Redskins GM Scot McCloughan aims to build a consistent winner

Scot McCloughan is a proven winner. Can he rebuild the Redskins?

Published on September 8, 2015

With floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the practice fields out back, the southeast corner office at Redskins Park boasts the best view of the squad as it conducts daily workouts.
The prime office space belongs to Scot McCloughan, the general manager known for a keen eye in identifying talent, hired in January to rebuild an NFL team whose championships have become a distant memory. It has been 24 years since the Redskins last won a conference title.

Since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, at age 34, the Redskins have cycled through eight head coaches trying to snap that drought. The recent past has been particularly dismal, with a last-place finish in the NFC East six of the past seven years and just seven victories in the past two years.

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By any measure, the Redskins are a football reclamation project. And as McCloughan enters his ninth month on the job, charged with shepherding the turnaround, it’s increasingly clear that the rebuild won’t happen overnight. At 44, McCloughan is the first Redskins general manager in nearly two decades with a proven track record, having played a key role in assembling Super Bowl-contending rosters in San Francisco and Seattle.

McCloughan brings a different approach to roster-building than his predecessors in Washington, who focused on splashy signings and quick fixes. He favors building NFL teams from the ground up, as he learned as a young scout from his mentor Ron Wolf, the venerable Green Bay Packers general manager and recent NFL Hall of Fame enshrinee. The idea is to draft well and invest in the development of young players rather than buy Pro Bowlers on the free agent market.

The measuring stick by which McCloughan wants to be judged is not whether fans are dazzled by his draft-day moves or wowed by the big-name free agents he lands, but whether his signees prove worthy of a second contract and, ideally, a third.

Scot McCloughan brought success to the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks before he was hired by Daniel Snyder. (Photo by Ray Saunders/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, he’s working to set a tone of collegiality, open debate and shared responsibility in the team’s administrative offices.

“The thing that’s important to me is that we can have disagreements or arguments about the players, the 53 [-man roster], the draft, free agency,” McCloughan said in a recent interview in his Redskins Park office. “But when it’s all said and done, we all take ownership together and understand that we’re going to have good days and bad days. But if we stay together, there’ll be a lot less bad days. A lot less.”
It’s a sentiment that seems obvious. But if put in practice, it would represent a sea change in the way hard times are brooked at Redskins Park, where the accusatory finger of blame, followed by a wave of firings, has been the classic response to losing seasons.

Though his contract guarantees him total control over the roster, McCloughan preaches consensus-building. And he deserves a share of the credit for the front office unanimity on the seismic shift in the quarterback ranks heading into the 2015 season.

Building a unified front

McCloughan declines to pull back the curtain on how Snyder, President Bruce Allen, Coach Jay Gruden and he all lined up in favor of naming fourth-year backup Kirk Cousins the starter over Robert Griffin III and keeping Griffin on the roster.

According to someone familiar with the deliberations, the decision to change starters turned on two points that all four ultimately conceded:
-Cousins gave the Redskins a better chance to win in 2015 than Griffin, whose struggles in Gruden’s timing-based offense were increasingly evident.
-And Gruden risked losing credibility with the team if he continued to preach competition and award starting jobs to the victors at every position except quarterback.

Allen, the man chiefly responsible for hiring McCloughan, confirmed the front office unanimity, dismissing a report of a deep divide on the matter.

“No rift,” Allen said in a brief interview following the team’s Welcome Home Luncheon on Sept. 2. “Bad reporting, it sounds like.”
McCloughan deflects questions about his role in that potentially franchise-defining move — and any major personnel decisions.

Simply replacing Vinny Cerrato's face from the 1999 season preview cover with McCloughan's shows not too much has changed in 16 seasons in terms of on-field success. The team is still rebuilding.

“It’s not about me; it’s about us,” McCloughan says. “The coaches, the players, the scouts, everybody in this building — ownership, president — all understand that we’re going to fight together and we’re going to try to build something together. It’s not an easy process, but I really feel strongly that we’re taking positive steps.”
So far, his bosses and subordinates like his approach.

