New approach could help the Washington Redskins change direction

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, March 7, 2010; D01

Rumors of an outbreak of sanity at Redskins Park cannot be totally discounted. After 11 seasons of kaleidoscopic calamity, don't get fooled too fast. But maybe the 12th time will be a charm.

A team that doesn't covet Julius Peppers or Karlos Dansby, but wants to sign an offensive tackle instead, would be a welcome novelty in this town. The NFL's two gaudiest free agents, neither of whom plays a position where the Redskins have major needs, have already signed, and the burgundy and gold didn't so much as twitch to grab their Big Checkbook of First Resort.

Is it possible that, under Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen, the Redskins might give top priority to fixing what's horribly broken, and has been ignored for years, instead of chasing the splashiest names on the market? Sure looks like it. Guard-tackle Artis Hicks agreed to terms on Saturday, and tackle Tony Pashos may be next. But those aren't the kind of names that make the ESPN crawl at the bottom of the screen.

By releasing 10 players, all familiar names, most of them still serviceable in 2010 (but probably useless by 2012), the Redskins have tipped a hand that many have long hoped to see: Build a team, don't just buy one. When you give away a player as powerful and popular in the locker room as defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, 33, you're not just saying a 3-4 defense is coming. You're also indicating that, by the time you're ready to make big NFL noise, Cornelius's odometer will be too high to help you make a ruckus.

Spending to win is good. Wasting money, then making it back from your customers, isn't. Will the Redskins' new coach and general manager help Daniel Snyder, their open-handed but impatient owner, learn the difference? They say people take stock, even change a bit, in their 40s. Perhaps Snyder, who's always made black coffee look calm, will add a splash of cream.

Since Shanahan arrived, the Redskins also have started to send signals they may be a more disciplined organization. The new coach's get-in-top-shape-or-else comments at the scouting combine, though directed at everyone, could not have escaped the notice of Clinton Portis. And, one hopes, Albert Haynesworth.

In the NFL's no-salary-cap year, Shanahan and Allen can't avoid stepping on toes. So, they have to pick how to send messages. For years, Redskins players have been allowed to overrate themselves. If you were pretty good, but a Skin, you were allowed to think you were a star and act like it.

So, it was a delight to hear Carlos Rogers, the semi-gifted cornerback with bad hands and a sweet tooth for double moves, as he howled after being stuck with a first-round tender. "They know they got me for cheap. . . . Tendering me is not showing me," said Rogers, who'll "only" make $1.5 million in '10. He now wants to be traded. Time for those magic words: Clam up and play.

Nothing has been more encouraging in recent days than the first hints that the Redskins may have a better touch under Shanahan at knowing how to show respect -- but not too much -- to those who deserve it, such as Jason Campbell, and display a firm glare -- but not an insult -- to those, such as Clinton Portis, who need it.

By tendering Campbell with a No. 1 pick -- not a No. 1 and No. 3 pick -- the Redskins found the right balance. This implies the Redskins value Campbell's stoic contributions under fire and are willing to pay him $3.1 million next year. They are reasonably comfortable with him being their 2010 quarterback.

But it also signals to other teams that the Redskins aren't wildly wedded to Campbell. With their tender strategy, the Skins have said, "We'd probably take a No. 1 pick for him and not match a rival team's offer. But, you never know, we might take less."

The Redskins have extremely tough decisions to make at every team's most important position: quarterback. Campbell is somewhere in the middle of the NFL pack, but he might improve with a better line, a younger, quicker running back than Portis and one more good wide receiver. But who wouldn't?

With the No. 4 overall pick in the draft in a few weeks, the Skins probably will choose a quarterback-of-the-future from a group that drives even the best analysts crazy. Somewhere in the '10 class, including Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow, there is probably an all-pro. But not definitely. That's why you still might get any of them at No. 4.

This isn't a draft class that has a unanimous No. 1 overall pick at a hugely important position -- the NFL equivalent of years in the NBA and NHL when somebody got to grab a LeBron James or Alex Ovechkin and know they could nail down a crucial position for years.

Here's where the capriciousness of sports arrives. You can get a new coach with two Super Bowl rings and an experienced GM with an Allen pedigree; you can cultivate the owner's best traits, not worst; you can get younger and demand more discipline; you can switch defensive schemes and stop playing favorites.

But all of that combined might not do as much to win another Super Bowl as making the correct choice among those current kid quarterbacks, or stumbling on a Tom Brady in the sixth round.

For fans who have been more peeved by the way the team has been run than by its 70-90 mark in the 2000s, the last two weeks have been encouraging. But it's the next two years that matter.

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