Five prominent Redskins gathered around the leather sofas in the lobby of Redskins Park in May alongside two position coaches, all sharing stories about the one that got away. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, the central nervous system -- if not the very heart -- of Washington's 2004 defense had departed months earlier for the New York Giants, but he was far from forgotten.
They shared some anecdotes about Pierce's tenacity and work ethic, and the impromptu meeting broke off after one player stated the obvious, "Man, A.P. was a hell of a player. He's really going to be missed," and the rest of group nodded in agreement. The loss of Pierce was but one of many story lines in an at times tumultuous offseason for the Redskins.
There were no roster or coaching overhauls as in years past, with continuity the buzzword since Coach Joe Gibbs returned last season. But there was plenty of intrigue:
The loss of Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot, both hailed by coaches as core Redskins last year, in free agency.
The spats with starting wide receivers Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner, which led to the departure of both from Washington.
Safety Sean Taylor's absence from offseason activities and eventual arrest on felony assault charges in Miami.
Linebacker LaVar Arrington's continued criticism of the team.
With players reporting for training camp today, and scheduled for their first practice tomorrow, it remains to be seen if the events of the last six months will affect the club as it begins final preparations for the season.
"I actually think on the football side, there's been much less drama than usual," right tackle Jon Jansen, the team's longest serving player, said during the club's offseason training. "Much less than I'm used to. Relatively speaking, it's been a pretty dry offseason in terms of the roster, and that's been nice. The coaches made a big effort to keep the guys around and to keep the core guys the same."
After splurging on free agents last year, then signing left tackle Chris Samuels to a massive contract extension and absorbing a $9 million salary cap hit in trading Coles to the New York Jets for wide receiver Santana Moss, Washington had little room to go after high-priced free agents this time around. The team added center Casey Rabach and wideout David Patten to the offense.
Gibbs spoke frequently about the importance of retaining players like Smoot and Pierce, but they found better offers elsewhere (Smoot from Minnesota, Pierce from the New York Giants). A subsequent pursuit of free agent defensive lineman Courtney Brown proved fruitless; he signed with Denver instead.
"It surprised me a lot that me and Smoot both left," Pierce said during an offseason telephone interview. "Especially for me. I had no intention of going nowhere, and I made that point clear several times and I gave the Redskins every chance to match any offer I got. I'm real surprised neither one of us stayed, because I definitely thought if I left then they'd end up with Fred, or if Fred left they would sign me. Then I'm reading in the paper that they're going after this guy and that guy from another team, and there's money for them, so it does make you wonder."
Defensive tackle Brandon Noble said: "It's a business and it's run like a business. There's a guy here who's a salary cap guy. That's his job and obviously if you have somebody who has that position, then it's going to be hard for the rest of us to figure out everything that goes into decisions like that. It is tough to lose guys like that in that situation, but teams are always looking to upgrade and make changes, and you have to put your faith in the front office and staff."
Besides being a strong cornerback, Smoot was an intricate part of the team's chemistry and well liked as the resident funny man. "That's something we have to replace," Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington said this spring. "I'm sure guys will step up and keep it lively in the locker room. It's been kind of quiet without Smoot; he's the mouth of the south, but I think we have some other guys that can step in and do it."
Several players are contending to fill Pierce's role -- arguably the second-most important on the team behind the quarterback -- and although Washington selected cornerback Carlos Rogers with its top draft pick, veteran Walt Harris, who overcame a career-threatening knee injury last season, is expected to take Smoot's starting role. Rogers is battling foot and ankle injuries.
"We already looked at Walt like a starter last year," cornerback Shawn Springs said. "To us, it already felt like we had three starters because if you look at our packages last year we played a lot of nickel [five defensive backs], and a lot of the time I was on the inside and Walt was outside."
Coles and Gardner expressed their displeasure with the league's third-worst offense, and both were traded. Owner Daniel Snyder threatened to send Coles a television set at one point, implying Coles would be watching games and not playing on Sundays, and several NFL executives said they believed Coles to be a superior wide receiver to Moss, who had a year left on his contract but failed to report for offseason training until he received a six-year, $31 million extension.
The decision to trade a 2006 first-round pick in order to move up and draft quarterback Jason Campbell in the first round, with starter Patrick Ramsey, 26, already on the roster, was also questioned by some clubs. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Taylor, the Redskins' 2004 first-round pick, were unknown for much off the offseason, as he refused to return Gibbs's phone calls, then was arrested in June in Miami. Several veteran players expressed concern after the incident, urging Taylor to make better decisions and to act in a more mature manner, and today will likely mark the first time he has seen or spoken to most teammates since January.
Taylor's personal problems could interfere with his performance, and with starters such as Arrington, linemen Noble and Phillip Daniels and safety Matt Bowen returning from season-ending injuries, the coaches will evaluate several younger players and newcomers on defense.
"A few guys left, but we have a good team," Bowen said. "A lot of players can step in and fill the slots that were vacated. I wish those guys [who left] the best, but this is our team and we're moving on. That's how good teams work. When someone leaves or someone gets hurt or someone is not ready to play, then someone else steps up and it's a cohesive unit; it's not just one person. That's why football is different from some other sports, and we're getting better at doing that. We're looking for good things this year."