“He’s always giving other people credit,” said a member of the Redskins front office who declined to speak for attribution. “He’s open to any opinion, whether he agrees or not.”
Snyder gave him a glowing endorsement at the recent luncheon attended by about 600 ardent corporate supporters.
“I’d like you to know that he bleeds burgundy and gold,” Snyder said in introducing McCloughan. “He has been really working tirelessly since he got here. And I believe — I really believe — he has put together a fantastic team.”

A scout at heart

There are different types of NFL general managers, with power and responsibility that vary from team to team. Some serve as management’s chief spokesman in the media and at NFL meetings, adept at news conferences and league politics. Others are consumed by the financial challenge of juggling 53 players’ contracts without exceeding the NFL salary cap. But the heart of the job is evaluating talent. That’s the role McCloughan relishes most, happy to cede public oratory to Allen and rely on Eric Schaffer, the Redskins’ longtime vice president of football administration, to manage contracts and the cap.

Despite the prime view from his office, McCloughan is a regular fixture at Redskins practices. He often starts out chatting on the sideline with Snyder and Allen. But he’s most in his element when alone on the field, his face shielded by a visor, eyes locked on the drills unfolding before him.

To say McCloughan was born to do this is an understatement.
Son of a former AFL cornerback-turned NFL scout, McCloughan grew up watching game film at his father’s knee. Kent McCloughan’s job scouring the country for Raider-worthy talent was demanding during the college and pro seasons, but he passed on opportunities to climb the management hierarchy so he could spend summers with his sons — David, a former NFL safety-turned Raiders scout himself; Mark, who owns a construction company in Colorado; and Scot.

“My dad was on the road all the time; he worked his tail off,” Scot McCloughan recalled. “But when he was home, we would watch tape. It was more like watching games on Sunday with him — sitting there, listening to him talk.

Kent McCloughan never instructed his boys in how to evaluate players.

“It wasn’t like he forced it on us at all. He didn’t even force what team he wanted us to root for,” McCloughan recalled.

But he listened and watched his father dissect good plays and bad and chose the same career path after retiring from a baseball career that stalled in the minor leagues. His NFL apprenticeship began as a regional scout for Green Bay in 1994.

Scot McCloughan is the first general manager hired by Daniel Snyder to come to Washington with a proven record of success. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

From there, McCloughan went to Seattle as director of college scouting, then rose up the ranks in San Francisco to general manager, taking on more responsibility at each step.
But at heart, he remains an area scout who lives out of a suitcase and thrives on uncovering all he can beyond a prospect’s height, weight and speed.
“Scot has good instincts, work ethic, conviction in what he believes,” said former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst. “He knows what it’s supposed to look like. He has a clear vision. He has done it, and he has learned, as we all have, from things we could have done better. I have great respect for him as an evaluator.”

McCloughan's first draft

A look at how the Redskins new general manager is rebuilding the roster.

RD1 Brandon Scherff OT Iowa
RD2 Preston Smith DE Mississippi State
RD3 Matt Jones RB Florida
RD4 Jamison Crowder WR Duke
RD4 Arie Kouandijo OL Alabama
RD5 Martrell Spaight OLB Arkansas
RD6 Kyshoen Jarrett SS Virginia Tech
RD6 Tevin Mitchel CB Arkansas
RD6 Evan Spencer WR Ohio State
RD7 Austin Reiter OC South Florida

Early signs of promise

Casserly cautions against issuing an early-term grade on McCloughan’s first Redskins draft. “It’s the first month of school,” Casserly said. “Tom Landry always had a three-year rule. The first year, get ’em started. The second year, you see improvement. By the third year, you should be rolling.”

Still, there are positive signs. His use of the team’s first-round pick on Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff triggered the most commentary, with many questioning the wisdom of paying such a high price — fifth overall — on a guard, the spot Scherff has assumed after being projected as a right tackle. McCloughan believes it’s irrelevant where Scherff ends up as long as he pays dividends over the long haul. “He makes guys around him better,” the general manager said. “As he grows as a veteran, the young guys are going to follow him because they know he’s all football.”

