Problems at the Core
A year that began with high hopes has come to a bitter end for the Redskins, with many believing that so many changes in personnel resulted in . . .

By Jason LaCanfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

By all measures, the group failed completely last offseason.

Safety Adam Archuleta, a $10 million bust, might be the worst free agent signing in NFL history. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd completed the least productive season for any starting wide receiver ever (23 catches, 365 yards and 0 touchdowns) and has been a problem on and off the field, players and coaches said. And defensive end Andre Carter played poorly until the team was out of playoff contention in December.

Even wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, considered the best acquisition, had only 32 receptions for 351 yards while carrying a $30 million contract with $10 million guaranteed. He's fourth in the NFC in punt returns.

Cerrato, promoted twice in recent years and now essentially the head of all scouting ventures, has a poor reputation for judging talent, numerous sources said. Several Redskins coaches said they were wary of Cerrato before coming to Washington ("Plenty of people warned me on that one," one coach said) and do not take his talent recommendations highly. Gibbs has continually defended Cerrato's work, saying "I feel sorry" for Cerrato, Snyder and others given the stalled progress of the team.

Snyder is very successful at signing a player the coaches want, but he is criticized for overpaying players. Some of the team's recent free agent signings have struggled mentally with the weight of the lucrative contracts.

Cerrato and Snyder declined to comment, deferring all questions to Gibbs.

And Gibbs, for all the Super Bowl trophies he earned as a coach, has previously worked with a strong general manager.

The acquisition of Lloyd serves as a window into the Redskins' approach. Critics of the trade say it's an example of poor front-office talent evaluation and Gibbs straying from his "core Redskins" principles in search of a quick fix. Lloyd was known to be moody and difficult in San Francisco, but the Redskins traded third- and fourth-round picks for him, then gave him essentially the same contract as Randle El, even though he still had one year left on his contract.

The process for evaluating Lloyd, as with all Redskins acquisitions, began with Cerrato and his staff preparing reports on possible available wide receivers, considered a weak group. Those reports were distributed to coaches along with game film for each to study. The assistant coaches, Cerrato and Gibbs then assigned a grade to each player. Some coaches based their grades only on what they saw on film; others called friends around the league to get their input.

The rankings were discussed at meetings that usually began with Cerrato or Louis Riddick, director of pro personnel, giving a presentation on the players. No. 1 on everyone's list was Indianapolis's Reggie Wayne, but he re-signed quickly with the Colts. Terrell Owens was dismissed for being too volatile. Saunders made it clear he wanted Randle El in the same manner that Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, had Archuleta and defensive coordinator Greg Blache wanted Carter.

Saunders's vote for Randle El vaulted him to the top of the list of players to be pursued. Also under consideration were Lloyd, Joe Jurevicius and Antonio Bryant among others.

The 49ers had made it clear to all the NFL teams that Lloyd was available but some personnel people around the league wanted no part of him. "Lloyd is a 2, 2 1/2 ," said one general manager, meaning a second wide receiver at best. "Plus, he's a pain in the [rear]."

Redskins coaches said their rankings of Lloyd only took into account what they had seen on game film. They never received from Cerrato or the scouting department any information on Lloyd having a possible attitude problem. "I was asked to evaluate him only as a player, not as a person," one coach said.

One coach said he liked Lloyd's route-running and speed. And all the coaches marveled at his ability to make highlight-reel catches. The conversation ended with the coaches grading Lloyd ahead of Jurevicius and Bryant. The latter two graded higher than Randle El overall but Saunders wanted Randle El for his versatility and Gibbs liked his punt return skills.

With the available players ranked, Gibbs, Cerrato and Snyder met.

"Eventually it's going to come down to Dan and me," Gibbs said of the decision-making process.

Gibbs wanted a burner, more of a straight-ahead deep threat to complement Santana Moss. The decision was made to get Lloyd. Snyder and Schaffer then took over the financial dealings.

