Sometimes, dispassion and distance are required to see more clearly the things that are closest to us. For example, how good are the Washington Redskins' players, assembled by former general manager Charley Casserly, who are about to report to training camp in Frostburg, Md., today?
For years, the Sporting News has done preseason NFL evaluations. They don't attempt to be novel. That's their strength. They represent the largely uncontroversial, but not-too-far-off-the-mark, conventional wisdom. This month, TSN gave out 146 citations for The Best in the Business in the NFL. This list included 9 quarterbacks, 9 running backs, 9 fullbacks, 9 tight ends, 15 wide receivers, 16 offensive linemen, 12 defensive linemen, 10 linebackers, 17 defensive backs, 20 special teams players, 6 head coaches and 14 assistant coaches.
Even if you were only a weakside linebacker who specialized in pass coverage or a fullback who could block, but not run or catch, there was a category for your particular talent. How many of these gentlemen played for the Redskins last season?
After 10 full seasons as the man in charge of amassing talent -- through the draft, trades and free agency -- that was Casserly's legacy.
No wonder Casserly worked so hard to keep John Kent Cooke in control of the team. With a fat budget, generous ownership and a storied tradition to sell, Casserly leaves behind a team without a single proven offensive or defensive star in his prime. The most respected Redskin, and still perhaps the best, is Darrell Green. He's five years older than the new owner.
For making Casserly a "consultant" who is no longer in charge of anything of much importance, new owner Dan Snyder merits a chorus of "Hail to the Redskins." For every personnel decision of the past decade that didn't work, or only partially succeeded, or only helped stop the bleeding for a couple of years, there's usually been a plausible reason or an injury, an explanation or an asterisk. But, at some point, you have to judge the whole performance -- no excuses, no inside-the-NFL subtlety. The further you get away from the mystique of the Redskins' glorious past, the more clearly you realize that this team has no great players whatsoever and almost no very good ones.
Line up the Redskins' best passer, runner, receiver, blocker, tackler, sacker and coverage guy. The real core football players. Compare them to the league norm. It's embarrassing. Quarterback Brad Johnson, coming off knee surgery, is an immobile, injury-prone journeyman being asked to work behind the worst offensive line in the league (61 sacks). Tailback Skip Hicks is unproven. With Leslie Shepherd gone, Albert Connell is the team's best wide receiver. (Don't even mention Michael Westbrook's name.) Does Tre Johnson actually play in games anymore? Dana Stubblefield seems to have left his heart in San Francisco. How many can name the Redskins' starting linebackers? Greg Jones, Derek Smith and Shawn Barber. Green is the best player of the lot.
No matter how limited Norv Turner and his coaches may be at developing talent, Casserly has completed a dismal and unlucky tenure. He has drafted guys who just couldn't play and big talents who wouldn't work or couldn't be coached. He has signed supposed stars for huge sums who immediately got fat, got hurt or got lazy. He has had high draft picks report late to camp. Once, he couldn't sign his "franchise player" for an entire year.
Most recently, he could have drafted Ricky Williams, but opted for a pocketful of high draft picks instead. What Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Barry Sanders were to their eras, Williams may be to his. If so, then Casserly's last big decision, with Turner's usual input, could still be his worst.
Despite all this, the Redskins could still have a bright long-term future under Snyder. Emphasis on long term.
Thanks to the Saints' lust for Williams, Washington has three first-round draft picks in 2000. One or more may be traded soon if a disgruntled running back (especially Jamal Anderson) is available. This year's top draft pick, Champ Bailey, may become a quality cornerback. In a year or two, rookie right tackle Jon Jansen could be special. Free agent Larry Centers, a pass-catching fullback in his 11th season, should help. (He also made that TSN "Best" list for Arizona.)
However, the Redskins' present still remains extremely problematic.
Turner says Snyder "wants" and "expects" to make the playoffs. That's a nice sentiment. Especially if you just paid the highest price in pro sports history for a 6-10 team that hasn't been to the playoffs in six years. But it's also a pressure of expectation that may be insupportable.
Snyder has arrived like a cyclone. That's refreshing. For the past two years, the Redskins have been a complacent, undisciplined country-club team run by a benevolent owner and a sweetheart of a coach who is bland and hasn't motivated his players well enough.
Snyder can get as ginned up as he wants and fire everybody in sight. Last week, he netted 25 pink slips; then his new PR man lasted three days. That doesn't change the facts. This is a team that, for all the good will and hard work in the world, is closer to 6-10 again than to the playoffs. Self-delusion may be the Redskins' -- and Snyder's -- toughest early-season foe.
"This team is on the cusp of being a great football team," said Centers when he signed. "From what I've seen, for whatever reason, in the middle of the year their focus has gone away at times."
Yes, their focus has gone away at times. The problem often starts with everybody remembering the snap count. That would be Turner's department. Some new head coaches, because of exceptional backgrounds as assistants, begin with the benefit of the doubt. But how can it last for five years?
Last season, out of necessity or disgust, Turner switched to youth at midseason and finished 6-3 against a soft schedule. Now, he plans to start at least 13 players who are either new to the team or in new positions since the opener in 1998. These are Turner's hand-picked kids. They match his system and his preferences, both in work habits and physical skills. If Turner ends up being fired, what happens to this youth movement? To a degree, Snyder's hands are tied. A new coach would have to blow it all up and start again.
Snyder "wants to make the playoffs and he wants to have success when you get in the playoffs. It's what he expects to have happen. It's what the Redskins fans expect to have happen," said Turner recently. "And it's what we're working to have happen."
But it's not what we or Snyder should expect. This is not a squad on the "cusp" of greatness. Or a team that can be whipped and lashed into the playoffs by ownership demands. It's a young team with energy, but no identify whatsoever. The next time Johnson throws a football to Westbrook, it will be the first time.
Snyder's excitement is contagious. When he warns that well-paid, wide-load linemen better show up with less blubber, he's on the right track. Some toughness at the top, plus a little fear, is needed. For details, see Charley.
Nonetheless, there better be a friendly handshake hidden inside that fire-'em-all iron glove of the Snyder group. This is a fragile, worried team that needs to be understood, and tolerated, not just kicked in the rear end to win or else. Snyder may have paid $800 million for the Redskins, but he needs to grasp that it may be a few years before they're actually worth it.