Marching Orders
Analysis: As Redskins Ponder Their Future, They Could Learn From Ravens, Falcons And Dolphins. The Lessons Include Committing to a Plan, Starting With Linemen.

By Jason La Canfora and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn speaks often about building a powerhouse, one that is a perennial Super Bowl contender and not merely a team that makes playoff appearances. But for Redskins fans, who have not enjoyed a regular season with at least 11 victories since the 1991 season, when the team last played in the Super Bowl, the goal might be far simpler: Be like the Falcons. Or the Dolphins. Or, best of all, the Ravens.

As the Redskins began organizational meetings last week, plotting their approach to the draft and free agency, they needed to look no further than this season's playoffs for turnaround templates. Atlanta, Miami and Baltimore combined to win 10 of their 48 games in 2007 but used an effective draft and smart free agent acquisitions to dramatically reverse their fortunes.

Can the Redskins do the same?

An analysis of the three teams, all of which had rookie head coaches like the Redskins, shows each took a different path to success but shared a commitment to developing and following a well-scripted plan. Each either added or had on hand a proven personnel executive with Super Bowl experience. Each got significant contributions from high draft picks. And, undoubtedly, each team had its share of good fortune.

"You have to have a plan everyone believes in, you have to make good decisions and stick with your plan," said Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian, selected the NFL's executive of the year five times while guiding Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis. "That's really how you begin and continue the building process."

The Redskins begin with numerous holes to patch, according to several team sources interviewed for this story, some of who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to comment about the organization. The team's objectives, according to these sources, begin with improving the offensive and defensive lines and also include finding players with big-play potential. The team also wants to get better performances from its young players.

"I can't stand here and say that we did enough because we're not still playing and we're 8-8," Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, said after the season. "To me, if you want to improve, you've got to look at things that you did and ask, 'How do we get better?' Eight and eight is not where you want to be. What do you have to do to improve?"

Potential top-tier free agents such as Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross play positions that are areas of need for Washington, but it remains unclear whether the team plans to be active in free agency. In the draft, the Redskins hold the 13th overall pick and one selection each in the third, fifth and sixth rounds.

Before last season, the Redskins added 14 new players to the opening day roster but only one, safety Chris Horton, a seventh-round draft pick, made a significant contribution. The other nine draft picks, plus acquisitions such as Jason Taylor, Erasmus James, Alfred Fincher and Justin Hamilton, did not meet expectations. That left a heavy burden on veterans, who could not build upon a 6-2 start.

"You need everybody," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "You bring guys in because you need them to step up and help us get to where we want to be as a team. You can't look at it like you don't need certain guys. Everybody has to help."

Ravens Build Lines

Jared Gaither was a 6-foot-9, 350-pound offensive lineman at the University of Maryland whose potential was clouded only by questions about his maturity and discipline. After being declared academically ineligible, he left school in June 2007 and entered the NFL's supplemental draft.

College Park is nearly equidistant from Redskins Park in Ashburn and the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md., and the Redskins and Ravens each had reasons to be interested in Gaither even though he lasted just two seasons at Maryland. Baltimore's future Hall of Fame left tackle, Jonathan Ogden, was mulling retirement and the Redskins' right tackle, Jon Jansen, was beginning to struggle in pass protection.

The teams' philosophies in player acquisition are, however, completely different. The Ravens believe in drafting linemen the way baseball teams stockpile young pitchers. Baltimore has selected 13 offensive or defensive linemen in the top four rounds since 2000, restocking the team after its 2001 Super Bowl victory. The Redskins have taken just four interior linemen that high in that span, with only Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels (a third pick overall) becoming a star. The Ravens, a dominant defensive team, invested six picks (all in the fifth round or higher, including Gaither) on offensive linemen between 2005 and 2007. All have started, and this season the unit helped speed the development of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, a first-round pick.

"We knew we were getting older on the offensive line, no question about it," said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "But instead of making wholesale changes in one year, we decided we were going to address it through several drafts. Our feeling as an organization is that you win up front on the offensive and defensive lines, and in general we'll always address those positions in the draft.

"Some people think you've got to have big-money guys at all the sexy positions -- running back and quarterback and wide receiver -- and take care of that first. We kind of look at it differently."

So when Gaither became available, the Ravens pounced, selecting him in the fifth round. The Redskins, who prefer to use free agency to acquire linemen, passed on the chance to draft him. At left tackle, Gaither was a significant reason the Ravens yielded no sacks in their first two playoff games, both on the road, allowing Flacco to become the first rookie quarterback to win a postseason game away from home, and the first to win two playoff games.

"We thought he had the potential to be a starter for us and a significant player," DeCosta said of Gaither. "The magic was getting him in the fifth round."

