In order to believe the Washington Redskins will be better next season, it's necessary to believe two things -- that Joe Gibbs will be a far better coach than he was last season, and that Patrick Ramsey will provide the club with far better quarterbacking than it got last season.
Both are possible. But neither is a given, and the Redskins have had to endure an unusually unkind offseason.
Normally, they are the NFL's king of the spring. That has been the time of the year when the Redskins, during the ownership tenure of Daniel Snyder, usually have done more than any other team in the league to create championship dreams, only to have them dashed when the harsh reality of the season arrives. The Redskins can only hope that they've taken the opposite approach this time around, that the season will be better for them than the offseason has been.
Gibbs often looked overmatched last season in his return to the NFL, and perhaps that should have been expected after such a long layoff. But those who watched the magic that he performed in his first coaching go-around expected more, expected a seamless transition back to being the sideline virtuoso who won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks. It didn't happen. His defensive coaching staff, full of people overqualified for their jobs who weren't relearning the way the pro game works, got the job done, but Gibbs and his contemporaries on his offensive coaching staff didn't. Right tackle Jon Jansen wasn't trying to be derogatory when he said during ESPN's draft coverage that the Redskins were running a 1992 offense last season, but it was telling.
Gibbs has attempted to update his offense by hiring Bill Musgrave, who was fired as the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator, as his quarterbacks coach. But there remain questions about Gibbs's ability to operate in today's NFL, particularly when it comes to assembling the roster. In his return, Gibbs has taken on the role of roster architect, and many in the league remain unconvinced that the Hall of Fame coach has learned how to navigate the salary-cap system that he didn't have to worry about during his previous Redskins tenure.
The Redskins' trade of wide receiver Laveranues Coles in March came about because Gibbs had told his players that he'd try to accommodate any player who wanted out. The problem is, that's not a promise that a coach should be making under a salary-cap system. A team can't go around trading a player two seasons after giving him a $13 million signing bonus, whether the player wants out or not. In this case, the Redskins had to overpay left tackle Chris Samuels in a contract extension, lowering his impact against next season's salary cap, to help offset the cap hit created by Coles being traded to the New York Jets for wideout Santana Moss.
The Moss-for-Coles deal isn't as bad for the Redskins, cap implications aside, as some have made it out to be. Coles is a better player when both are healthy. But Coles never was the same player for the Redskins that he was before hurting his foot early in his first season with the club, and it's uncertain whether he ever will be the same player again, given that he has refused to undergo surgery for the injury. Moss might not be a true No. 1 receiver. But this version of Coles wasn't that either, so the Redskins really haven't lost much in that regard.
The trade for Moss and the signing of free agent David Patten give the Redskins a new set of receivers, with Coles gone and fellow former starter Rod Gardner on his way out. It can be argued that the Redskins gained a little bit in the remaking of their wideout corps; it can be argued that they lost a little bit. The difference probably is not significant either way. Tailback Clinton Portis returns for a second season with the team in which he and the coaching staff should be more in sync with one another, and the Redskins have high hopes for their offensive line with the addition of free-agent center Casey Rabach and the return of Jansen from the torn Achilles' tendon that cost him the entire 2004 season. Tight end Chris Cooley could be poised for big things after amassing 37 catches as a rookie last season.
But the offense will click only if the Redskins can find a way to get some NFL-caliber play at quarterback, something they didn't get last season. By obtaining the 25th overall pick in the draft in a trade with Denver and using it on Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell, Gibbs sent Ramsey a message that he isn't confident that Ramsey is the long-term answer at quarterback for the club. Still, Gibbs desperately needs Ramsey to be the short-term solution.