Lloyd's representatives made it clear they wanted a lucrative contract extension. They could point to the $30 million extension the Redskins gave Moss in a similar situation a year earlier. The Redskins, however, were under no obligation to do anything because Lloyd had a year left on his contract. The team could have done nothing and severed ties with him at the end of the season with no salary cap ramifications. Instead, Lloyd was given a new contract.

"As far as redoing the deal, when you've got them and you've talked through it, you would like to have a long-term deal, and so that was something that took place," Gibbs said. "You're getting a young, talented guy. Sure, we'd love to have more production than we got this year, but we'll see in the future if what we gave for him is going to be fair."

Only after the trade was Lloyd brought in for an interview and coaches were able to ask him about his reputation as a troublemaker.

While the coaches unilaterally said they have no desire to deal with the salary cap or haggle over trades, they are unhappy about a strategy that essentially overpays players who have no track record of Pro Bowl level success. When so much money is given to new players, it leaves less for others and repeated overspending can create locker room tension.

"The ramifications of that, we all have to deal with," one coach said.

Gibbs said he believes his assistants have ample input in personnel decisions.

"There is no excuse for the coaches," Gibbs said. "Everybody is in the room. They have all the input in the world."

After Lloyd arrived, Saunders immediately was impressed with his willingness to expose his body by leaping vertically, dangerous because defenders can cut a receiver's legs out from under him. But the troubles with Lloyd started in organized team workouts, according to one teammate.

"What I saw is that he's not coachable," the teammate said. "He would go off on [wide receivers coach] Stan Hixon all the time and say, 'Bro, that's not how it's done!' right to his face. And we would kind of laugh, like not because it was really funny, but it was funny in that uncomfortable sense of, 'I can't believe he just said that.' "

As the season progressed, the Redskins began to realize critical, disturbing elements about Lloyd's game: He could make dynamic catches but was not a particularly complete receiver. Lloyd basically ran three routes: the sideline go route, a short slant -- where he was more inclined to drop to the turf instead of turning a short pass play into a big gain -- and the outside curl. He was not comfortable going over the middle, even though a player of his speed could exploit the seams of a defense.

"From the wrists to the fingertips, Brandon is the most gifted wide receiver I've ever seen," Saunders often told his offensive coaches. Like Ladell Betts, Saunders remembered Lloyd from high school in Kansas City.

The rest of the Lloyd package, however, was far from complete. Saunders believed Lloyd to be a legitimate top receiver. He ran routes crisply. He did the dirty work as professionally as the spectacular. At least one coach disagreed, saying Lloyd's problems were more with the plays Saunders called for him.

But not Lloyd. He remained unproductive and ultimately clashed with Gibbs, who benched him after Lloyd threw his helmet in a Dec. 3 game against Atlanta. Perhaps hastened by the incident, but certainly because of his limited route running, Lloyd began losing time at the second receiver spot to Randle El. By mid-December, Lloyd had fallen to the No. 3 receiver.

Even after the benching, Lloyd was problematic. One key exchange occurred Dec. 17 in New Orleans. The go route -- in which a wide receiver makes a quick move at the snap of the ball and sprints straight down the sideline -- was Lloyd's specialty. In the first half, Lloyd beat his man down the sideline and seemed to be wide open for a touchdown pass from Jason Campbell. But he could not locate the ball and it dropped to the turf.

According to a member of the organization who witnessed the exchange, Saunders approached Lloyd at halftime.

"Tough one out there. Those lights are tough," Saunders said.

Lloyd looked at him coldly.

"You're joking, right?" he said.

"No," said Saunders. "It looked like you lost it in the lights."

"What? That ball was 10 yards underthrown," Lloyd said. "Go talk to the quarterback."

To many members of the organization, it was another example of Lloyd's lack of maturity disrupting Saunders's offense.

"From the equipment people on up, he has alienated everyone in this building," said one high-ranking member of the organization. "He needs help at a level that goes beyond what a teammate or a coach can give him."

Some in the organization wonder if he will last more than a season or two here given his swings in attitude. But one prominent assistant said he would be surprised if Gibbs gives up on Lloyd.