The Redskins did sign another Maryland tackle, Stephon Heyer, as an undrafted free agent on May 3, 2007. After a good start under coach Joe Gibbs, Heyer fell behind Jansen on the depth chart and became a situational player in the 2007 season. Heyer won the starting job during training camp last fall but suffered a shoulder injury early in the season and was replaced by Jansen, who helped the Redskins develop one of the league's most productive rushing attacks the first half of the year. Heyer returned to the starting lineup for the season's final three games after Samuels suffered a season-ending triceps injury. Last spring, the Redskins drafted an offensive lineman, Chad Rinehart, in the third round but he did not appear in a regular season game.

The Ravens have reworked contracts only for elite players such as Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis and loaded up on compensatory draft picks when their free agents leave. The Ravens lead the NFL with 23 compensatory picks since 2002, equivalent to more than three additional full drafts. The Redskins have had just five compensatory picks since 2002; three came last April and one was used on Horton. The Ravens' front office, led by General Manager Ozzie Newsome, has taken players such as running back Chester Taylor, fullback Le'Ron McClain and quarterback Derek Anderson with those additional picks.

The Ravens have done well in the regular draft as well. In 2005, Baltimore selected tackle Adam Terry in the second round and center Jason Brown in the fourth. Terry was beaten out by Gaither but is a key reserve. Brown started at guard as a rookie and has become one of the best young centers in the NFL. In 2006, Baltimore selected versatile interior lineman Chris Chester in the second round, then took guard Ben Grubbs in the first round in 2007 along with guard Marshal Yanda in the third and McClain, who also plays a key role in pass protection, in the fourth. Grubbs and Yanda were starters this season and Chester played well after Yanda, who got off to an outstanding start, suffered a season-ending knee injury in October. With a strong offensive line, Flacco's play was almost the opposite of Campbell's. While Campbell was leading the Redskins to a 4-1 start and playing nearly flawlessly, Flacco threw one touchdown and seven interceptions during the Ravens' 2-3 start. Over the next 13 games leading up to the Ravens' 23-14 loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game, though, Flacco threw just five interceptions -- and 14 touchdown passes. Campbell, playing nine games behind a line in which every starter was at least 31, was sacked more than all but five quarterbacks in the league as the Redskins ranked 28th in scoring and produced three fewer total points than winless Detroit.

More importantly, while Flacco is clearly the Ravens' quarterback of the future, the Redskins have shown no inclination to extend Campbell's contract, which will expire after the 2009 season. Cerrato recently said the quarterback position is one of yearly evaluation; Campbell has been eager to negotiate a long-term deal, according to several sources close to him.

Proven Commodities

In Miami, Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga turned over his organization to Bill Parcells, who has made a career out of worst-to-first projects, while Atlanta owner Arthur Blank hired Tom Dimitroff, who helped build New England's dynasty as director of college scouting. Dimitroff worked directly under Bill Belichick, New England's head coach; Belichick is a Parcells disciple. Parcells pulled off turnarounds with the Giants, Jets, Patriots and Cowboys and won two Super Bowls as a coach.

Parcells's influence on the Dolphins as their executive vice president of football operations is all-encompassing. He assembled a front office led by General Manager Jeff Ireland, who served with Parcells in Dallas, and a coaching staff of assistants who viewed the game similarly. There was no dissension between the coaching staff and the personnel department and 29 new players were ushered onto the 53-man roster, including quarterback Chad Pennington, a castoff of the Jets.

"Along the lines of player acquisition and things of that nature, I think it's important that the whole organization be pretty much philosophically compatible so that they understand why things are getting done a certain way," Parcells said at his introductory news conference.

Parcells immediately tried to replenish his lines. Of Miami's nine draft picks in April, six were offensive or defensive linemen. First-round pick Jake Long, taken ahead of Atlanta's rookie of the year quarterback Matt Ryan, started 16 games at left tackle. Defensive end Phillip Merling had a sack, an interception and a touchdown in a reserve role -- equaling the touchdown output of Washington's 10-man draft class. Third-round pick Kendall Langford from Hampton University in Virginia started 13 games at defensive end and recorded two sacks.

Parcells quickly soured on defensive lineman Jason Taylor, 34, a six-time Pro Bowler who spent his offseason as a contestant on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." After run-stuffing end Phillip Daniels was lost to a season-ending injury in training camp, Washington parted with two picks (a second-round selection in the upcoming draft and a sixth-round pick in 2010) for Taylor, a steep price for someone Parcells was eager to discard. Taylor was oft-injured and ineffective this season and several Redskins coaches believe the veteran should be cut to help save the Redskins salary cap space, according to a team source.

"When are we going to get younger?" one coach asked.

Parcells plugged 31-year-old Joey Porter, who was signed from the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 2007 season, into Taylor's role and he finished second in the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks, 14 more than Taylor.

