Redskins numerous times in recent years. "You had to be surprised, because at one time Joe Gibbs was the genius. And there's no doubt that you can still be successful in this league playing Joe Gibbs football. [Heck], they were doing it last year."
Washington's offense had made strides in 2005, with Moss and Portis each setting franchise yardage records. Saunders offered the possibility of an even more explosive offense, Gibbs surmised.
Saunders began teaching his 700-page playbook in the offseason. The coaches used almost none of the new plays in preseason games, however, saying they did not want to reveal too much to opponents. But by doing so they also eliminated the ability for the starters to work through the playbook in game situations.
Players say they have had difficulty understanding and executing the new offense, but the NFC personnel executive said he believed this doesn't explain the problem. "It's not like they've got six or seven rookies starting out there in that offense," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It shouldn't take half a season to adjust."
Gibbs said he understands being second-guessed on the decision to hand off the offense, but supports Saunders. "I'm absolutely convinced that Al adds a lot to what's going on here," Gibbs said. A big problem, according to some around the NFL, could lie with Brunell.
Saunders's high-powered offenses in Kansas City liked to stretch the field with long passes, but his game plans in Washington have been tailored to what Brunell does best -- throwing short passes. Two general managers said they believed Brunell, not a pure drop-back passer, was a poor fit for Saunders's preferred mode of attack, noting that he appears unwilling or unable to thread passes through tight spots over the middle or throw the ball deep downfield.
"Trace his offense all the way back to Coryell in San Diego and look at the quarterbacks," said a league source with ties to Saunders's system. "You see guys like [Dan] Fouts, [Kurt] Warner, [Trent] Green. That's not Mark Brunell. What they're running right now is not an Al Saunders offense."
While the passing game has lacked punch, the running game also has fallen into decline. The Redskins rushed an average of 37.6 times per game during their five-game winning streak last season, but Portis has carried just 26 times the past two games.
An offense full of playmakers has no one making plays. Even those who once assumed they would be at the heart of the attack, like Ports, wonder where or when they will fit in.
"You start to question whether you're the person for the offense," Portis said. "If everybody was getting the ball and if everybody was doing good, then this offense would be great. But being that we're not, we have that conflict."Free Spenders
Had NFL owners and the players' union failed to extend their collective bargaining agreement last March, the Redskins would have been forced to purge their roster to fit under a lower-than-anticipated salary cap. Instead, when the agreement was reached on March 8, loud cheers rang through the hallways at Redskins Park, and within days Randle El, Archuleta, Collins, Fauria and Carter arrived in Ashburn and quickly signed contracts with their new team.
The Redskins prized Randle El as a multifaceted weapon on offense and special teams, and had long planned on the Steelers not being able to re-sign him. While several NFL personnel executives scoffed at his salary -- Chicago, the next destination on Randle El's free agent tour, was not prepared to come close to Washington's offer, league sources said -- Randle El has energized the return game this season and contributed big plays on offense.
But Gibbs also wanted a bigger, prototypical outside wide receiver as well after David Patten, a key 2005 free agent signing, missed much of last season after knee surgery.
The front office was enamored of Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, but he ended up re-signing with Indianapolis in February. The free agent receiver class was slim -- Terrell Owens was quickly ruled out -- but Lloyd was a player the Redskins planned on being traded by the 49ers.
"At the end of the season my agent told me the Redskins wanted to do the deal regardless of the CBA" extension, Lloyd said. "A handful of other teams were like, 'Oh, we have to see what happens.' "
Washington sent a third-round pick in 2006 and a fourth-round pick in 2007 for Lloyd, a fourth-round pick in 2003, and signed him to the $30 million contract extension. But Lloyd came with a reputation as a potential locker room problem. Two NFC personnel officials said Lloyd was capable of an acrobatic catch, then disappearing from the game.
"It's a strange thing to be [ranked] 32nd on both sides of the ball and still have guys after your players," 49ers Coach Mike Nolan said after the trade.
Lloyd has just 11 catches for 164 yards and no touchdowns this season, and was frustrated during last Sunday's loss.