"Throwing your helmet and all of that is great and well when you're 9-4, and you're frustrated from losing a game. But when you're 4-9 and make $30 million and you don't have a touchdown, it's a problem," said a teammate. "He's capable of great things, but you've got to be able to see that a guy like that is a front-runner. When everything is great, then he's great. But it's not always going to be great."

A Duckett Disaster

The front office found more trouble after tailback Clinton Portis partially dislocated his shoulder in the preseason opener Aug. 13 and Gibbs began mulling over a replacement. The Redskins had two veteran running backs and a fullback on the roster, all of them called "real Redskins" by Gibbs: Betts, Rock Cartwright and Mike Sellers. Each was hoping for more playing time.

During a personnel meeting with the offensive coaching staff and all of the pro scouts the next day, Cerrato's scouting department listed the available outside options. Former Redskin Stephen Davis, a free agent cut by Carolina and coming off major health problems, was shopping his wares, marginal backs such as Ron Dayne and Samkon Gado could be had for late-round draft picks, and Atlanta was trying to trade former first-round pick T.J. Duckett, who had fallen out of favor there but whom Gibbs knew and liked from his time consulting for the Falcons.

The Redskins also could do nothing to see which running backs were cut before the season.

The offensive staff was issued scouting reports and film of the candidates while the organization awaited an update on Portis's condition. Discussions continued after it was learned that Portis was expected to be back around the season-opening game. Coaches offered their views on what to do in meetings and informal discussions with Gibbs and Cerrato.

Quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor and tight ends coach Rennie Simmons -- both had worked in Atlanta's organization -- strongly endorsed Duckett. Gado was nixed by Saunders, who had coached him in Kansas City. Saunders thought Duckett would be a nice complement to the other backs and was enthused about him, sources said.

Running backs coach Earnest Byner, after working so closely with Betts, Cartwright and Sellers, was of the mind that sufficient depth existed already and was one of Betts's primary advocates.

But according to multiple team sources, Gibbs harbored serious reservations about Betts's ability to stay healthy and Cartwright's ability to hold on to the ball, and fretted about the possibility of re-injury for Portis, a smaller runner with a low-to-the-ground style.

With the team bracing for what it thought would be a deep playoff run, Gibbs was intent on getting help. Said one member of the organization, "We all thought this was a playoff team, and this was something that could shore us up."

Atlanta and Denver had been discussing a trade involving Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie, but talks had stalled, according to a league source, and the teams were seeking a third party. The Broncos enjoyed doing business with the Redskins; they had worked blockbuster trades with them each of the previous two seasons.

Like in the Lloyd case, the rest of the league was well aware of Duckett's availability. The general manger who disliked Lloyd didn't want Duckett either, calling him "a fat, underachieving running back."

On Aug. 23 the Redskins acquired Duckett, who is eligible for free agency in March, with the Falcons getting Lelie. The "real Redskins" bristled. "I'm shocked, man," Sellers said at the time. "I thought we had depth." Cartwright said he felt like he had been "slapped in the face."

In the end, the Redskins turned out to be the ones who were slapped. Betts proved Gibbs wrong, matching a franchise record with five straight 100-yard games. Duckett had only 132 rushing yards. He cost the Redskins their third-round pick in 2007 and probably a fourth-round pick in 2008.

"Did we give up too much to get him? Probably," one coach said. "But I think getting him was the right move. We all thought we had a playoff team and Duckett was the best back out there. It was Joe's decision -- he is making all of those decisions -- and I know it looks bad now, but I think it made sense at the time."

The lack of success with new players has angered some coaches. Several assistants said they are frustrated with the lack of support they receive from Cerrato and the scouting department; players said they sometimes joke about precisely what Cerrato does to earn his titles. Players said he serves as Snyder's eyes and ears at Redskins Park. "We all know why Vinny is here," one prominent player said. "Dan."

When asked if they felt comfortable giving Cerrato any positive public backing, several coaches declined. Several praised Riddick's work ethic and performance.

"Do we need a system of checks and balances" in the personnel department? one coach said. "I think that's a fair question."

Yesterday, Gibbs said it was unfair to judge the front office's performance on one offseason.

