As they prepare for their first playoff game in seven years, the Washington Redskins believe good things are in store this month in the wide-open NFC postseason derby. And they are all but certain that good things are in store for them in the coming years.
Club officials think they have a solid foundation in place, and they have three first-round choices in next April's college draft to strengthen a team that this season won the franchise's first NFC East title in eight years.
"This is just the beginning," Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder said this week. " . . . We think we have a tremendous amount of momentum heading into the future."
Snyder's decision to retain Coach Norv Turner and director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato has given continuity to the front office. The team will enter next season with an established quarterback and running back, provided it re-signs tailback Stephen Davis. And even after signing Davis, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency this offseason, the Redskins should have sufficient salary cap room to add a few players.
"We don't have a salary cap issue like San Francisco," Snyder said. "We have a lot of youth. We have a good nucleus of players, and we have the draft picks. . . . With Vinny's talent and the three number ones, we have a special opportunity. Charley Casserly [the team's former general manager] had a great draft last spring and deserves credit for his stewardship. Now the pressure is on Vinny."
The Redskins' problems center on their defense, which has been near the bottom of the NFC all season while allowing 354.4 yards a game, and inconsistent and often poor play by the special teams. These problems have led to speculation that Turner might shuffle his coaching staff in the offseason. Offensively, the Redskins believe they will get several more quality seasons out of their key players. Quarterback Brad Johnson is 31 but has had his healthiest season in the NFL, starting every game. Pro Bowl guard Tre Johnson is 28. Michael Westbrook, at 27, this season became the big-play receiver the Redskins expected he would be, and fellow wide receiver Albert Connell is 25. Tight end Stephen Alexander is 24. The club's top two picks in last April's draft, cornerback Champ Bailey and offensive tackle Jon Jansen, started every game.
Davis, who set a team record with 1,405 rushing yards this season, is 25 and has had only one NFL season of wear and tear from being a featured running back. He has had his breakthrough season at a good time, given his pending free agent status.
Snyder has vowed to make Davis a career-long Redskin, and Cerrato has pledged to resolve Davis's contract situation before the NFL free agent signing period begins in March. If the Redskins are unable to sign him to a multiyear deal, they likely would name him their franchise player--guaranteeing him of a salary of about $3.7 million next season and virtually ensuring that he would stay, because any team signing him would have to give the Redskins two first-round draft selections.
Next season's Redskins will be a blend of old and young. Cornerback Darrell Green will be 40, and wide receiver Irving Fryar will be 38. Team officials expect Green to play an 18th season, and Snyder has invited Fryar back for another season. Redskins officials also seem increasingly receptive to the return of running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell, who will be 32 by the opening of the 2000 season.
"We're a team that could be a lot better next year," Fryar said. "We'd be better just by keeping the nucleus together, and everyone having an extra year of familiarity with each other. Then when you figure in the draft picks we have, we will be better, no doubt."
The Redskins will have the second choice in the draft if the New Orleans Saints lose on Sunday at Carolina. Most NFL people seem to expect the Cleveland Browns to take Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick with the top pick. That likely would leave the Redskins selecting Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, who would give them the sort of playmaker in their defensive front seven that they lack. The Redskins also will have a mid-first-round pick, the one that formerly belonged to the Panthers, and a mid- to late-round selection, their own choice. They could use those picks to fill needs along the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary. Or they could package them and make a renewed effort to trade for a big-name player, such as Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Joey Galloway.
The club might have interest in wide receiver Jerry Rice if he is released by the San Francisco 49ers, and Snyder has made it clear that he will not be shy about pursuing major trades and free agent signings. For now, however, the offseason planning has been shelved and the Redskins are concentrating only on Sunday's regular season finale against the Miami Dolphins and their playoff preparations, Snyder said. "It's early for us," Snyder said. "All we're focused on right now is Sunday. And then it really heats up."
These are upbeat days for the Redskins, who hope to recapture their glory days of the 1980s and early '90s, when they won three Super Bowls under late owner Jack Kent Cooke and former coach Joe Gibbs.
"I can't tell the future," Green said. "But we're back in the playoffs. We've got the beginnings. We've got to build from that."