'Reeling Redskins'

Tom Friend
Senior writer, ESPN The Magazine
Thursday, November 30, 2006 11:00 AM

ESPN senior writer Tom Friend was online Thursday, Nov. 30, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his article about unrest on the Redskins.

A transcript follows.


Tom Friend: Good to be back at the old alma mater. I was once a copy boy at The Post and a Redskins beat writer at The Post. Miss it sometimes, so it's a real throwback to be here. Let's get going.


Potomac, Md.: In Wilbon's chat on Monday, he called you "one of the five biggest Redskins fans I know." Did you have any second thoughts about writing such a damning article about your favorite team?

Tom Friend: Let me try to clarify the "fan'' situation. Mike's right. I am a huge fan of the Redskins, just as he's a huge fan of the Bears. And that's why we have such passion when writing about them. When I got hired to help cover the Redskins with Christine Brennan early in the 1987 season (before covering them alone in 1988 and 1989), I was overwhelmed. I'd begun going to games in 1967, and I'd cry when they lost, even cried in college after Staubach's miracle comeback in '79 knocked them out of the playoffs. But that first week at Redskins Park, I approached Dexter Manley for an interview and he said someone in the PR office told him not to talk to me, because I was from The Post. Talk about a wakeup call. You stop being a fan right that second. After I got off the beat, it took me about five years to be a fan again. But I did catch the bug again. Haven't missed a play in over 15 years. That being said, as this season began to unfold, and I saw the defense collapse week after week, and could find no explanation for it, I began to look into writing this story. I didn't consider it a damning story, I considered it an informative story. It's funny, and I'm sure Mike will admit this, you can somehow put on your journalist hat (and put down the fan hat) when the time comes and seek the truth. That's all I tried to do.


Springfield, Va.: You probably are not going to answer my question but I am going to ask anyway.

Name the player who made those claims in your article.

If you don't, you are a liar. And we will never read your articles ever!

Go 'Skins!!!

Tom Friend: I will not name the player, and I'd be a liar IF I DID. There was an agreement, and I'll honor that agreement.


San Diego: Tom -

I've read your article and listened to you twice on the Riggins show. Another guest on that show, Omar Stoutmire, stated that the safeties met with Steve Jackson separately from the corners last year as well. This seems to cast some doubt on the events that transpired over the last year with the defensive staff as describe in your article. Any thoughts?... Thanks for your time.

Tom Friend: They may have met separately with Jackson last year, and it's true, he did have some power last year. Ryan Clark has complained that Jackson berated him and pulled him in and out of the lineup at times. But, ultimately, it was DeWayne Walker's secondary last year. This year, Jackson was given more power, and that made those separate safety-cornerback meetings dangerous. I'm told that recently Jerry Gray ran a meeting for the entire secondary, a meeting Jackson missed, and then Jackson went into a separate safety meeting later and coached them to do some of the opposite things that Gray was talking about. This staff needs to get on the same page, and I believe they need to let Gray run the full secondary.


Annandale, Va.: Hi Tom,

I truly appreciate your candid article on the Redskins. It is not your fault there's turmoil within.

Secondly, I heard you on the John Riggins show (the second night you were on) and while I don't know Joe Gibbs personally, given his character, I don't believe his comments about your article were meant to mean you made the story up. I honestly think he prefers to keep issues in-house and what he said was the best way for that to happen.

Tom Friend: I agree. Gibbs knows there was a player. That's why at the team meeting last Saturday night, he addressed this player anonymously. He said he felt sorry for him, tried to lay a guilt trip on him. Gibbs has never had a player come out and be this honest about his team and staff before. It galls him, I'm sure. But he's in full damage control now.


Vienna, Va.: Hi Tom,

Great article. If you were still working closely covering the 'Skins, would you still write that article?

Tom Friend: Absolutely, and I've been down that road before. In 1989, Gibbs had yelled at his players for getting a ton of personal foul penalties, and the players called a player-only meeting, where they essentially said: "#@#%$# Gibbs.'' I was told this by an anonymous player, and wrote it, and Gibbs was livid. I survived. You got to remember, Jack Kent Cooke wouldn't even talk to The Post in those days. You survive. You do your job. You get the pulse of the team.


Seattle: Hi Tom, do you personally believe that Sean Taylor's play this year has regressed due to the addition of the new safeties coach, as it was presented in your article? Who was the safeties coach the last two years before Jackson came onboard?


Tom Friend: I believe, before last Sunday, Sean Taylor felt like a "robot'' on the field. In fact, that's what he was telling his teammates. Jackson wants him to be aggressive on the run, and to read the receiver instead of the QB. It's had Taylor thinking too much, and he also became very surly. He's a difficult guy to play with, because he doesn't communicate well on the field...But I believe he turned a corner last week and was no longer over-thinking...


