The Washington Redskins haven't been to the playoffs in six seasons, and during the just-completed offseason they had the daunting task of trying to finish assembling a team that can win this year, while rebuilding for the future at the same time -- all amid a tumultuous ownership change.
Yet as they approach a 1999 season of high hopes and unyielding pressure, the Redskins are confident they succeeded on all fronts. They believe they have managed to improve the team while keeping their prized commodities -- three first-round selections in next April's draft -- that could enable the Redskins to reestablish themselves as one of the NFL's elite teams in the not-too-distant future.
If the Redskins manage to reach the playoffs this season -- and turn their three first-round draft picks next year into future championships -- it will have been a remarkable, and somewhat ironic achievement. It will have been done despite an ownership change that all but paralyzed the franchise for months. And it will have been done despite a transition in the front office that occurred following new owner Daniel Snyder's arrival in July. Vinny Cerrato became the director of player personnel, Coach Norv Turner's authority over player moves increased and the person who began this reconstruction attempt, former general manager Charley Casserly, was ousted. For all of the criticism Casserly received over the years about his first-round draft choices and free agent acquisitions, it appears his final moves have left the Redskins with a foundation on which they can build a winner.
"I told Dan Snyder when he got the team, he was getting the club at the right time," Casserly said recently. "... When Dan Snyder bought the club, he got it in good [salary] cap position for this year. To have three number one picks ensures the future of the franchise beyond any other team in the league. And they've got a good young club here."
Cerrato agrees that he inherited a good situation, thanks largely to maneuvers the club has made after last season, when they finished 6-10 after an 0-7 start. Through personnel moves and position switches, the Redskins have changed the starters at 17 of 24 positions, including kicking specialists. Now it will be up to Turner and Cerrato to make certain the Redskins emerge from this season -- and then next year's draft -- in a great situation.
Next April, the Redskins could become the first NFL team in 16 years to make three first-round selections in a draft, and Cerrato said: "It has to be the foundation. We have to add to the nucleus we have. It enables you to build for the long term. You're building for the future at the same time you're reloading."
The situation didn't look all that promising when the offseason began. The Redskins had two first-round selections in the 1999 and 2000 drafts, thanks to their trade of defensive tackle Sean Gilbert to the Carolina Panthers in April 1998. But they had plenty of problems too. The impending sale of the team by Jack Kent Cooke's estate had placed the team's ownership situation in chaos. Casserly and Turner didn't know how long they would keep their jobs since the team's lack of success in recent years made them vulnerable to dismissal if someone other than John Kent Cooke, the late owner's son, purchased the franchise. The team didn't have a quarterback because 1998 starter Trent Green was eligible for free agency and veteran backups Gus Frerotte and Jeff Hostetler were on their way out of the organization.
New York real estate mogul Howard Milstein struck a deal with the Jack Kent Cooke estate in January to purchase the franchise for $800 million. Milstein ended up withdrawing his bid in April after it became clear he could not secure league approval. But the three months in between were the crucial period for constructing this year's team. Amid all the uncertainty, Casserly and Turner simply took a business-as-usual approach. It wasn't always easy.
They had no problems making some of the moves that will shape this season's team and could shape its future. Terry Aallen, the team's starting running back for the past four seasons, was released, leaving Stephen Davis and Skip Hicks to compete for the job. They thought free agent middle linebacker Marvcus Patton, the team's leading tackler three of the past four seasons, wanted too much money to re-sign. They decided to let him leave. They made Shawn Barber, Derek Smith and Greg Jones -- all of whom had been acquired in recent drafts -- the starting linebackers. And they told Ken Harvey his role would be reduced.
But the critical days for the Redskins during the offseason were Feb. 15 and April 17. Seemingly unrelated, but closely intertwined, they produced new starters at three crucial positions. February 15 began with Green accepting a contract offer from the St. Louis Rams and ended with the Redskins trading for new starting quarterback Brad Johnson. April 17, the opening day of the draft, included trades that yielded cornerback Champ Bailey, tackle Jon Jansen and a third first-round pick in the 2000 draft.
