By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 10:28 PM
When the New York Giants take the field Sunday at New Meadowlands Stadium to face the Washington Redskins, they will be playing for a share of first place in the NFC East. They are, as usual, in the thick of the playoff race.
The Redskins begin December playing for long-shot playoff hopes, professional dignity and next season's jobs. That late-season refrain has become all too familiar to a franchise that has tried desperately since the turn of the century to recapture the Super Bowl glory days of the 1980s and early '90s but has failed to do so, even when it lured former coach Joe Gibbs out of retirement to lead the team a second time.
The discrepancy between the teams' on-field fortunes, between the Giants stability and the Redskins' repeated upheavals, can be easily traced, observers of the two franchises say. The Giants stress organizational continuity, they rely on the NFL draft to bolster their roster and they landed and developed a young franchise quarterback. It's a blueprint the Redskins haven't followed in recent seasons.
"The key thing there is look at the stability," said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans. "You've had two general managers with the Giants. Both of them were draft-oriented, probably [current GM Jerry] Reese even more so than Ernie [Accorsi, Reese's predecessor].
"Both of them really believed in the draft. . . .Even when they changed coaches, there was the same philosophy: strong defensive line, strong running game."Coaching continuity
In the 10 seasons from 2000 to 2009, the Giants reached the playoffs six times and played in two Super Bowls - losing one to the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 when they were coached by Jim Fassel and winning one by upsetting the then-unbeaten New England Patriots in 2008 with Tom Coughlin at the helm. Coughlin was hired to replace Fassel following the 2003 season and is in his seventh season as the Giants' coach.
In the same time, the Redskins have been to the playoffs twice - in the 2005 and 2007 seasons under Gibbs. They didn't reach the NFC title game either time. Mike Shanahan, the current, first-year head coach, is the team's sixth in the last 11 seasons, a group that also includes Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Gibbs and Jim Zorn. That doesn't count Terry Robiskie, the team's interim coach during the 2000 season after Turner was fired.
"The Giants changed coaches from Fassel to Coughlin," said Brian Mitchell, the former running back and kick returner who played for both teams. "But you look at it and they build their team for the Giants, not for the coach.
"With the Redskins, every coach has come in and has wanted to change the team. They've even changed the team in the middle, like when Joe Gibbs was here and then [former offensive coordinator] Al Saunders came in and wanted to change things. It's always a different mind-set.
"The Giants are looking to promote from within," Mitchell added. "Their GM, he was promoted from within. The Redskins are always looking for the next big thing, and that guy comes in and changes the whole philosophy."Building through the draft
Of the 53 players on the Giants' active roster this week, 26 were originally drafted by the team. That doesn't include quarterback Eli Manning, who was drafted first overall in 2004 by the San Diego Chargers but traded the same day to the Giants, who had chosen Philip Rivers fourth overall and sent him to San Diego as part of the deal.
On their 53-man roster this week, the Redskins have 15 players who they originally drafted and have kept throughout their careers.
"They've had more success picking players than the Redskins have," Casserly said, "and that has something to do with the continuity. The Giants' decisions were probably more personnel staff-driven while the Redskins' [decisions] were more coaching staff-driven. And when you do that and then change coaches, that's where the problem comes. You also rarely see the Giants trade draft picks for players."
The Redskins have had a longstanding reputation for preferring veteran players to youngsters, going back decades to their days of fielding the "Over the Hill Gang" and proclaiming that "the future is now." That approach produced success for coaches such as George Allen and Gibbs, before the NFL had free agency and a salary cap.
But the team and former front office chief Vinny Cerrato have been sharply criticized in recent years, while operating under a salary cap system, for trading away draft picks and signing high-priced free agents such as Albert Haynesworth. The defensive tackle was added last year with a seven-year, $100 million contract that included $41 million in guaranteed money. He has not started a game this season under Shanahan.
The latest reinvention of the franchise came when owner Daniel Snyder hired Bruce Allen as the team's general manager last December and Shanahan as its coach in January. Snyder has left it to Shanahan and Allen to chart the team's course, many who follow the Redskins have said, to emphasize that football professionals will be charting the team's course.
The Redskins didn't add high-profile free agents last offseason in a year without a salary cap, but did trade draft picks to obtain quarterback Donovan McNabb and offensive tackle Jammal Brown. They used the fourth overall selection in the draft on offensive tackle Trent Williams. It was a draft in which, after Sam Bradford was taken first overall by the St. Louis Rams, no other quarterbacks were chosen in the top two dozen picks.Better luck on draft day
The Giants had the good fortune to have the fourth overall choice in the NFL draft in a year - 2004 - when the available quarterbacks included Manning, Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Accorsi preferred Manning and did what it took for the Giants to get him, and Manning became a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But Roethlisberger has been a two-time Super Bowl winner in Pittsburgh and Rivers has become one of the league's most productive quarterbacks in San Diego. So the Giants, in retrospect, probably couldn't have gone wrong.
"They got a quarterback," Casserly said. "When they were bad, Ernie went out and got a quarterback. He got the guy he believed in. He got Eli Manning. Now, the quarterback has to be there to be gotten. He has to be available. Luck is part of it. Eli was there. If an Eli Manning or a Philip Rivers had been there this year, the Redskins would have taken him. If Sam Bradford had been there, the Redskins would have taken him and things would look different going forward."
Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said he can envision the organization becoming more stable from this point onward, with Shanahan in town.
"The Redskins are laying the foundation for some consistency," Theismann said.
Theismann said Shanahan must make important decisions about Haynesworth and McNabb, whose new five-year contract with the Redskins includes a $10 million option bonus due next year that the team must pay if it retains him.
"We have to see what happens at the end of the year with Donovan," Theismann said. "Albert is always going to be a distraction as long as he's there. He just doesn't want to be there."
Casserly expressed similar sentiments about the chances for newfound stability under Shanahan, but said the turnaround won't necessarily be quick.
"You'd better get ready for this to take some time," Casserly said. "I go back to when Shanahan left Denver. He had the makings of a Super Bowl offense there. He had the quarterback. He had receivers. He had a tight end. He had two tackles. They were going to be really good on offense. He needed to get a running back, but he would have gotten a running back.
"So can Shanahan figure out how to put it together? The answer is yes," Casserly said. "But you can't put a time clock on it. Bruce is terrific at trades, contracts, using the system to get the most value out of players. But you need patience and time."