Outside linebacker Preston Smith is less polished than second-year incumbent Trent Murphy but shows the makings of a more disruptive pass rusher. Third-round pick Matt Jones, a 6-foot-2, 231-pound running back, pounds the ball with a fury that calls to mind Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.

“He runs with violence — almost too much,” McCloughan said of Jones. “But with him, with Preston, with Brandon — early on in the draft, I wanted to take football players that set a tempo. I think all three of those guys set a tempo.”

But McCloughan’s gem in the 2015 draft may prove to be Duke’s Jamison Crowder, a 5-8, 185-pound wide receiver and return specialist whose heads-up grab of a ricocheted ball against Baltimore resulted in the starting offense’s first preseason touchdown since 2012.

“His height and his weight and his speed are not comparable to number-one receivers in the NFL,” McCloughan concedes. “Doesn’t matter to me. You can watch tape on Jamison and see a good football player.”

Asked to flesh out the meaning of “football player,” which McCloughan reserves as an honorific for special athletes, the general manager turns, as he often does when words fail, to game film.
“I could show you on tape right now!” he offers.

“The thing that’s important to me is that we can have disagreements or arguments about the players, the 53 [-man roster], the draft, free agency. But when it’s all said and done, we all take ownership together and understand that we’re going to have good days and bad days. But if we stay together, there’ll be a lot less bad days. A lot less.”

—Scot McCloughan

Game footage is the language McCloughan speaks best. Its nouns include quick-twitch reflexes and effort doing thankless work when the ball isn’t in a player’s hands. Its verbs: Explodes off blocks, jumps up and down on the sideline when a teammate makes a great play. These are markers for toughness, heart, commitment — the attributes McCloughan trolls for in his work. That’s what struck McCloughan in footage of Crowder, whom he studied intently before choosing him ahead of most scouts’ projections.

“To see him go across the middle and catch the ball and not be scared, to see him return punts, to see his quickness and his ball skills and to understand that he’s a football player — that’s what matters,” McCloughan said.

His approach to free agency is much the same, though his signings have been more restrained than the Redskins’ gaudy forays of the past.

Taking on a challenge

With a mandate to beef up the defensive front, McCloughan sat out the bidding for former Detroit Lions star Ndamukong Suh but jumped at the chance to sign linebacker Junior Galette, jettisoned by New Orleans for a series of troubling off-the-field incidents.

He was roundly criticized for the move after vowing to bring only players of high character to the Redskins. But McCloughan staked his reputation on what he described as a two-hour, face-to-face interview in which Galette was moved to tears explaining past mistakes and promising that if given the chance to redeem himself, he’d give back 100-fold. McCloughan has twice made a similar pledge in his own NFL career.

Struggles with alcohol, which he discussed in a lengthy interview last fall with Seth Wickersham of ESPN, led to his resignation from front office jobs in San Francisco and Seattle. McCloughan was a divorced father of three and running a private scouting service when Allen, who had long admired his acuity in spotting talent, hired him as the Redskins’ general manager in January. In a matter of months, McCloughan remarried and told friends that his wedding day, to Jessica Rutherford, 36, a divorced mother of two and former manager of a Gold’s Gym in Colorado, was one of the two best days of his life. Winning a Super Bowl during his tenure in Green Bay was the other.

They were newlyweds in the first six months of marriage when she was forced to publicly apologize for lewd allegations made to a reporter on social media. The ugly episode subsided, but it raised concern about the stability in McCloughan’s personal life given the stress of an NFL front office job — particularly for a man battling personal demons and working for a demanding, ultra-involved team owner. In an interview that took place before the incident, McCloughan described Snyder as unstinting in his support and passionate about the goal they share: Transforming the Redskins into champions.

“Since I’ve been here, it has been nothing but every day, ‘Let’s get better and find a way to win football games!’ ” McCloughan said. “As a general manager, it is so nice to feel that and hear that. It has been awesome.”