Casserly and Turner had planned to re-sign Green, but Milstein's agreement with the estate gave him the right to be consulted on all player moves, and the relationship between the Milstein group, the estate and John Kent Cooke -- then the club president -- was uneasy. Redskins officials felt the estate and the Milstein group prevented them from negotiating with Green, who ended up on the market when the NFL free agent signing period began Feb. 12.
Three days later, the Redskins found out that the price to re-sign Green would be more than the $16.5 million, four-year deal he had been offered by the Rams. Meanwhile, Casserly had been laying the groundwork for a possible trade with the Minnesota Vikings for Johnson. After the Redskins chose not to meet Green's contract demands and Green picked the Rams, Casserly completed the deal by sending Minnesota the 11th pick in the first round of this year's draft (Washington's pick), plus a third-round pick this year and a second-round pick in 2000.
Casserly received some criticism for surrendering too much. But the Redskins knew by then that, with their pick in this year's draft, the fifth overall, they wouldn't get a top quarterback because Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith were set to go in the first three selections. They also knew that to have any chance to reach the playoffs this season, they needed a reliable quarterback.
"You're not going to be a playoff-caliber team or be a successful playoff team without a good quarterback," Casserly said. "You're going nowhere unless you've got a good quarterback."
Casserly acknowledges he was making a relatively short-term move by getting Johnson, who will turn 31 on Monday and has a history of injuries.
"Is it a 10-year deal? No," Casserly said. "But just about everything in this business is a three- or four-year deal."
But team officials also took a long-term view on draft day and afterward. They passed on an opportunity to draft Heisman Trophy-winning running back Ricky Williams to make a deal in which they acquired all of the New Orleans Saints' draft picks this year, plus the Saints' first-round selection next year. The Redskins then made trades of draft picks with the Chicago Bears and used their eventual first-round pick on Bailey, whom they had decided was the best all-around player in the entire draft.
As draft day continued, Redskins officials discussed trading one of next year's first-round choices for a high second-rounder this year, but chose not to. However, another deal with the Bears gave them good enough position in the second round to pick Jansen.
But Casserly and Turner weren't done. Late in the the offseason, they contemplated possible deals involving one of next year's first-round picks, but they signed three veteran free agents -- defensive end Marco Coleman, tackle Andy Heck and fullback Larry Centers -- for relatively cheap prices. All three will start.
During training camp, after Casserly had agreed to step aside as the team's GM and Snyder had hired Cerrato and given Turner the final say over all the team's player moves, the Redskins continued to consider a high-impact trade. Instead, at least for now, they settled for coaxing the seventh-leading pass catcher in NFL history, wide receiver Irving Fryar, out of retirement and negotiating with retired defensive end Chris Doleman.
"We explored everything," Cerrato said, "but we weren't going to be stupid with the picks. We weren't going to give them away for an older guy who'd play one or two years for us. We'd have to get a young guy who would be part of our nucleus for a long time, the type of guy we'd get with a pick in the draft. We'll be smart with what we do. We did find out that everybody calls us first now because we have three number-ones. If they're interested in getting rid of a guy, they call us."
Getting three first-round picks signed in a single year could be unmanageable, and a trade remains possible. (The last NFL team to make three first-round selections in a draft was the Cincinnati Bengals in 1984. But after using their first-round choices on linebacker Ricky Hunley, defensive end Pete Koch and offensive lineman Brian Blados, they took quarterback Boomer Esiason in Round 2, and Esiason led them to the Super Bowl five seasons later.)
Meanwhile, Turner said he seems pleased with where the team has been recently and where he believes it is going.
"I like the offseason we had," he said. "I think we did some good things and got better as a team, and I think we're in a position where we can continue to get better in the future."