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Marching Orders

Analysis: As Redskins Ponder Their Future, They Could Learn From Ravens, Falcons And Dolphins. The Lessons Include Committing to a Plan, Starting With Linemen.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; Page E01

Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn speaks often about building a powerhouse, one that is a perennial Super Bowl contender and not merely a team that makes playoff appearances. But for Redskins fans, who have not enjoyed a regular season with at least 11 victories since the 1991 season, when the team last played in the Super Bowl, the goal might be far simpler: Be like the Falcons. Or the Dolphins. Or, best of all, the Ravens.

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As the Redskins began organizational meetings last week, plotting their approach to the draft and free agency, they needed to look no further than this season's playoffs for turnaround templates. Atlanta, Miami and Baltimore combined to win 10 of their 48 games in 2007 but used an effective draft and smart free agent acquisitions to dramatically reverse their fortunes.

Can the Redskins do the same?

An analysis of the three teams, all of which had rookie head coaches like the Redskins, shows each took a different path to success but shared a commitment to developing and following a well-scripted plan. Each either added or had on hand a proven personnel executive with Super Bowl experience. Each got significant contributions from high draft picks. And, undoubtedly, each team had its share of good fortune.

"You have to have a plan everyone believes in, you have to make good decisions and stick with your plan," said Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian, selected the NFL's executive of the year five times while guiding Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis. "That's really how you begin and continue the building process."

The Redskins begin with numerous holes to patch, according to several team sources interviewed for this story, some of who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to comment about the organization. The team's objectives, according to these sources, begin with improving the offensive and defensive lines and also include finding players with big-play potential. The team also wants to get better performances from its young players.

"I can't stand here and say that we did enough because we're not still playing and we're 8-8," Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, said after the season. "To me, if you want to improve, you've got to look at things that you did and ask, 'How do we get better?' Eight and eight is not where you want to be. What do you have to do to improve?"

Potential top-tier free agents such as Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross play positions that are areas of need for Washington, but it remains unclear whether the team plans to be active in free agency. In the draft, the Redskins hold the 13th overall pick and one selection each in the third, fifth and sixth rounds.

Before last season, the Redskins added 14 new players to the opening day roster but only one, safety Chris Horton, a seventh-round draft pick, made a significant contribution. The other nine draft picks, plus acquisitions such as Jason Taylor, Erasmus James, Alfred Fincher and Justin Hamilton, did not meet expectations. That left a heavy burden on veterans, who could not build upon a 6-2 start.

"You need everybody," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "You bring guys in because you need them to step up and help us get to where we want to be as a team. You can't look at it like you don't need certain guys. Everybody has to help."

Ravens Build Lines

Jared Gaither was a 6-foot-9, 350-pound offensive lineman at the University of Maryland whose potential was clouded only by questions about his maturity and discipline. After being declared academically ineligible, he left school in June 2007 and entered the NFL's supplemental draft.

College Park is nearly equidistant from Redskins Park in Ashburn and the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md., and the Redskins and Ravens each had reasons to be interested in Gaither even though he lasted just two seasons at Maryland. Baltimore's future Hall of Fame left tackle, Jonathan Ogden, was mulling retirement and the Redskins' right tackle, Jon Jansen, was beginning to struggle in pass protection.

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