The Falcons' Dimitroff, like Parcells, quickly weeded out problem players. Disgruntled cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a former top-10 pick, was traded to Oakland for a second- and a fifth-round pick. The Raiders cut Hall after eight games; Washington signed him in midseason and is exploring a long-term contract for him.

"What we've talked about from the very beginning, and we made a concerted effort putting this team together last year, [was] to get positive, passionate, persevering football players, who were able to and wanted to deal with the rebuild situation that we were facing here in Atlanta," Dimitroff said. "We are very particular about the type of locker room we want to create here, and we attempt to steer clear of a lot of the personal agendas. Yes, it's going to happen in this league, we understand that. But if it's all for the greater good of the team, well, then that's the direction we want to go."

With quarterback Michael Vick incarcerated on dogfighting charges, the Falcons selected Ryan with their first pick, and he threw 16 touchdown passes in the regular season and two more in the first round playoff loss to Arizona. Dimitroff agreed to a multi-pick trade with Washington for another first-round pick (21st overall) and took offensive lineman Sam Baker, who won the starting left tackle job in training camp but required surgery in October for a herniated disk. He returned late in the regular season and is considered the team's left tackle of the future. Second-round pick Curtis Lofton started 15 games at middle linebacker and was third on the team in tackles.

Dimitroff espouses a "need-specific" draft philosophy he learned in New England, one based on "system-specific scouting." Cerrato has always spoken of taking "the best player available," and has said trades and free agency are at least equally important as the draft.

"Our coaching staff is very open about the type of system we're running offensively and defensively," Dimitroff said. "We make sure that we disseminate all that information to our scouting staff, so that when they're out scouting these players, they know the type of player we're looking for and the type of system we have, so that we don't waste our time scoring and evaluating players that don't fit into our mold."

Dimitroff's decision to trade up to select Baker illustrates this philosophy. Many teams did not rate Baker, a three-time all-American at Southern California, a first-round pick. "There were a number of teams and pundits who had him rated lower. For us, Sam Baker was the left tackle that we wanted to protect Matt Ryan's left side," Dimitroff said. "We're excited about his development, albeit somewhat hindered by an injury this year. Going forward, we really believe Sam can be a cornerstone of our offensive line."

Atlanta made one huge foray into free agency, signing running back Michael Turner, longtime understudy to San Diego star LaDainian Tomlinson, to a six-year, $35 million deal ($15 million guaranteed). Turner finished second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,699 yards), and second in rushing touchdowns (17) and took a lot of pressure off Ryan.

"He was the MVP of this football team," Dimitroff said. "He did a fantastic job. He had a lot of help from a lot of players on this team, but Michael was a nice addition for us, on the field but as well off the field, with the way that he carries himself and handles his business. That means a lot to us because we are very particular about the type of locker room that we want to create here."

New Year, Same Dilemma

What type of team will the Redskins create? Some veterans thought significant roster turnover would occur after the 2007 season, but an improbable four-game winning streak, fueled in part by the emotional reaction to the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor, resulted in a 9-7 record and a playoff berth. Although some Redskins officials were convinced the team was not good enough to reach the playoffs again, Cerrato decided otherwise and spent about $30 million to rework contracts, keeping the team together at steep salary cap costs.

A year later, Cerrato faces the same decision.

"Nobody will ever talk about what an organization thinks that their window [to win it all] really is," veteran left guard Pete Kendall said. "But in reality I think they look at that all the time, and sometimes it's this year, or sometimes it might really be two or three years out. And you can't say to your fans, 'We're rebuilding,' and you can't say to your players, 'We're not trying.' And you can't say that this guy is not as good as that guy, but I think that's probably the reality of the way it goes.

"There's no future in 36-year-old guys; the future is now. But it is still a win-now league as well, so there is that decision that people charged with making those decisions have to make: Do you perhaps take a step back to get better [long-term]?"

Whether Zorn remains with the Redskins beyond the 2009 season could hinge on how well Cerrato answers that question. At the very least, if the Redskins retain their first draft pick, the player they select must make an immediate impact, both Cerrato and Zorn said.

Replacing Jansen, 32, with a more effective starting right tackle is a top priority, team sources said, though Jansen's contract will likely keep him on the team. Kendall, 35, will be a free agent. Samuels, 31, and right guard Randy Thomas, 33, underwent surgery for injuries again this season. Heyer, 25, is the only productive backup. Washington could also benefit from adding big-play potential. Although running back Clinton Portis rushed for 1,487 yards -- the league's fourth-highest total -- his longest gain was only 31 yards. In his last 794 rushes spanning three seasons, Portis has no carries of at least 40 yards. Wide receiver Santana Moss was Washington's sole deep threat, and his three catches of 40 or more yards were the team's only offensive plays of that distance. Only Cincinnati and Jacksonville had fewer big plays. "As an offense, you always want guys who can make big plays and put that fear in the defense," Campbell said. "Santana is definitely that type of guy, but Santana needs help."