In the meantime, trades involving Lloyd, Duckett and rookie linebacker Rocky McIntosh have left Washington without at least its second, third and fourth round draft picks in 2007.
"They're not going to worry about draft picks," the longtime general manager said of the Redskins. "They just trade 'em."Not Making Routine Stops
There was a sense inside the Washington organization that it might take time for the offense to jell. But no one imagined the defense -- ranked third in the league in 2004 and ninth last season -- would fall as far as it has; it is ranked 26th in the league in total yardage allowed after seven games.
For two years under assistant head coach Gregg Williams, the defense relied on inventive schemes and elaborate blitzes to stop the ball and pressure the passer. When last season ended, the coaches felt they needed more individual talent -- and they decided Carter was their man.
Defensive ends Darren Howard and Trevor Pryce were available on the free agent market in the offseason, but Washington did not aggressively pursue them and they are currently faring well in Philadelphia and Baltimore, respectively. The New York Jets were seeking to trade John Abraham, and the Redskins brought him to Ashburn for an impromptu visit. But he was a fallback long shot because the Redskins lacked the 2006 first-round pick that the Jets were demanding; they had traded it the year before to position themselves to draft quarterback Jason Campbell.
Carter's only big year came in 2002, when he recorded 12 1/2 sacks. He missed much of 2004 with serious back problems and, one scout said, began to decline in 2005 when he switched to outside linebacker. But the Redskins loved his work ethic and pedigree -- Carter's father, Rubin, was a stellar lineman with Denver and former coach with Washington -- and figured he would blossom under Williams and his staff.
It hasn't worked out that way, at least not yet.
A former teammate, who remains in contact with Carter, said he is not playing with confidence and his technique is suffering since switching positions. "What I've seen is not the Andre Carter I know," said the player, who requested anonymity.
Carter also does not appear comfortable in his new surroundings, leaving Northern California, where he spent most of his life, and moving to Ashburn, the ex-teammate said.
When the Redskins signed Archuleta in March, they made him the highest-paid safety ever. But like Carter, he was years away from his last big season (2003), and had serious disk injuries in 2004, scaring off some teams. Several league executives said Archuleta is best used as an additional linebacker around the line of scrimmage.
"He didn't have a good year last year, either," the longtime general manager said. "He's an in-the-box guy. He's not a good coverage guy. This isn't any different from what he was before."
By signing Archuleta, the Redskins decided that last year's starter at his position, Clark, was expendable. Clark's departure for the Steelers has left a void in the locker room, Redskins players say, and has particularly affected safety Sean Taylor, whose play has faltered this season.
Taylor has had considerable off-field issues since being drafted in 2004 -- including arrests for DUI and felony gun charges (he was convicted of neither) -- and Clark, a devoted family man, was said to be a positive influence.
Taylor would often eat at his house and play video games with Clark's children, team sources said. On the field, Clark had mastered the defense and would talk constantly with Taylor, aligning him, shouting directions, helping him anticipate the next play.
At least two veterans have called Clark this season for suggestions on how to reach Taylor, team sources said, and believe Taylor's problems in coverage and making in-game adjustments are directly related to Clark's departure.
"When you have a guy that's a little bit distant or introverted, sometimes it only takes one out of 53 guys to reach him," said one veteran Redskin, asking that his name not be used. "Ryan was that guy for Sean, and it's a big loss. Now Sean is trying to teach Adam and help him along, but that's not who he is. He's a guy you just need to get pointed in the right direction on the field, make sure he knows his assignment and let him go after the ball."
Clark's agent, Joel Turner, said that had the Redskins offered something close to Pittsburgh's deal -- $7 million over four years with $1.65 million guaranteed -- at any point in the 2005 season, Clark would have remained in Washington. Keeping Clark at that rate also would have given the team additional money under the salary cap to add a top place kicker or linebacker.Time Is Running Out
Over time, the class of 2006 might rebound -- or it might be remembered as the second coming of the free agent class of 2000, when the team spent millions on Deion Sanders, Mark Carrier, Jeff George and Bruce Smith but had little to show for it on the field. When Gibbs arrived in 2004, high-ranking members of the front office said they had learned from those mistakes.
