The Washington Redskins promised changes in the aftermath of Sunday's loss in Dallas, and yesterday they made some. The team signed a pair of former NFL starters, cornerback Mark McMillian and linebacker James Francis, to serve as backups on the club's beleaguered defense.
To create roster spots, the Redskins released safety Toby Wright and placed linebacker Fred Strickland on the injured reserve list, ending his season.
Cornerback Darryl Pounds, who committed a costly pass-interference penalty in the fourth quarter of the 38-20 loss to the Cowboys, survived yesterday's roster trims. But club officials plan to move him to safety and reduce his playing time.
McMillian will replace Pounds as the third cornerback in the Redskins' five-defensive-back package on passing downs, perhaps beginning with Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears at Redskins Stadium. He will back up starting cornerbacks Darrell Green and Champ Bailey. Francis will back up outside linebacker Greg Jones, and could become a starter at some point because Jones has a hernia.
McMillian and Francis each will receive a prorated portion of the minimum veteran's salary of $400,000.
"I knew this was a good fit for me," said McMillian, who has been a starter for most of his eight NFL seasons but was cut by the San Francisco 49ers last week. "Champ Bailey is going to be a great player in this league. Darrell Green is a great player in this league. People say, 'Why don't you go somewhere where you can start?' I wanted to be with a team on the rise and help them make the playoffs."
The Redskins targeted their third-down pass defense for changes after their most recent loss to Dallas, which left them with a 4-2 record and tied with the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East. They are ranked 30th among the 31 NFL teams in total defense, and last in pass defense.
McMillian has 22 interceptions during an NFL career spent with the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and 49ers. He tied for the AFC lead in 1997 with eight interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He started the first six games of this season for the 49ers and had an interception return for a touchdown, but was called on his cellular phone last week by director of player personnel Terry Donahue and told he was being cut for salary cap reasons.
"I was shocked they did it the way they did it," McMillian said yesterday. "You don't go from starting and scoring a touchdown to being on the street."
The Redskins contacted him last week, he said. The Minnesota Vikings also were in pursuit and wanted him to play against the 49ers last Sunday. But McMillian, 29, said he decided the Vikings weren't the right fit for him. He was scheduled to visit Pittsburgh and meet with Steelers officials later yesterday, but never left the Washington area after he and Francis worked out at Redskin Park in the morning.
He is 5 feet 7, and said he has tried to emulate the 5-8 Green. But his size has worked against him at times. When the Chiefs released him after last season, he said, they told him they wanted a bigger cornerback.
"Every year I get a bad rap," McMillian said. "It's a constant question. People say, 'How can you guard this guy?' It's not a problem for me. I've been doing it for eight years."
Redskins officials spent late Sunday and Monday debating whether to release Wright, Pounds or cornerback Tim Denton. They picked Wright, who was signed by the Redskins a month ago when safety Jamel Williams was cut. Wright still was working his way back from a serious knee injury. He played Sunday after being on the Redskins' inactive list for two games, but he acknowledged yesterday that he still was several weeks away from being at full speed.
"I'm okay with it," Wright said. "My road back has been too long for me to get upset about this. . . . They've got a good thing going here. . . . They gave me a chance."
Pounds kept a key Cowboys drive alive Sunday with a pass-interference penalty on a third-and-19 play. He already had begun to lose playing time to Denton and now, as a reserve safety, his time on the field likely will be reduced even further.
"I'm paid to play football," Pounds said. "I'm here. I put my heart into it. Whatever they want me to do, I'll do."
Francis, 31, was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals at the end of training camp after starting 129 of his 133 games over the previous nine seasons. He could be a valuable addition. Jones is delaying surgery for his hernia and said he plans to continue playing, but he could be lost at any time. Francis said the Redskins contacted him Sunday.
"This was a spur-of-the-moment thing," said Francis, the 12th pick in the first round of the 1990 college draft out of Baylor, where he also played basketball. ". . . I want to win. I've been losing for nine years."
He has watched the Bengals flounder again this season without him, and a tryout with the Baltimore Ravens a few weeks ago led to nothing.
"The Bengals got what they asked for," Francis said. "They wanted young players, and they've got them."
Strickland was signed as a free agent during the offseason to back up Derek Smith at middle linebacker. He was moved to outside linebacker on the second-team defense when the Redskins signed Kurt Gouveia to be Smith's backup. He hurt his knee while blocking on a kickoff return during the Redskins' win at Arizona 10 days ago, and underwent surgery last week. The Redskins originally hoped to have him back within a few weeks, but later found out he has a torn posterior cruciate ligament that will keep him sidelined longer.
"They're looking for everything possible to help the defense as soon as possible," Strickland said. "I am disappointed because I didn't have a chance to help this team and show what I can do."