Football That's Light on Contact

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, May 12, 2007

Listen to Joe Gibbs talk about losing "contact" with Sean Taylor and Shawn Springs. "All of a sudden we lost contact," he said of Springs. As for Taylor, "I've had no contact whatsoever." It sounds as though Gibbs is mission control and Taylor and Springs are space modules. Contact is something you make via antenna while transiting Mercury, or looking for compelling evidence of water on Mars. It's not reassuring when the Redskins' coach uses it to describe his relationship with two starters.

There are a couple of possibilities here. One is that a dust storm on a far planet has disturbed the solar array and disrupted communications. The other is that the Redskins' front office does not command the confidence or respect of two key players on the roster. Everybody knows the importance Gibbs places on these "voluntary" workouts. For Springs and Taylor to pull no-shows is at the least a flouting of his wishes, and maybe even of his authority, and a sure sign of trouble.

It may not be big trouble, and it's perhaps resolvable. It's only May, and a lot of teams have players who do this. But the fact remains that it's disturbing when half of the secondary fails to check in after a 5-11 catastrophe of a season for which they were primary culprits. The silence of Springs and Taylor toward Gibbs, the fact that he doesn't seem to know much about their orientation or position, is indicative of something awry.

"I don't know how you can lose contact with them as long as your name and the Washington Redskins is on that paycheck," NFL analyst Cris Carter said on Comcast's Washington Post Live. "I wouldn't lose contact. I think there's a disconnect between some of the younger players now and Coach Gibbs, and I don't think he's as effective leading the football team as he has been in the past. . . . Call Bill Belichick, look at him, I'm sure he's in contact with all of his players. [Mike] Shanahan in Denver, I'm sure he's in contact with his players. Bill Cowher, one of the greats, now out of the business. He was in contact with his players. So I don't see how you can lose contact."

Gibbs keeps score on who shows up for the voluntary workouts. He takes attendance, counts the heads of the guys willing to work when they don't have to, and judges them. It matters to him. Springs and Taylor know it matters, and they didn't come anyway. As the Post's Howard Bryant aptly describes it, their absences are "a passive aggressive little dance."

How the dance plays out will say a lot about the state of the franchise. Frankly, it's hard not to feel that the current situation, while seemingly minor, is symptomatic of everything that has come before and everything likely to come later. Gibbs will have trouble turning around the team as long as the roster is such an exercise in incoherence, excess and fickleness.

The two truants are presumably unhappy about money and status, especially since the Redskins just drafted yet another glamorous headhunting safety in the first round, LaRon Landry. Of the pair, Taylor is the more worrisome. Springs has at least been in touch with his position coach and promised to show up in June. But Taylor has been completely unreachable -- as usual.

The fact is, the 24-year-old Taylor has never really been reachable, in any sense. Two years ago, when he wouldn't take Gibbs's calls, he wound up in pistol-whipping legal trouble. This is the supposed cornerstone of the Gibbs era, the handpicked draft choice on which all else was supposed to be built? Where was their judgment? The Redskins made their bed when they drafted him in the first place. He has proven to be a lone wolf, who, for everything he gives them, gives up just as much. He is a physically brilliant free lancer, but he has yet to really master the safety position. His decision to skip the voluntary session -- which is the best time to learn, and to establish your commitment to your teammates -- is a high-resolution snapshot of his soul as a player thus far.

But it's also true that Taylor has reason to be disconnected. Money has infected the Redskins like malaria. The salary structure annually breeds ill will. Two seasons ago, when they were a playoff team, the front office promptly ruined it by throwing $30 million contracts at a handful of newcomers. Taylor watched them refuse a paltry raise of $1.5 million to Ryan Clark, his best friend and a stalwart -- only to give Adam Archuleta $10 million guaranteed, the richest ever for a safety. Now they've drafted yet another expensive safety in Landry, who is likely to cost about $15 million. Think about that. Clark would have cost them just $1.5 million, while Archuleta and Landry between them will cost $25 million.

Again, where is their judgment? And how can Gibbs credibly demand discipline, devotion, and "contact," when the front office shows none? Taylor and Springs have seen the values on which the franchise operated the last couple of years. No wonder they're off in their own orbits.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company