INDIANAPOLIS — At the NFL Scouting Combine, where every pro football team hopes to identify future stars who will help transform them into champions, the most significant story line for the Washington Redskins is the absence of General Manager Scot McCloughan.
While other NFL teams’ personnel executives focused on evaluating the 303 prospects on hand Thursday, contradictory versions of McCloughan’s whereabouts led to widespread confusion and perpetuated an image that the Redskins have tried desperately to shake — that of a well-funded but ultimately unstable franchise teetering on dysfunction.
On Thursday, the morning after McCloughan’s absence from the combine was first reported by The Washington Post, Redskins President Bruce Allen said he expected to speak with his general manager by phone that evening and added that McCloughan could return to work next week. In the meantime, mixed messages rang out from inside and outside the organization.
“Just a family matter,” Allen said in a hurried conversation in the halls of the Indianapolis Convention Center, suggesting later that McCloughan’s absence was related to the Feb. 6 death of his grandmother, 100-year-old Marie McCloughan.
Another person familiar with the situation insisted the general manager hadn’t missed any work time at all but was busily working Thursday on scouting business in his office at Redskins Park.
Several agents who represent Redskins players said they had been told that McCloughan hadn’t been in the office last week. And in private conversations, a handful raised questions about the Redskins’ preparedness for the combine; the free agent signing period, which gets underway next week; and next month’s NFL draft.
There have been indications for nearly a month of friction between Allen and McCloughan, Allen’s hand-picked general manager and the man most responsible for upgrading the Redskins’ roster. McCloughan is under intense pressure to deliver a productive draft class after last year’s first-round pick, wide receiver Josh Doctson, idled nearly all of his rookie season with chronic pain in both Achilles’.
McCloughan’s free agent signings have largely disappointed, as well. And in a departure from past practice, Allen restricted McCloughan from speaking to the media this offseason.
The confusion swirling around McCloughan’s status unfolds against the backdrop of the most crucial offseason stretch for NFL teams — when they have the greatest opportunity to upgrade their rosters through careful pruning of veterans, shrewdly negotiated contract extensions and the targeted acquisition of rookies.
For the Redskins, who are coming off a disappointing 8-7-1 campaign, it’s a particularly pivotal moment.
The team is attempting to negotiate a long-term deal with quarterback Kirk Cousins, whom they only managed to keep from bolting by using the NFL’s franchise tag for a second consecutive season. Failure to broker a long-term deal means the Redskins must pay Cousins $24 million for his services in 2017, bringing his earnings for 2016-17 to $44 million, and still lose him to free agency next year. It’s doubtful the current cloud hanging over the team’s front office is boosting Cousins’s enthusiasm for hitching his future to the Redskins.
It’s also one week before several key Redskins starters hit the free agent market — wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, among them — unless they’re signed to contract extensions. Laying the groundwork for those deals is part of what goes on among agents and team executives during informal conversations at the combine.
With McCloughan absent, Allen has assumed the leadership role this week at the combine. On Thursday, the Redskins met with prospects for 15-minute individual interviews, watched their workouts and met with agents of their own players with expiring contracts. In past years, McCloughan has conducted the player interviews, joined by members of the scouting and coaching staffs. But he hasn’t played a key role in contract negotiations, which are handled by Allen and NFL salary-cap expert Eric Schaffer.
Redskins coaches and scouts went about their combine duties as normal, despite not being privy to the details of McCloughan’s absence beyond the team’s explanation of “family matters.” And while many NFL team representatives, as well as some Redskins employees, agreed it was odd for a general manager to miss the combine, team officials dismissed the notion that McCloughan’s absence would hamper the organization’s evaluation efforts.
Coach Jay Gruden said that the team had enough staff members to cover for McCloughan and said that the general manager still would study film on prospects and lead discussions as always once he returned to work.
Still, it strains credulity that McCloughan would voluntarily skip the combine for any reason, including a family matter. He firmly believes that success in the NFL draft is the foundation of any championship team. It’s a philosophy drilled in this bones from his days as a young scout for the Green Bay Packers, whose front office believed in identifying and developing young players rather than cherry-picking established veterans on the free agent market.
McCloughan places great stock in the combine, which affords the opportunity to critique prospects’ athleticism on the field and probe their character in face-to-face interviews. Leading the Redskins’ delegation at the combine is among his chief job responsibilities.
It was just over two years ago that Allen introduced McCloughan as the team’s new general manager at Redskins Park, hailing it as “a great day for the franchise.”
“We really feel today the Redskins are going to get better,” Allen proclaimed from a podium at the team’s headquarters, McCloughan seated beside him, on Jan. 9, 2015.
Stopped for comment Thursday morning as he headed to a meeting, Allen said only, “He is dealing with family matters.”
McCloughan also recently found himself at the middle of a firestorm as Chris Cooley, a former Redskins player who is now a morning talk-show host of the team-owned ESPN 980, speculated that Allen was blocking McCloughan from addressing the media because of a possible relapse of the drinking problems that contributed to his dismissals as a front-office executive in San Francisco and Seattle.
The team never publicly addressed Cooley’s remarks. And Allen declined to comment when asked about them at the combine. “I’m not getting into speculations.” Allen said, adding that McCloughan will return to work “just as soon as things are handled.”
McCloughan twice in the past seven years has been forced out of prominent front-office NFL jobs by what he later acknowledged were alcohol-dependency issues. Whether termed a resignation or mutual parting, in both cases the job loss occurred in the high-pressure run-up to the NFL draft.
In March 2010, one month before the draft, San Francisco 49ers President Ned York announced a “mutual parting” with McCloughan, two years and two months after he had been promoted to general manager.
Three months later, in June 2010, the Seattle Seahawks hired McCloughan as senior personnel executive to advise on all aspects of player acquisition. That job lasted less than four years. Two weeks before the 2014 NFL draft, the Seahawks confirmed that McCloughan had resigned to deal with personal matters.
Clarke reported from Washington.