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Redskins Are Still Trying to Put the Pieces Together

By Rick Maese and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Speaking with reporters before the season's first game, Vinny Cerrato, the Washington Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, ran down the team's roster, sprinkling praise on nearly every position, starting with the team's young wide receivers and the depth at offensive line. He was hardly the only one who thought the team had upgraded its personnel from last season and positioned itself for a return to the postseason.

Five games into what has begun as a frustrating season -- from the locker room to the head coach's office -- every corner of Redskins Park has faced intense scrutiny. While the speculation outside of Ashburn might focus on Coach Jim Zorn's uncertain future, the questions surrounding the roster -- and those who assembled it -- are increasing.

Critical words and finger-pointing have come from all directions, including from inside the franchise's insular house. Redskins alumni, the icons from the team's glory years, have joined the chorus, whether it's Joe Theismann on the radio, Sonny Jurgensen on the postgame show or John Riggins on YouTube.

Current players, too, have started to question whether the right pieces are in place. In attempting to take some heat off Zorn, cornerback DeAngelo Hall said, "I think we're the ones out there playing every day, practicing, trying to do the right thing, but I don't know if we've got the right personnel here to do it."

Said fellow cornerback Carlos Rogers: "It starts not only with the players and the coaches. It starts with the ownership. They bring everybody in, and they've got last say-so of everything, so that's where it starts, I guess."

Cerrato declined multiple requests to respond to his players' comments and discuss the team's roster for this story.

But talent evaluators say that while the Redskins might never have been built for an immediate playoff run, they were a team that was clearly built for 2009. They started the season with the oldest team in the NFL. The average NFL team has 10 players age 30 or older; the Redskins have 17. With surprisingly few players guaranteed money beyond this season and an unpredictable uncapped year likely looming, the future of this Redskins' roster might be considerably less certain than that of its coach.

Not Deep Enough

Across the league, eyes widen when the Redskins' defense takes the field. Linebacker London Fletcher leads the league in tackles. Despite some conditioning questions, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth continues to impress pro scouts and overwhelm opposing linemen. And rookie Brian Orakpo shows bright flashes of potential when rushing off the edge.

"Defensively, it could've been an 11- or 12-win team," said Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns who runs the Web site http://www.MoveTheSticks.com. "The problem is, you're looking at a four-win team on offense."

One veteran, high-ranking NFL player-personnel official who has studied the Redskins' roster said he thought the team had some talent, though too little depth and thus no margin for error.

"They can compete," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the delicate nature of commenting on another team's roster. "What I mean by that is, they're an 8-8 football team if everything goes well from a talent standpoint. That's what they are. If they get lucky, maybe you win nine, 10 games."

With early injuries to right guard Randy Thomas and left tackle Chris Samuels, luck was not among the team's offseason acquisitions.

Both the former scout and personnel official reviewed the Redskins' roster and spotted several problem areas, most of which, they say, the team could have addressed before the season began. The most glaring is the offensive line.

"A good line could be the difference between six wins and 10," Jeremiah said.

The personnel official said that in recent years the Redskins clung too long to aging linemen and are investing considerable time in risky "projects," such as Stephon Heyer and Edwin Williams, both undrafted free agents. The personnel official said Chad Rinehart, a third-round selection in 2008, "is just a guy."

"Obviously, he hasn't played for a reason," he said. "There's really no proven commodities, and now they lose Samuels. You lose Thomas. Now, basically the dam has broken, and there's no way to plug it because there's nobody out there to go get right now. It should have been addressed in the offseason."

Many of the team's other offensive problems stem from the woes on the line. Coupled with the team's fickle offensive philosophies and coaching turnover, quarterback Jason Campbell hasn't had the chance to properly develop, they say. Then plugging Campbell into a West Coast system, which Zorn installed last year, is "not knowing what you got and trying to fit square pegs in round holes," said the personnel official.

In addition, the team's young wide receivers might have been bad gambles. The personnel chief said his team had a medical reject grade on Malcolm Kelly prior to the 2008 draft, as did many other teams, because of a lingering knee problem. In fact, the Redskins' medical staff also raised concerns about Kelly, who played in just five games as a rookie and underwent microfracture knee surgery in the offseason. The official also said that Devin Thomas, who has 19 receptions in 21 career games, was probably overdrafted as an early second-rounder.

"It's kind of weird they haven't done anything. They need a contribution from one of those two guys," Jeremiah said. "You'd like to get them on the field, get them experience, so they can have some growing pains. I think when they're in their third year, you really need to see something happening by then."

The personnel official said Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El, both 30, are on the downsides of their respective careers. Randle El, he said, is "probably being asked to do more than he's capable of," and Moss is a bad fit for Zorn's offense. "Move him around," he said. "Get him on mismatches down the field."

Defensively, the Redskins have considerable talent, though talent evaluators say Rogers has bad hands and doesn't make big plays, LaRon Landry might be more effective playing strong safety than free safety, and Orakpo could have more impact playing as a hands-down defensive end instead of spending three-quarters of his time as strong-side linebacker. Hall, they say, is capable of making big plays, but just as capable of giving them up.

It didn't necessarily take five games to reach these conclusions. In fact, following the Week 3 loss at Detroit -- the Lions' only win in a current stretch of 22 games -- Fletcher offered this reasoned assessment: "We're not a great football team. Never have been since I've been here. . . . It's been a long time since the Redskins have had a great football team."