"As far as how we pick players, I kind of go off what's happened over the three-year period," Gibbs said. "If you're talking about personnel issues, look at the three-year block of what we've done, and I would say in there to be quite truthful, you take a look at that group. I totally disagree. Getting a Clinton Portis, a Santana Moss, a Casey Rabach, a Marcus Washington, what all that means. What's happened in total, that's what you've got to be judged on.

"What I have a problem with is to point to a one-year deal and saying that's a mistake, when many times it turns around the next year and you say, whoops it wasn't a mistake. Take the three years and evaluate it and we stand on that."

Drafted Out

Most NFL teams use draft picks to bolster their depth. Not the Redskins. Between the 2004 and 2006 draft, the Redskins traded 11 picks, an approach Gibbs defends.

"I saw a list of all the times we traded picks, and we've done a pretty good job with it," he said. "Look at who we did get and in most cases check where the draft choices went: for pretty high-quality stuff. My preference would be to have a big impact draft. It would be great, but you never know what's going to happen."

Other than having a high first-round pick, not much will happen for the Redskins in the draft this April. The team will be without its second-, third- and fourth-round picks.

"They give away draft picks like they're nothing," a longtime NFL general manager said. "It's unbelievable. Look at [trades for linebacker Rocky] McIntosh, Lloyd and Duckett -- that's six draft picks right there, almost all in the top four rounds, and at best two of those guys will be back there next season. And they got virtually no production out of any of them the entire season when they're trying to get to the Super Bowl. You can't do that."

A team could theoretically do that if its free agent signings also include some talented bargain-basement backups. But here, too, Gibbs and the front office fell short in a critical way. With cornerback Shawn Springs suffering through repeated injuries, the Redskins needed a reserve to rise up and assume his role. But Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph, brought in to provide depth at cornerback, both struggled and Rumph was cut on Wednesday.

"You don't have the depth because you don't have an astute personnel guy you can rely on to find some quality guys to hold you over on the cheap," the longtime NFL general manager said.

Gibbs's inability to sign talented reserves was especially evident two Sundays ago when, with Springs and Washington injured, the defense gave up 579 yards to the St. Louis Rams.

Said one key defensive starter: "That's the big problem. We don't have the horses. One of us goes down and there's nobody there to step in, nobody from the draft."

One defensive coordinator who has faced the Redskins said: "I don't know that Washington is a team built to handle any injuries. They are a very top-heavy team."

The Future

Gibbs said he and Snyder have discussed adding a general manager at various times, including recently, but have not determined a need to do so. They have remained comfortable with the way they operate, and with the players it has netted them. "Up until this point we haven't felt like we need" a general manager, Gibbs said yesterday.

Out of playoff contention for weeks despite a mediocre NFC, the Redskins face a critical offseason while lacking draft picks. The free agent class is expected to be thin around the league. To acquire players the Redskins would probably need to create additional salary cap space by cutting some veterans and asking others to restructure their contracts. Then there is the matter of financially rewarding players who have restructured in the past, some of whom will we be watching closely.

"We want to take care of our guys, and we want to keep everyone together," Gibbs said. "So my part of the argument would be I think we're as stable as anyone in the league. We want this to be a good place to work and want guys to be happy. I know there's some [grousing among players] going on, but I think what I would fall back on, what the facts are, is we don't have a lot of turnover, and I think that means you're taking care of your guys."

But not everyone agrees.

"The guys who are there aren't valued as much as a free agent," said Pierce, a linebacker who was allowed to sign with the Giants in a move now considered Gibbs's worst as team president. "You can't keep changing like they do."

Gibbs's assurance that Saunders and Williams will return, and the re-signing of Betts, were interpreted as signs that stability will be emphasized.

"I think obviously there are lots of things we can learn from this year," Gibbs said. "When we get to the offseason I've got a lot of things on my mind. When you get in a situation like that a lot of things have been unproductive. What you're doing is you've got to be a good student and learn from it, but I like our process."

Staff writers Howard Bryant and Les Carpenter contributed to this story.

Tomorrow: Adjusting to Al Saunders

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company