THE LOST SEASON Gibbs Juggles Dual Roles
Problems at the Core
Monday, January 1, 2007
It was to be nothing short of a re-coronation. Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, one of the most revered figures in Washington sports history, had rejoined the Redskins and in his second season produced a playoff run that fell just one victory short of the NFC championship game. Predictions of a Super Bowl run this season abounded and validation for owner Daniel Snyder and his free-spending approach appeared in the offing.
Instead, Redskins fans, who have endured a 15-year wait for another championship, witnessed an unimaginable collapse. No Super Bowl. No playoffs. Not even a winning record in the final year of what players and coaches believed was a three-year plan for Gibbs to restore the franchise.
Many of the explanations for the team's demise, found during interviews with dozens of current and former players and coaches, NFL team executives and others with knowledge of the Redskins' situation, have been frequently dissected: The players, especially quarterback Mark Brunell, struggled adapting to the new offense of Al Saunders, the once-stout defense collapsed, and the team suffered from an inability to make or prevent big plays.
But at the core of the team's troubles, the sources said, were two deeper concerns: A fatally flawed personnel setup led to inaccurate decisions and Gibbs's strategy of relying on free agent acquisitions and trades alienated some players, jeopardizing his hold on the locker room.
Over and over Gibbs has stressed the importance of having players who are "core Redskins" or "real Redskins." Yet many of the people interviewed for this article, who requested anonymity because they did not want to be publicly associated with criticism of Gibbs or the Redskins, questioned whether Gibbs has ignored his own principles, being blinded by the temptations made available by Snyder's open wallet. Players said the organization has not prized the interpersonal relationships between teammates and the significance of those bonds in a game that is intrinsically team-oriented and brutally demanding.
" 'Real Redskins,' what does that mean?" one veteran player asked. "Everybody sees through that. When it comes to guys who have been here three or four years, who played hard and played in pain for them, they use that money to go out and buy the next toy. They make promises about using the money to keep everybody together, then guys like A.P. [Antonio Pierce] and Ryan [Clark] and Robert Royal -- our real glue guys -- leave and they go outside again.
"It's the same thing year after year. You look at a lot of the guys who left here, and they're mostly playing well and their teams are doing well, and we pick up more guys than any team, and we struggle. What does that say about us? It's like they're trying to build a team of superstars, or guys who are paid like superstars, and it's not working."
As team president, Gibbs repeatedly has said he is to blame for the team's struggles. "It's not personnel, it's not scouting, it's not any of that. It's me," he said in an interview yesterday. "I haven't done a good enough job of coaching. Overall, it's me. People ought to be taking shots at me. Hang it on me."
Gibbs's three Super Bowl triumphs have shielded him from heavy criticism. After a 5-11 season, however, and with prospects for a turnaround appearing bleak, his players and many around the league are taking a dimmer view of Gibbs's performance.
"We were one game from the NFC championship game, but then there's all this change," said a former member of the organization. "We're in the third year of a three-year plan, then they changed it all. We had one year left, don't change [anything]. Add a few players, and that's it. We had something, and then it's four new starters and a new offense. Why?
"It's like making a movie with all stars. It's all screwed up from a chemistry standpoint. A lot of it falls on Gibbs. He's got to take a lot of the responsibility."
The Troubles With Lloyd
The Redskins use a unique front-office structure with a scouting arm led by vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato and his staff evaluating players, Gibbs and the coaches grading the scouted players and Snyder determining the budget. Director of football administration Eric Schaffer handles the bulk of negotiations although, unlike most other NFL owners, Snyder interacts with agents directly at key moments of the process, according to numerous agents. The group eschews the draft and has shown a preference for building through trades and free agency.