Decisions Await

The Redskins began the season with an average age of 27.6 years, one year older than the league average. Their players had an average of 5 1/2 years of NFL experience, also tops in the league. For comparison, the Indianapolis Colts (5-0) boast the NFL's second-youngest roster, the New York Giants (5-0) are more than a year younger on average than the Redskins and have a year less of NFL mileage on their odometer, and the Minnesota Vikings (5-0) have barely half the number of players age 30 or older.

Further hurling the roster's future into uncertainty is the relatively few number of players with guaranteed money beyond this season, and the expiring collective bargaining agreement. With no new agreement between the owners and union in place, all signs point toward an uncapped year in 2010.

A league salary-cap official who is familiar with the Redskins' situation said just six players have base guaranteed money in 2010: Clinton Portis, Orakpo, Haynesworth, Hall, Derrick Dockery and Jeremy Jarmon. (In addition, Kelly, Devin Thomas and Fred Davis have guarantees against injury but could be cut for performance reasons.)

While the Redskins have options on several other players, they will have flexibility next offseason and a variety of questions and challenges ahead of them.

According to the salary cap official, in an uncapped year, the final eight playoff teams would face restrictions in signing other teams' unrestricted free agents; the league's 24 other teams would face no such limitations. While the restricted market would have much more talent, owner Daniel Snyder would have to decide whether he would want to give up draft picks to be an active player.

The team also would have to make tough decisions about several young players. By the time this season is completed, the Redskins will have spent about $3 million on Thomas, $2.4 million on Kelly and $2.5 million on Davis. It might be difficult to give up on such heavy investments after two seasons.

While Campbell plays out the end of his rookie contract and is likely destined for another team next year, the toughest questions could surround Portis, a 28-year-old running back who talent evaluators say has lost a step. Through five games, Portis has yet to post a 100-yard game, and he has only one such performance in his past 11 games.

The team will have to decide whether it's willing to release him despite money guaranteed next season. Portis last renegotiated his contract in March 2008, receiving a signing bonus of almost $9.4 million. By the end of this season, Portis, under the terms of the renegotiated deal, will have been paid more than $2.35 million in salaries and bonuses in addition to his signing bonus. Most of Portis's 2010 base salary of almost $7.2 million is guaranteed, and he is also due roster and workout bonuses totaling about $507,000.

On the offensive line, the team will have the clunky contracts of Samuels and Randy Thomas off the books next year, and if the younger replacements don't show potential, the team might have no choice but to finally address its perennial problems in the trenches.

"You talk about an overhaul; it needs to take place on the offensive line," Jeremiah said. "If you committed to taking an offensive lineman in the second and third round every year -- ideally you take more than that, but you can get good players there -- and it wouldn't take long before you've built something that will help your team for years."

Experts say the central focus of most rebuilding projects is to identify and acquire a core of linemen that can sustain for several years. To do so now could require a sweeping change of philosophy for the Redskins, who have selected just seven offensive linemen in the past 10 drafts and just two since 2004.

"I don't know if they go into the offseason thinking like this, but it looks this way later: 'Let's go get the players who sell the most jerseys,' " said former Redskin Brian Mitchell, who will be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor this month. "They don't go get offensive linemen. They get the guys -- quarterbacks, receivers, safeties, D-line -- they get whatever the big names are."

'You Can't Go Halfway'

Even if the roster is ripe for turnover, the question becomes: Will the Redskins commit to fundamental change?

Herman Edwards, a former coach turned ESPN analyst, has been watching the Redskins from afar for years.

"It's always the same ol' deal. They can never catch up," Edwards said. "They're a team that has never wanted to start over."

Edwards knows about rebuilding. When he took over as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006, he inherited the oldest team in the league. Though the Chiefs made the playoffs that year, Edwards said they were at a crossroads at season's end: dismantle and rebuild or carry on with an aging group?

"They didn't want to blow it up," Edwards said, "and that just killed us. Then you're sitting there and playing the same guys a year later, and they're getting hurt, can't function. We should've done it right after playoffs. But we missed it by a year and look at how it set us back."

The Chiefs finally committed to rebuilding following the 2007 season, parting with several veterans, and Edwards entered 2008 with 20 rookies, 11 of them starting games at some point. He went from having the oldest team to the league's youngest. The Chiefs eventually switched general managers and Edwards was fired following the season, but the rebuilding project was already underway. The Chiefs are currently 0-5, which is no surprise, Edwards said; a thorough rebuilding project usually takes two to three years.

"You can't go halfway; you have to go all the way," he said. "It's not easy to do. It's a win-now league. Fans have patience for about two years. If it's not going the right direction -- if people don't see light -- they're ready for a change. Ultimately, that's a detriment. You can't keep bringing in a new guy who has his own ideas, wants his own pieces, does things a new way. You'll never build a foundation that way."

The NFL personnel official agrees, saying the biggest change a struggling organization can make during the offseason is not necessarily to its roster.

"It's an evaluation problem," he said. "And evaluating is evaluating the players, evaluating the scouts, evaluating the coaches. It is an evaluation problem and it is clear. . . . If you go clean house in terms of coaches, you go get a new coach in there, you've still got that problem in the front office that's got to be corrected."

His coaching headset now on the shelf, Edwards says he can stand back and see parallels between his Kansas City teams and the Redskins. If coaches and front-office staff feel they're under constant pressure to win immediately, it's difficult to build for the future -- safer to plug leaks than address structural damage.

"It don't matter who the coach is," Edwards said. "Right, wrong or indifferent, you're not gonna win the NFC East this way. You just can't. You can compete in it, maybe win some games. But in the end, there's something that separates you from those teams that are winning it every year."

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