The Redskins remained wedded to free agency, they said, but were targeting younger players and were more cognizant of intangibles such as attitude and camaraderie. Gibbs said he was looking for "character guys."
"We've always been big in free agency," Gibbs said. "I'd hate to think what the team would look like if we didn't have the free agents we have. Obviously, they're a huge part of what we do here. We've chosen to be active in it."
Some around the league wonder whether the Redskins' formula can work -- and whether the problems with the franchise run deeper.
"You bring in all these guys from different teams every year, but then how do you establish what a 'Redskin' is?" said one former high-ranking official in the Washington organization. "They've been drafted someplace else, were taught to play someplace else. . . . The draft breeds loyalty."
Numerous NFL executives suggested that Washington's front-office structure -- without a strong general manager, with the coach also the team president -- is flawed. That Gibbs, who did not have control over the roster in his first stint as Redskins coach when there was no free agency in the NFL, and Snyder are both so enthralled with free agency that it causes problems, they said.
By going after big-name free agents each March, they are trying to circumvent the growing pains of rebuilding in favor of a quick fix, it being only natural for a head coach to think about the immediate future and not the long term.
"There isn't anyone there who can say no to Joe and say no to Dan when they want to spend that much money every year," the former team official said. "Until they have that person there, I don't think it's really going to turn around."
Snyder has relied on Vinny Cerrato for football decisions since he bought the team in 1999, when he fired incumbent general manager Charley Casserly. When Marty Schottenheimer took over as coach in 2001, he did so only by gaining control of personnel decisions as well; Cerrato was fired. Despite winning eight of his final 11 games, Snyder wanted Schottenheimer to relinquish authority; the coach left at the end of the season and Cerrato returned.
"Dan couldn't wait to bring Vinny back," the former Redskins official said. "He couldn't wait."
Snyder also hired Joe Mendes as vice president of football operations in January 2002. Mendes espoused a more stringent fiscal approach. Steve Spurrier became the head coach, and took the job on the condition that a proven general manager be hired as well. Spurrier pushed for Beathard, sources said. Snyder mulled several options; he hired no one.
The Spurrier period was disastrous, Mendes was let go in the spring of 2003 and Cerrato has been promoted twice since. He is now very close to Snyder. The Redskins have a 38-49 record with Cerrato in the front office, not counting the 1999 team that was set before Snyder took over operations of the franchise, or 2001, when Schottenheimer made the decisions.
Gibbs has been an advocate for Cerrato since arriving in 2004, and when asked last week if he would advocate a change to the front-office structure or any individuals atop his staff, he said no.
"Vinny is someone through this whole process I feel bad for, because Vinny has given everything he's got," Gibbs said. "And I feel bad for Dan, because I know right now Dan feels helpless, and Dan's done his part and you feel bad for those guys."
Given the dynamics between Snyder and Gibbs, the owner's boyhood idol, and the established reliance on free agency, interpersonal relations for any outsider could be tricky, anyway.
"They could change at some point and build through the draft, but I doubt it," the NFC personnel executive said. "They need a GM in there, but Vinny is the owner's right-hand guy, there's no secret about that. I don't know if anyone could come in and really do that job with Joe there and with Vinny there."
Regardless of what transpires in the future, the present is a very uncomfortable place for the Redskins to be. Most of the newly acquired players are under enormous pressure to produce, and public scrutiny of the franchise is on the rise. Going from a team that won six of its last seven games last season (including the postseason) to one that has dropped five of its first seven this season, despite all the spending in between, is hard for many at Redskins Park -- or around the NFL -- to fathom.
"They have the most expensive coaching staff ever assembled," the former team official said. "They have a head coach who won three Super Bowls, the most expensive payroll in history and an owner who will do anything for the head coach, give him whatever he wants. They went out and got all the players they wanted -- it's not like they didn't get their guys. But they're not good on offense or defense, they lead the league in penalties and they are an undisciplined football team. What's the excuse? What excuse could they possibly have?"