It's that time of year again, when fans of Washington's professional football franchise come to grips with the reality that their team isn't that good. It's come a little early this year.
Read my colleagues on the sports desk for analysis of the reasons the home team is failing on the field and now has an 0-3 record. But beneath the details of their foibles (missed tackles! stupid penalties! a defensive secondary who seems to enjoy watching the backs of opposing receivers' jerseys!), there are two root causes for the team's place at the bottom of the standings.
The NFL has a strict salary cap of $123 million; no team can have a total payroll for players above that (signing bonuses are pro-rated across the length of a contract). That means that the NFL is as much a game of putting together a group of the best players for the least money as it is about blocking and tackling. The Washington franchise's challenges are in large part attributable to two key decisions that its management made over the last few years.
Trading away the world for Robert Griffin III. Fans of RGIII will consider this blasphemy. When healthy, he is indeed among the most brilliant young quarterbacks in the game (though he has a great deal of competition in that category right now). But just because a player is spectacular does not mean he is worth any price. And Griffin, famously, had a price to the Washington NFL team far higher than his $4.8 million effective pay this year (salary plus pro-rated signing bonus) would imply.
Griffin was taken second in the 2012 NFL draft, but the team had only the No. 6 pick. To get the higher pick in the draft, they traded away their 2012 first- and second-round picks and their 2013 and 2014 first-round picks.
That was foolish. Since the 2011 revamped deal between the NFL and the players' union, every draft pick is a license to get a young, promising player, at below what his market rate would be if there were a simple auction for talent. The Washington team traded away its ability to replenish its ranks of younger players for three years in exchange for one (albeit, extraordinarily talented) player.
Yes, quarterback is the most important position on the field. Yes, a great one can change a team's fortunes. But great teams win championships not by finding one great player and wildly overpaying him (in this case, in the form of draft picks rather than cash).
In the 2000s, 10men have been Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Only two of them, Peyton and Eli Manning, were first overall picks in the draft. The other eight winners range from the No. 6 player drafted overall (Trent Dilfer), to late first round picks like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers (two of the best quarterbacks of the last few years) to late, late selections Tom Brady (199th overall), Brad Johnson (227th) or Kurt Warner (not drafted at all). Last year's Super Bowl pitted a No. 18 selected quarterback (Joe Flacco) over No. 36 (Colin Kaepernick).
In other words, the teams that have had the ultimate success in the NFL have done so not by expensive trades to snag the shiniest object they see, but by finding value wherever it falls and putting together the best overall team.
And if one team was going to trade away a ton of valuable picks to get one splashy quarterback, Washington could afford it least of all. And that's because of management's second major error of recent years.
Signing Albert Haynesworth -- and then trying to unload his contract sneakily. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington NFL team, signed Haynesworth, a colossus of a defensive tackle with an attitude problem, to a $100 million contract in 2009. It was, by widespread acclamation, one of the worst free-agent signings of all time.
That was four years ago. Why is it still a problem today? Because in 2010, Snyder and the team tried to get out from under it the easy way, by walking away from the Hanyesworth deal, and taking a $21 million salary cap hit, in a year that a new union agreement was being negotiated and so technically there was no salary cap. The owners had agreed that everyone would abide by salary cap restrictions, anyway, so that no team could exploit the cap-less year for competitive advantage.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ruled that Washington violated that agreement, and so would have its salary cap reduced by $36 million over two years as punishment, which just happen to be 2012 and 2013. (The Dallas Cowboys took a $10 million hit to their salary cap for similar reasons).
So this year, as 30 of the 32 NFL teams can spend $123 million each on players, Washington can only pay $105 million. (For more on the circumstances that led to the situation, read my colleague Mike Wise from last spring). Instead of going out into the free agent market to sign defensive players who might have strengthened the team's porous pass defense from last year, the team had to struggle just to restructure existing players' contracts to keep them on board with the lower salary cap. Now they're last place in the league in defensive yards allowed.
More than any other team in the league, the D.C. team has needed to get talent on the cheap. And the only way to do that is through the draft. But this team couldn't draft many top-quality players because it traded away its most valuable picks to get one very good quarterback, who happens to have a bad knee.
There's a reason that it looks like the team, with its 0-3 record, has only a distant chance at making the playoffs. And it's not that players are missing tackles. It starts with economic decisions made by senior management not all that long ago.