Boston: Do you think this money culture at Redskins Park can ever be changed without a change in ownership? Snyder is living his childhood dream, and, love him or hate him, he's not selling the team anytime soon.

Tom Friend: I think Snyder has totally taken a step back this year. The Six Flags deal, the movie deal with Tom Cruise. I don't think he's as hands on as he's been. Essentially, he's turned it over to Gibbs, completely, except when it comes to the pursuit of free agents. But he's only pursuing the free agents Gibbs and Gibbs' staff want him to pursue. Gregg Williams wanted Andre Carter, not Darren Howard. Gregg Williams begged Archuleta to come. That's not on Snyder. If Gibbs tells Snyder no big spending this year, then he won't spend.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Why do you think Gibbs continues to coach the Skins when it appears that he has ceded control of the team to his coordinators? He appears to have lost the passion to coach. Are there any rumblings that this year will be it for Coach Gibbs?

Tom Friend: As I've watched this year, I've wondered what the future holds. I think he wore himself out last year, when his amazing and tireless coaching job got them to the playoffs. By hiring Saunders and by letting Williams have autonomy on defense, he took a step back -- but the Redskins appeared leader-less. After losses, there wasn't apparent anger, and let me tell you, in the '80s, he was inconsolable after defeats. Will he be gone next year? I doubt it. But I do believe Snyder may get involved with the defensive staff, and I think that would be smart. Who would take over for Gibbs? I can almost guarantee you now it won't be Gregg Williams. Snyder will have to eat the million bucks he promised he'd pay him if he wasn't eventually head coach. I believe if Gibbs steps down that Gibbs should become team CEO (which he basically is now, the way he's coaching) and hire Russ Grimm. Grimm has done a tremendous job in Pittsburgh.


Washington, D.C.: Tom, what is your personal opinion of Joe Gibbs? I know that you have been a Redskins fan, but are you a Gibbs fan?

Tom Friend: I am a huge Gibbs fan, but he's not the hands-on, maniacal coach he used to be. He was such a micromanager the first time around, he and Bobby Beathard couldn't co-exist. But now he's the grandpa around there. What really gets me is that at ESPN, when they discuss the great coaches today, it's Belichick, Parcells, Cowher, Reid, Holmgren...You never hear Gibbs's name anymore, and he's a Hall of Famer. It's sad.


Washington, D.C.: It appears that Adam Archuleta is being made the scapegoat for the poor secondary performance so far this year. Your article suggests that it was more a breakdown in communication and an unchecked ego or two on the defensive coaching side of things.

Is AA that bad, or are the coaches covering up their own ineptness?

Tom Friend: With Archuleta, it doesn't appear they ever gave him a chance.

If not for Prioleau's injury, he would've been benched for the season opener.


Houston: Tom,

You exposed a huge lack of continuity on defense in your article last week. In turn, the D put up perhaps their best performance of the year the ensuing Sunday. As a fan and a journalist, were surprised or maybe even empowered by the possibility that your work could potentially affect the play of this team?

Tom Friend: Like Wilbon said, if it took an article to inspire the team, they got problems.


Hogshaven.com: Can't say I was all that convinced by your article -- too many unnamed sources for my taste. Adam Archuleta might be that angry, but who cares?

My bigger question about sources concerns this quote from your article: "Snyder, according to sources, knows all about this, and, there is a sense the front office will push to replace Jackson and perhaps even Williams next season. At the same time, Williams still has supporters in the organization, too. They say the players ripping him have axes to grind, that Williams isn't the one whiffing on tackles and botching coverages."

I know you won't quote the sources themselves, but could you at least comment on the authority of the sources? Are they people within this organization? Are they members of the coaching staff? Are they players? Janitors? Your friends? The way this claim is worded suggests that you aren't very confident in the source. It doesn't take much time to add "someone close to the organization" or "someone knowledgeable about the situation" or "the alleged cry-baby I quoted throughout this article". Your omitance of any kind of credibility qualifier raised my eyebrow as much as your claim that Gregg Williams was leaving. What gives?

Tom Friend: I'm very confident in the people I spoke with, and stand behind the story, and it's accuracy.


Seattle: Do you have any insight about Russ Grimm or are you just guessing? Do you envision the Redskins doing anything to prevent him from becoming the Steelers head coach if Bill Cowher leaves?

Tom Friend: Grimm is just my speculation. Nothing inside on that one. But it would be bringing someone in who shares Gibbs's philosophy, who has great people skills and who loves the Redskins.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Tom -- very interesting and well-written piece. A couple quick questions:

To what extent do you think the sentiments of the "anonymous player" are shared by others in the locker room? I've read articles that try to minimize your reported state of disrepair. Do you think that discontent is truly systemic?

