In the NFL, grit counts for more than glitz

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, November 28, 2009

It never hurts to state the obvious about the Washington Redskins, given the tendency of the front office to miss it. For instance, it's obvious that despite injuries to several starters, the Redskins are playing better than they have all season. What that says is their star system has failed. Obviously, some of the wrong players have been on the field. Even more obviously, some of the wrong people are in management.

Deep in crisis, the Redskins have delivered their most determined performances in the last two weeks. At 3-7, they've gained respect throughout the league for the strange dignity with which they are running their gantlet of a schedule, only for the dubious privilege of being pushed off a cliff. Credit for that goes to a variety of people who haven't been valued very highly, and who may well be gone next year: lame duck coaches who have continued to work despite being obviously unwanted, a fleet of reserve runners who have remained dedicated despite being obviously underused, a shunned quarterback who has been obviously underestimated, and a defense on which some people are obviously underpaid compared to others.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked to a rival coach who summed up the Redskins' problem succinctly. The coach, who did not wish to be named, said this: "Give me a smart, tough guy with okay ability, and we'll win. The 'me' guy gets you beat every time."

A handful of smart, tough guys with okay ability have held the Redskins together, and no one fits that description better than quarterback Jason Campbell. But Campbell is apparently viewed indifferently by owner Daniel Snyder and executive vice president Vinny Cerrato, who are continually panting after other quarterbacks, and rumored to be considering whether to use a first-round draft pick on a new one. To understand what's wrong with Redskins, all you have to know is that if Snyder and Cerrato had their way, Campbell wouldn't be under center right now. Jay Cutler or Mark Sanchez would be.

Let's pause to examine the implication of that. Campbell is currently ranked 16th in the NFL with an 86.1 passer rating, playing on a decimated team. Meantime, Cutler, the Chicago Bears' quarterback, has thrown a league-leading 18 interceptions and is rated just 24th. Sanchez, the New York Jets rookie, has 19 turnovers in 10 games and is ranked a wretched 31st.

Campbell is not a quicksilver talent, but he combines a live hose for an arm with a wealth of character. For two seasons he has played behind an inadequate offensive line that was the oldest in the league even before it was gashed by injuries. Last year he was sacked 38 times (just three quarterbacks endured more), and had just a single decent wideout in Santana Moss. Yet somehow the front office decided he was to blame. .

Yet none of Campbell's virtues were readily apparent to the Redskins' front office. Snyder and Cerrato would have preferred Cutler, the flashier, chancier quarterback -- even though Cutler's record was no better than Campbell's, and he showed a petulant streak, refusing to return phone calls from the Broncos for 10 days. This season Cutler has revealed a lack of touch, and a tendency to throw off his back foot. In retrospect, the Redskins were lucky to be outbid.

This season has crystallized a pattern of misjudgment by Redskins executives that goes back years; it's the story of the decade-long Snyder era. It's as if they're snowblind, only there are dollar bills flying around instead of snow. How many times has Snyder sought highly paid stars, or thrown around huge bonuses, while failing to recognize the virtues of people in house? They let Ryan Clark, the beating heart of the secondary, go to the Steelers, while throwing a wagonload of money at Adam Archuleta, a bust. They repeated the same mistake with defensive end Jason Taylor, who wasn't even wanted by defensive coordinator Greg Blache. They spent megamillions to bring in Albert Haynesworth and re-sign DeAngelo Hall, whose contributions are undeniable, but are they so much more valuable than London Fletcher, who had 13 tackles against Dallas last weekend?

It's been obvious for weeks if not months that Clinton Portis wasn't running well, yet because he is guaranteed $15 million through 2010, the coaching staff was obliged to play him in front of two men who have regularly outworked him: Ladell Betts, who earns $900,000 in base salary, and special teams captain Rock Cartwright. We'll never know what the Redskins' record would be had they gone with Betts earlier, or if Betts hadn't blown his knee last week. But once he became the starter, suddenly the Redskins could run the ball, and they continued to run it well with Cartwright, who is merely 5 feet 8 of smarts, toughness and okay ability -- and an irreplaceable presence in the locker room, according to even Portis.

"I think everybody on our team knows who the heart and soul of the Washington Redskins is, and that's Rock Cartwright," Portis said.

In fairness to Redskins execs, assigning player value and maintaining the integrity of the pay scale is a task of matrix-like complexity, the hardest thing to get right in the league. The NFL is unlike other businesses; there's no equivalent to it on Wall Street or in the military, a commodities market doesn't approximate its pressures, or its inverted pay scale. The 53 men in a locker room present an ever-evolving human resource quandary, because they're expected to sacrifice their bodies and egos equally despite gaping disparities in pay. Some guys earn fortunes because their jerseys sell, while the best offensive linemen in the league fights for loose change. How do you guard against rampant envy? A high-priced addition can actually take something vital away from a team. Not only do contracts divide one player from another, they can sometimes divide a player internally from himself.

As Wall Street firms have demonstrated, high bonuses don't always lead to high performance -- and they can be incredibly de-motivating. Frequently, they lead to individual striving without adding anything to the overall endeavor. They create "me guys." And the players know exactly who they are. There's one respect in which a locker room is like any other business, and that's its capacity for discontent over pay. The effect in a locker room when compensation seems arbitrary and undisciplined -- when it isn't linked to transparency and clear goal setting -- is the same as in any other office. Creeping disengagement, eroding morale and questions about management's loyalty.

These are all the reasons why the Redskins need experienced, proven management -- and why smart management tells so heavily in the won-loss column across the league. The Redskins' inability to get their valuations right, to reward real character while constantly tilting the pay scale by dropping huge sacks of gold on it, is arguably as big a problem as their failure to draft well over the last 10 years.

If nothing else good comes out of this woeful season, maybe Redskins management will at last learn something about value. It's the people the Redskins had the least use for who are working hardest at the moment to preserve the organization's respectability.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company