That help was supposed to come from last year's second-round picks: wide receivers Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly and pass-catching tight end Fred Davis. Thomas was the most productive member of the trio and he had only 15 receptions for 120 yards, along with a 29-yard rushing touchdown. His immaturity and poor work ethic, team sources said, frustrated coaches and veterans.

"It takes some guys time to get adjusted and realize, 'Yeah, I'm still playing the game I always have, but this is my job now,' " said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who mentored Thomas. "And when it's your job, you have to always take that type of approach. You can't have days when you just don't feel like it."

Kelly had only three catches for 18 yards and was sidelined for most of the season because of knee problems that had hampered him since college. Davis's maturity was also questioned by some team sources, who noted that he often giggled in meetings. He missed the final day of minicamp, telling team officials he overslept. His lack of understanding of the offense helped prevent him from overtaking Todd Yoder as the backup to Pro Bowler Chris Cooley.

"I think they made progress," Cerrato said of the second-round picks. "When you look at any receiver, take Roddy White from the Atlanta Falcons. Everybody would have said after the first year, and he was a first-round pick, that he was a bust. He had like twenty-something catches [29]. Now, in his fourth year, he's going to the Pro Bowl. In receivers, you've got to give them some time."

The defense ranked fourth in the league, but struggled in the fourth quarters of losses to Dallas, Baltimore, Cincinnati and San Francisco, and finished tied for 28th in sacks. Cornerback Shawn Springs, 33, strong-side linebacker Marcus Washington, 31, and defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, 32 -- all from the 2004 free agent class -- could be let go to create a salary cap savings of about $13 million. According to team and league sources, the Redskins are roughly $2 million over the projected salary cap.

"They'll be able to shed some contracts and have cap space to go spend again," a salary cap official said, "but I wouldn't be doing it on older guys again. You end up restructuring and keeping people based on the salary cap and not football decisions."

Cornerback Carlos Rogers, 27, one of the team's few standout young players, said he was dissatisfied with his decreased role at the end of the season and hinted he would prefer to be traded. Team sources said they believe the Redskins will shop Rogers for draft picks.

Some Unsolicited Advice

Several NFL executives -- speaking on condition of anonymity because the league would reprimand them for offering their opinions about another team -- and Redskins sources said they believe Washington must build through the draft, focusing on the offensive and defensive lines. They say the Redskins should emphasize the sort of youth movement followed by top teams in the salary cap era.

"They always try to patch it together for one more run, but that's easier than making a real change," one NFC executive said. "At some point, everyone starts over. But most teams want to go young, go through the draft. They resist that."

Continually replenishing the lines, regardless of the depth and talent at those positions, must be the centerpiece of any viable offseason plan, NFL executives say, because linemen tend to wear down quickly, and cost-effective replacements are available in the middle rounds of the draft.

Washington must stop restructuring the contracts of high-priced veterans, other executives and team sources said. Instead of trying to keep the team together for a long postseason run that has not occurred under team owner Daniel Snyder, Washington must cut ties with players when their salary cap numbers rise and their productivity decreases. The key to winning despite constant turnover, executives and team sources said, is to bring in more young players who are capable of rising to the top of the depth chart.

"Are they finally gonna blow this thing up?" one veteran player asked. "I wouldn't blame them. When you look at who really plays, we're an old team, man, with a lot of guys who are always hurt taking up a lot of cap space."

Several coaches hope the Redskins will address their line issues, according to team sources. Many believe the team must begin parting with the remnants of its big 2004 free agent class.

"We have to start getting some young linemen in here," one coach said. "We have to find them in the draft and let them play."

Years of splurges on skill-position players have left the Redskins in an annual salary cap bind, and most of the highest-paid players would be too cap-prohibitive to trade or cut. So the ability to retool at wide receiver or running back is limited.

"If I was running things, I'd start getting rid of every veteran lineman I could and just draft linemen for a couple of years," a veteran player said. "Both sides of the ball, almost nothing but linemen. If we can't rush the passer or protect the passer, then we ain't going nowhere, and that's where we're at. I'd go with what we got at the skill spots, because you can't really move those guys anyway, and spend the next two years redoing the lines."

Regardless of what plan the Redskins choose, the responsibility for execution falls on Cerrato.

"All I read was how Vinny was going to do the right thing and build through the draft," an NFC executive said. "How do you build through the draft when you trade half your picks for guys at the end of their career? So what's the plan there? Is there a plan there? From the outside it's hard to see one."

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