Also - some Monday morning quarterbacking - is the Redskins locker room really in a state of disrepair? In other words, your article gives the sense that things are simply too bad to be salvaged, yet the 'Skins D gave an inspired performance against Carolina. How do you think the highs and lows will ultimately settle in the locker room?


Tom Friend: That player said what the others were thinking. The morale was bad before last week, but if the coaches continue to simplify the defense, and not overcoach, the defense will continue to play well and the players will be content. Sometimes I wonder if Gregg Williams is trying to justify his salary, with all these stunts on the d-line and Cover 2 gimmicks. They let Shawn Springs cover Steve Smith one on one, and didn't blitz and expose Rogers, and got a rush with just straight pass rush. You saw an enthusiastic group. It can be fixed.


Washington, D.C.: You write: "With Archuleta, it doesn't appear they ever gave him a chance.

If not for Prioleau's injury, he would've benched for the season opener."

So in other words, he DID get a chance... and stunk so bad that he got replaced by journeyman special teams guy (Vernon Fox).

Tom Friend: I guess what I'm saying is, they kind of made their decision in preseason...and they all stunk. Including Sean Taylor. When Archuleta got benched, after Dallas, did it get any better in Philly or Tampa? Archuleta was bad, but they all were. He wanted to sign in Chicago, and Williams told his agent that he and Marcus Washington would be blitzing endlessly. Archuleta, over the last five years, has more sacks than any safety in the NFL, or pretty close. And they simply put him in coverage from Day 1. That's coaching.


Naperville, Ill.: Your article placed a lot of blame on the coaching staff, especially Gregg Williams. Do you think that there is also an issue with the players and how they respond to the coaching?

Tom Friend: Of course the players deserve blame, too. But Williams, I'm told, has ticked off the players for never taking blame himself. I think the consensus is that players know that in Buffalo, Williams wore out his welcome, and over these last five games, we'll find out if he wore it out here, too. These last five games, I believe, will tell a lot about what happens this offseason. I think Williams, who thought Pierce and Smoot and Clark, etc., were replaceable, won't have as much freedom to pick and choose his players.


Washington, D.C.: Tom, there was a recurring theme in your article of Gregg Williams's belief that players are expendable, and it does sound like a bad thing, but it also sounds strikingly similar to what New England and Philly believe, and their formulas seem to work. What's the difference?

NE and Philly consistently cut loyal players they think are no longer valuable -- from Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Corey Simon to Jeremiah Trotter. You would think that this type of management would demoralize those teams as it seems to have done to the 'Skins, but the results say otherwise.

Tom Friend: There are a core of great players that New England keeps around. The Bruschis, etc. Philly, too. And they replenish through the draft. The Redskins draft a McIntosh, and don't play him! And I think maybe those other teams buy into their coaches a little better than in D.C. Belichick once told his team, if you buy in and we lose, than okay. But if you buy in and we win, then you've got to trust me. Guess what? He won.


Leonardtown, Md.: Hello Tom,

Is there any hope some type of GM will be hired after this season? It seems to me the downfall of the defense can be directly attributed to poor personnel decisions over the last several years.

Tom Friend: This must be said. If Gibbs doesn't blow out Coles, there might've been cap room to keep a Pierce and a Smoot. That's what I was told. So some of these poor decisions were salary cap related. When it was borderline whether to keep Pierce or not, Williams told the front office he was replaceable. So, they let him go...This is a total organizational problem.


Kensington, Md.: Is your article an indictment of the regular beat reporters that follow this team, specifically LaCanfora and Bryant from The Washington Post? Why did it take a guy from ESPN to come in here and tell us what was REALLY going on? Sports radio hosts like Steve Czaben have been begging the beat media to start asking tougher questions. Why couldn't these reporters see this coming??

Tom Friend: I'm sure Jason and Howard are asking the right questions, but I've been in their shoes, and when you're in that building every day, and trying to get behind the so-called Berlin Wall there, it's tough to sort through the spin and also tough to get the players away from the building where they feel comfortable talking. What I was able to do was get a player away from the building. It's so hard to do. I've been in their shoes. They're doing a fine job. It's just one of those things...


Alexandria, Va.: So Gregg Williams seemed like he was next in line to be the head coach after Gibbs. What now -- is he going to get fired after this season?

Tom Friend: I don't think Williams will be fired, but I don't think he's ever gonna be head coach here. Just an educated guess. Educated.


Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

Thanks for the article. I hope it shakes up the team for the better. Your "source" should be given a medal. Question: Would you go to jail to protect a source like the San Fran/BALCO reporters?

