Last season, when the Washington Redskins were 2-5 and a season of high expectations began to unravel, key veterans, led by defensive end Phillip Daniels, met after an October loss to Indianapolis to question why they were losing games they believed they should have won.
Following the Oct. 29 bye week, Daniels, along with defensive end Renaldo Wynn and running back Clinton Portis, believed they knew the answer: the Redskins' offseason conditioning program was too extreme. As a consequence of having to return to Redskins Park to train so quickly after the season ended, the players were breaking down physically. That breakdown, they believed, explained why they struggled in the second half of so many games.
On two occasions, Portis, Wynn and Daniels met with Coach Joe Gibbs to ask him to consider making changes to the offseason workout schedule. Wynn believed the meetings to be a risky step considering how much emphasis Gibbs had placed on having them work and train together, even during the offseason.
A 5-11 season -- his worst percentage over a 16-game season in his pro coaching career -- altered Gibbs's convictions and on Friday he relented, allowing veterans to train away from the team facility in Ashburn for the first time since his return.
Gibbs informed players of the change in a letter outlining new ground rules that allow them to arrive as many as seven weeks later than in previous years -- approximately mid-May.
"I'm willing to change everything this year, and that's going to be part of the change," Gibbs said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I think the first year, you look at it and you say, 'This makes sense.' Start early, get everyone together, which is what we did. The second year carries over and into the third year, but after that they didn't think it was necessary. And I can see that.
"I asked the guys and said, 'Tell me what you think,' " Gibbs said. "We haven't had a problem with our group anyway. We haven't had a bunch of fat guys. They said, 'Let us handle this.' "
Gibbs's concession is significant, given that when the team earned a playoff berth in 2005, Gibbs pointed not so much to the five-game winning streak that propelled his team into the playoffs as to the offseason conditioning program as proof that the work he demanded in March would eventually prove beneficial.
"I felt like what we did last year made absolute sense," Gibbs said. "We started early. I think what they felt, the ones who were real leaders on our team, was that they wanted to be more on their own from a conditioning standpoint further into the offseason. What I said to them was they're on their own, but to check in with their position coaches to give us an update on where they are."
That Gibbs was motivated to change by veterans is ironic on one level; the players most vocal about its necessity were Wynn and Daniels, both of whom are in something of an uncertain state with the team.
Wynn, 32, was a backup who lost his starting job last season when the Redskins signed Andre Carter to a six-year, $30 million free agent contract. After starting on the 2005 playoff team, Wynn played sparingly last year and is in jeopardy of playing less this season.
But Wynn's value extended beyond the field. A former representative for the NFL Players Association, Wynn was approached by Portis earlier in the season to meet with Gibbs on behalf of Portis, Sean Taylor and Santana Moss, the players from the University of Miami who preferred to be part of a tradition of offseason training sessions with other former Hurricanes in Miami.
"You have be careful with Coach Gibbs, because he's old-school. He'll listen to you, but you have to pick your spots," Wynn said. "You have to really feel strongly about something. This was something that the players wanted and I'm glad he responded to it in this way. I know the guys definitely appreciate that."
Last offseason, the Redskins enjoyed a nearly perfect attendance record. Safety Adam Archuleta, who trained in Arizona instead of Ashburn, was the highest-profile player who did not come to Ashburn for his workouts.
"We're going to take a different approach," Gibbs said. "We have some key guys in Miami, but I'm going to put them on their own for the next six weeks, and we're telling them that we're counting on them to be there. And the players want that."
But now Wynn may find himself caught in a numbers game that could signal his end with the Redskins. In addition to playing behind Daniels and Carter, Wynn split time with reserve defensive end Demetric Evans and now could find himself even further back on the depth chart should the Redskins draft a defensive end.
Daniels, who will turn 34 Sunday and switched positions from right end to left to accommodate Carter's arrival, also told Gibbs he felt he would have been a fresher player had he been allowed to continue his offseason training in Atlanta. Daniels led the team in sacks in 2005 and recorded three last year playing on ankles that required offseason surgery.
As of Monday, Daniels and the Redskins had not discussed possible contract restructures. He is under contract until 2008. Daniels has a relatively manageable cap hit of $3.1 million for 2007, but the Redskins will in all likelihood use the sixth pick in the draft on a defensive end, which would place Daniels either in a reserve role or a situation where he would have to compete for a job.
Redskins Notes: The team has reached an agreement on a one-year contract worth the veteran minimum of $595,000 with reserve offensive lineman Mike Pucillo. Pucillo, 27, signed with the Redskins as a free agent from Houston last year and played all three line positions, but spent most of his time as a tackle eligible in the Redskins' run-heavy formations and goal-line formations. . . . The Redskins are also working to finalize a contract with tight end Todd Yoder. Yoder, 28, played behind tight end Chris Cooley and was used mostly to block. He caught one touchdown pass, Nov. 19 at Tampa Bay.