By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008
In a matter of days, the Washington Redskins will scatter across the country, taking with them sorrow over the senseless loss of a teammate in his prime, but also a sense of accomplishment. The death of safety Sean Taylor will forever mark the 2007 season, which ended in a playoff loss Saturday in Seattle, and the organization enters this offseason hoping to sustain its late-season momentum.
A year ago the Redskins were mired in turmoil after a 5-11 finish, but won nine games this season before falling, 35-14, to the Seahawks in the first round. Yesterday, Coach Joe Gibbs addressed players for the final time this season -- he will meet the media today -- and praised the courage, determination and heart they showed in reaching the playoffs after the Nov. 27 death of Taylor. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder also spoke to the team at the meeting, players said, thanking them and coaches, and expressing his belief that the team is closing on its dream of a Super Bowl.
"It's going to take a while for us to process everything," defensive end Andre Carter said. "Everybody handles things differently. I shed my tears with [teammate] Phillip Daniels and some other guys after the game. We didn't want this to end, and we thought it was in our favor, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. You learn from it and grow from it and take this into the next season."
Gibbs did not speak explicitly to the team about continuing to coach, players said, but people throughout the organization said they would be shocked if Gibbs did not remain in the same capacity and that he talked about the future in his remarks to players. "Every indication is that he's coming back," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. Gibbs meets annually with his family every offseason before finalizing his decision, but has always said he intends to fulfill this five-year contract, which expires after next season. Numerous sources who have talked to Snyder say he is thoroughly committed to Gibbs and fully expect him to offer a multiyear contract extension. Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, said he has seen no indications that Gibbs might leave.
"I have not seen that at all," said Williams, who has a $1 million clause in his contract should he not be the man to eventually replace Gibbs. "The man is driven and I'm just so happy he brought me along for the ride."
The bulk of the roster is under contract and many within the organization expect a tempered approach to free agency with "continuity" and "chemistry" again buzzwords around Redskins Park. Gibbs's resurgence mirrored that of the team. His decision to call consecutive timeouts late in a game against Buffalo the week Taylor died led directly to a heartbreaking defeat, and the Hall of Famer referred to it as the low point of his career. But Gibbs also led the club to four straight wins, keeping players fresh, juggling practice routines to fit personnel and forging a sense of community in the locker room. "I can't say enough about the way he handled everything," said linebacker London Fletcher. "I thought he should have got the coach of the year vote for what he did this year for us. I definitely feel like he should be back with us, and hopefully he does come back.
"Right now it's a tough time. Things are so emotional and you don't want to make decisions when you're emotional, and he'll take some time and talk to his family and talk to his wife and hopefully after the dust settles he'll want to come back and compete again."
While backup quarterback Todd Collins performed well during the winning streak with Jason Campbell out with a dislocated kneecap, Campbell said Thursday that the coaching staff gave him explicit indications that he remains the starting quarterback. Collins is one of a few key potential free agents on the club, and team sources believe he will re-sign here. "No ifs and buts about it -- they should keep him here," tailback Clinton Portis said, adding that he feels Campbell should remain the starter. Several league sources said they do not anticipate much of a market for Collins as a starter.
"It comes down to opportunities," Collins said. "I'd like to have an opportunity to play. I don't know if that's going to happen here or if it's going to happen elsewhere. But I'd like to hear what they have to say."
Return specialist Rock Cartwright and wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Reche Caldwell also will become unrestricted free agents in March. Many within the team expect that wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and cornerback Shawn Springs will not be back. "I don't know what's going to happen at this point," Springs said.
Washington's first order of business will be to restructure the contracts of a bevy of top veterans to make them more salary cap friendly. The Redskins are $20 million over the cap but according to numerous league sources who have studied their situation, the team can still create ample cap room by reworking the contracts of veterans such as Portis, tight end Chris Cooley, tackle Chris Samuels and linebacker Marcus Washington. The Redskins annually renegotiate 10 or so contracts and this year appears to be no exception.
Several league sources believe the Redskins will heavily pursue Chicago freeagent linebacker Lance Briggs, whom Washington attempted to land in a trade last offseason. The Redskins have long pursued a stable third wide receiver as well, and potential free agents such as Drew Carter and Bernard Berrian are possible targets. They would like more youth along the offensive line and in the secondary as well, but have tempered their sweeping pursuit of free agents.
"We'll continue to exhaust all resources and take a look at personnel out there," Williams said. "But we also don't want to disrupt chemistry."
After last season, the Redskins revamped the NFL's 31st-ranked defense and looked for consistency on offense. The defense ranked eighth in 2007, getting contributions from a host of good young players, and the offense made strides under Campbell, but the coaches also adopted a very conservative game philosophy. That approach led to five games in which the Redskins blew halftime leads and lost. Injuries and costly drops and turnovers plagued the team as well.
Gibbs's in-game management was a major issue at times, with players privately questioning his decision-making after several losses, but ties were forged by the Taylor tragedy, and a sense of optimism grew from their December surge.
"I think there was a bond formed throughout this team that will last forever," said Portis, one of Taylor's closest friends on the team.
Staff writers Liz Clarke and Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.