The vote of no-confidence was nothing new for Ramsey, who has gotten less-than-supportive treatment virtually from the moment the Redskins selected him with the final choice of the first round of the 2002 draft. The Redskins, during a bitter set of negotiations with agent Jimmy Sexton on Ramsey's first NFL contract, contemplated trading Ramsey to the Chicago Bears before they even signed him. Former coach Steve Spurrier showed little regard for Ramsey's well-being in 2003, Ramsey's first season as an NFL starter. Gibbs arrived and promptly went out and spent a fortune to get a new starter, Mark Brunell -- who, as it turned out, simply couldn't play any more.
Still, this isn't a time for self-pity by Ramsey, for he enters the 2005 season with the same chance that Drew Brees had last season in San Diego. The Chargers, remember, had made it clear entering last season that they no longer thought Brees was their franchise quarterback. They had even more hope and more money invested in their prized rookie quarterback, Philip Rivers, than the Redskins will have invested in Campbell. Brees seemingly was only keeping the seat warm for Rivers, but then Brees went out and was one of the league's most valuable players last season.
The Redskins, meantime, can only hope to be as good on defense as they were last season. Defensive boss Gregg Williams coached as well as anyone in the league, but now he must compensate for the departures of cornerback Fred Smoot and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce in free agency. The Redskins got Auburn cornerback Carlos Rogers with the ninth overall choice in the draft, and signed linebacker Warrick Holdman as a free agent.
Williams presumably will have back LaVar Arrington after the linebacker's injury-marred 2004 season. The question is whether Arrington will take the necessary steps to fit in. The Redskins were successful on defense last season because Williams's players trusted his system and did what they were told to do. They made sure they were where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there. Playing with such structure and discipline never has been Arrington's forte, and he and Williams will have to try to find a way to coexist more harmoniously than Arrington and some of his previous defensive coaches did.
The Redskins can only wait and see how the legal process plays itself out with safety Sean Taylor, who faces felony assault charges in Florida after he allegedly pulled a gun on two individuals he thought had stolen two all-terrain vehicles from him. It appeared when the Redskins were deliberating last year about whether to choose Taylor or his former University of Miami teammate, tight end Kellen Winslow, with the fifth overall selection in the 2004 draft that they couldn't go wrong either way. As it turned out, they couldn't have gone right.
Taylor showed last season that he can, indeed, be a game-changing player at a position at which few dominant players come along. But his behavior has regressed from simply immature and unprofessional to, if these allegations are true, criminal and downright menacing, and Redskins officials are left wondering if he'll straighten himself out in time to avoid squandering his immense talent. Taylor at least participated in a recent phone call with Gibbs after failing to return the coach's calls earlier in the offseason, but the Redskins will be mere spectators to the process that will determine whether Taylor spends time in prison. Only after the legal process is completed will the league consider additional penalties.
When Gibbs came back, Redskins followers had every reason to believe that he could turn around the franchise as quickly as Bill Parcells had gotten the Dallas Cowboys back into the playoffs. The re-learning curve proved to be quite a bit steeper for Gibbs, but his commitment to staying and seeing the job through appears unwavering, at least at this point. Gibbs said when he returned that the task in front of him was daunting, that he realized that what he had accomplished previously no longer mattered and he would have to prove himself all over again. It sounded like typical Gibbs-speak at the time, but maybe he knew better than anyone else just how hard this would be.
Around the League
Kansas City reached a contract agreement over the weekend with free-agent wideout Az-Zahir Hakim. He replaces Johnnie Morton, who was released by the Chiefs after refusing to accept a pay cut. The Chiefs chose Hakim over fellow free-agent receiver Freddie Mitchell . . . .
Detroit agreed to a one-year, approximately $1.6 million contract with free agent cornerback R.W. McQuarters, who was cut by Chicago and pursued by a handful of teams. The addition of McQuarters could take the Lions out of the running to sign free agent cornerback Ty Law, who could have another round of auditions for interested clubs within the next two weeks . . . .
The New England Patriots received their latest Super Bowl rings Sunday at the home of owner Robert Kraft.
This concludes the NFL Insider's team-by-team roundup of offseason moves. Thanks for reading, and please rejoin us when the column resumes in late July as training camps open around the league.