Tom Friend: I'd have to. It's the nature of the beast. When someone gives you information, as long as they're protected, you have to honor it.


Maryland: You mention how Gregg Williams feels that players don't make the defense, his scheme makes the defense. Why did he push so hard for Archuleta, Carter, and McIntosh then?

Tom Friend: Well, he's no dummy, either. He's not gonna take you and I and go play the Falcons. But he believed guys like Pierce and Arrington were replaceable. Ask the Giants if Pierce is replaceable? They're bad now, but without him, they're Lions bad.


Rockville, Md.: Can the Redskins still make the playoffs?


Tom Friend: Last year, even when they were 5-6, there was a sense they could run the table. Just by how they were playing and who was on their schedule and where the games were played. This year, you have to say, if they play like they did against Carolina, they can beat the Falcons and Eagles and Giants at home and the Rams in St. Louis. It's the Saints game that could ruin them. But they need a lot of help and need Jason Campbell to be unbelievable.


Rochester, N.Y.: Do you think the loss of Clark has hurt Taylor? And what's up with Duckett?

Tom Friend: Yes, losing Clark hurt Taylor. Taylor is in a zone on the field, doesn't take criticism well. And Clark apparently had chemistry with the kid. As for Duckett, you fans better hope the Broncos start winning and the Redskins lose a couple, otherwise that trade will mean the team has to flip-flop first rounders with Denver. The trade called for a high third round pick, and by a points system, that may mean flip-flopping those picks...This team needs to draft a he-man on the d-line. They need as high a pick as they can get.


Washington, D.C.: What do you make of Joe Bugel's comments about the Redskins renewed commitment to the run, and this being "still Joe's team. He'll do what he wants to do. He wants to run the ball."

Is this a shot at Saunders?

Tom Friend: Oh, I think that's got to be a shot. You've got to remember, Buges used to be a head coach, used to carry a lot of weight around Redskin Park. He was there the first time around, and he loved it last year when Portis strapped the team on his back. That being said, I believe Saunders will get it together, when he has a healthy Portis and a more experienced Campbell. They will be balanced. I don't think offense is this team's problem.


Washington, D.C.: Didn't Gregg Williams have similar problems relating to players in Buffalo that resulted in his being fired? Did the Redskins ignore this? What's in the future for underperforming Andre Carter, Warrick Holdman, and Lemar Marshall?

Tom Friend: People in Buffalo laugh at the mere mention of Gregg Williams. I was doing a story on Joe Mesi for the magazine a couple years back and heard the talk radio up there, and they thought Williams was a bum. At the time, he was turning the Redskins defense around, so I ignored it. But...


20010: Arrington was and is replaceable. Is that even up for debate?

Tom Friend: Agree. But the players in the locker room don't feel that way. LaVar was not the player he used to be, but he was at least physical. And this team has not played physical at all. Marshall, who must still not be over his shoulder injury, is not hitting people. They need to be physical again, and that's the one thing LaVar brought. If LaVar wasn't just a diva, he might still be there. He wanted out, Williams wanted him out. But the defense misses him, and it hurt morale.


Arlington, Tex.: Do you think your article disrespected Joe Gibbs or the 'Skins organization in any way?

It looks like it might motivate the 'Skins...

Tom Friend: This wasn't intended to disrespect Gibbs at all. I'm a Washingtonian, I have a passion for the team, and I wanted to find out what was going on with the most underachieving team in the league this year. What I learned opened my eyes and hopefully some others.


Ballston, Va.: I'm sure you'll get a lot of questions about your expose on the 'Skins, but I'd like to ask a question about Art Monk. Is the selection committee finally going to do the right thing this year and put him in the Hall?

Tom Friend: Let's end it on an '80s question, that seems appropriate. I guess, since Peter King has changed his mind, Art has a shot. But he needed to be in anyway. He retired as the NFL's all time leader in receptions, he set the standard with 100-plus receptions in a single year. He was the third down go-to guy who got all the coverage. He was the quiet leader who, along with Don Warren and Monte Coleman and others, showed the other Redskins how important hard work was. He was all class, and he personified the '80s Gibbs Redskins. I think you can all question the class of this year's team. Was it classy of this player to open up? I can't answer that. But it appears Williams needed to be taken down a notch, at least this player and his teammates felt that way. So maybe you thank this player. After Sunday's game, I heard Gregg Williams actually praising his players. Honestly, you don't hear that too much. Maybe a message got through, maybe not. Check back in 5 weeks, and in the offseason.

Hey, it was great to be home (even if it was for only 75 minutes). Gotta run and prepare for "Jim Rome Is Burning." Take care!


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