By Thomas Boswell
Monday, March 5, 2007
Finally, the Washington Redskins have decided to concentrate on playing football during the NFL season rather than trying to buy the Lombardi Trophy during the offseason. It might not work. But at least it's a novel idea. Sanity and stability: What a concept.
London Fletcher is in at middle linebacker, Fred Smoot returns as a nickelback and Derrick Dockery is gone at guard. That's it, basically. One good defensive player added, an offensive player of roughly equal value subtracted, plus a smidgen of Smoot. Maybe, in the next couple of months, Shawn Springs will be involved a fairly significant trade. Or else he'll return at cornerback. Other than that, the Redskins of '07 will be essentially the same team that finished 5-11 in '06.
Hard as it is to believe, that could constitute progress. For a franchise that's been demolished or rebuilt in almost every offseason since Daniel Snyder became owner, peace and continuity might be a tonic. Then the Redskins, aka Team Panic, could calm down enough to build a foundation. Of course, this latest strategy could fail. But after you've gone crazy for so long, why not try sanity?
The organization that has had its hair on fire since '00, always trying to fix previous personnel mistakes with more million dollar checks, is standing pat at last. "We'll play these," is the message from Joe Gibbs. All last season, the coach maintained that he actually liked his team, despite its record, and believed in the morale within his locker room. "We have the right people here," he said repeatedly, even in defeat. Maybe he's just fooling himself. But he's walking the walk.
NFL free agency arrived last week and the Redskins did not acquire seven all-pro wide receivers, five pass rushers and an assistant who makes more money than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, Gibbs went to a Wizards game Friday with the two men who, it appears, will be his only important new Redskins.
Fletcher, 31, is first-rate and fills a desperate need at middle linebacker. Washington's defense has never been as smart or tackled as well since Antonio Pierce quietly became a Giant during one of the Redskins' annual offseason mass migrations. With Fletcher, there's only one worry: He's never missed a game. Expensive Redskins free agents get hurt. Which trend will win?
Smoot's always been a clubhouse spark and isn't likely to charter any Potomac cruises. "I don't think Smoot saw a play," Gibbs said after the Wizards game. "He was turned around the whole time talking." Just so that's not how he plays nickelback.
In a shocking break with tradition, the Redskins have done the decent thing and given us a chance to enjoy the next five months of our lives, free of discussion of a Checkbook Championship. Relax. Come back in August.
If you want to root for Georgetown, Maryland and Virginia to reach the Final Four, feel free. When we should be giving the Wizards their due in the NBA playoffs, we won't be debating the merits of some genius assistant like Gregg Williams or Al Saunders.
Make plans to catch Tiger Woods's new golf tournament in July. Memorizing a new Redskins roster won't distract you. With hindsight, it's stunning that any franchise believed it could rotate rich athletes so capriciously and still have any cohesion or camaraderie. Churn is one thing; superstar churn is another. Before the '00 season, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Mark Carrier and Jeff George arrived. The next year, Marty Schottenheimer turned over almost half the roster. The following season, Steve Spurrier did the same thing.
The more the Redskins failed, the more they flailed. The '03 team was the Jetskins with Laveranues Coles, Randy Thomas, John Hall and Chad Morton. When Gibbs arrived, he acquired Clinton Portis and Mark Brunell in trades, Sean Taylor with the fifth draft pick, plus free agents Springs, Cornelius Griffin, Phillip Daniels and Marcus Washington.
Confess: you didn't remember that the streak of Offseason World Championships was quite this ridiculous. The coup de disgrace came last March. The Redskins figured they were just a couple of quality players from a Super Bowl. They grabbed five significant free agents, including Antwaan Randle El, Andre Carter and Adam Archuleta, and traded for Brandon Lloyd. Then they talked about how good they would be.
It's possible that the current inactivity is an admission that the team's personnel information and decision-making is so bad that indolence beats initiative. At least this way Vinny Cerrato can't do any fresh damage.
More likely, the Redskins truly believe that what the team needs most is time and stability. For years, fans have wondered what would happen if the team didn't change coaches, didn't change coordinators, didn't switch quarterbacks, didn't import a half-dozen dominant personalities and disruptive superstars-on-the-slide every offseason. Now we'll find out.
The best reason for optimism is Gibbs's ability to judge players and people. After three seasons, this is his team. He trusts his leaders so much that he's followed their recommendation and changed a rule. Players no longer have to do offseason conditioning in Washington. That's a long leash.
The Redskins' refrain last season was, "if, if, if." If they were healthier, if they had gotten to know each other better and bond, if they had time to master Saunders's complex offense, they'd be far better than their record. Just give Jason Campbell time to mature, give Portis and Ladell Betts a chance to be a two-man rushing tandem, let Williams shore up his defense. Just watch, they said, someday you'll see we aren't overrated and complacent. We'll prove why we have the NFL's top payroll.
Now they're getting their chance. A rich team with a lousy record has been left intact. And a Hall of Fame coach has been taken at his word that his judgment is still sound. The Redskins believe they'll be good if they have one offseason when they aren't ripped apart, when they are unburdened by expectations, when they can be the surprise team.
So, give it a whirl. What do the Redskins have to lose? After you've tried doing everything, why not try doing nothing?