Scot McCloughan isn’t the general manager you perceive him to be. That is neither his fault nor an evaluation of his job performance over two years with the Washington Redskins. It is frankly an inconvenient truth that explains the franchise’s latest dysfunctional look.
While it may appear that Washington is distancing itself from its personnel chief in both obvious and dastardly ways, it would be characterized more properly as putting McCloughan in his place. Either way, it’s silly and petty posturing, but it’s important to understand that McCloughan isn’t necessarily losing power as much as he is having his lack of power revealed. It means that, despite the hope and trust he has inspired in helping guide the team to back-to-back winning seasons, the notion that McCloughan had the clout to live up to the “In Scot We Trust” fan mantra was a sham. It was a mirage that Washington let exist because it made people happy and renewed interest in the team after it posted a combined 7-25 record the two years before McCloughan arrived.
In reality, team President Bruce Allen has always been in charge. McCloughan was brought in to be a super scout to restock the roster, but in terms of lasting influence, his job was structured for disposability.
Over the past few weeks, you have seen signs of this. Allen has kept McCloughan from talking to the media even during innocuous, obligatory situations such as at the Senior Bowl. And then there’s the much wilder story involving Chris Cooley, the former tight end and current radio host and color analyst, who wondered aloud recently on ESPN 980 whether McCloughan had been drinking again.
McCloughan’s past bouts with alcohol led to him exiting jobs in San Francisco and Seattle. So the speculation from Cooley, who is very good at his job and thorough in his work, was vicious and reckless if, as he suggested, they were just off-the-cuff remarks. His close ties with the franchise make his thoughts seem more sinister — was it planted material aimed to reduce McCloughan’s popularity? But even if you take Cooley at his word and consider it a breathless, random act, there’s still a problem when you consider how the team reacted to it.
Washington did nothing.
No public admonishing of Cooley’s comments. No statement defending McCloughan. No known punishment of Cooley. Crickets. Pathetic. Shameful.
That can mean one of just two things: Cooley was too close to the truth, or Allen didn’t care that McCloughan received the negative publicity.
Even during good times, Allen hasn’t liked that McCloughan is cast as a savior changing the culture of the organization and erasing the many mistakes of the past. McCloughan has deflected praise consistently, but in every sports franchise it’s easy for jealousy to infect the environment because breakthroughs require a massive group effort regardless of whose vision is being followed. It’s especially easy when a team has enjoyed as little success as Washington has the past two decades.
Allen, whose responsibilities within the organization have increased despite his uneven performance, hired McCloughan for support. He didn’t want a replacement, and despite being criticized for the team’s poor play, he didn’t exactly want a new direction. He wanted an ace in the room to make everyone look better. But Allen didn’t want to cede control.
McCloughan is essentially as powerful as Allen wishes him to be. Even though McCloughan technically has final say on personnel matters, he still has to go through Allen to get deals completed, which is one way to limit the GM’s power. Even though McCloughan would be Coach Jay Gruden’s boss in a normal organizational structure, he doesn’t have the authority to fire Gruden or anyone on the coaching staff. Gruden and McCloughan report directly to Allen. They are, in essence, on the same shelf.
McCloughan runs the show — with Allen’s old scouting department. McCloughan flirted with adding a few of his own folks, but nothing came of it. So his challenge was to teach a team he didn’t put together his talent-evaluating tricks, to make them see what he sees, rather than create a staff that he knew he could manage.
As Washington constructed the roster the past two seasons, Allen overruled a few key decisions that McCloughan and Gruden wanted to make, according to people with knowledge of the team. Allen proved to be right on a couple of those moves. Other times, he hindered progress. But the ultimate point is this: If you thought McCloughan’s presence served as a shield from upper-management meddling, well, this franchise will never work that way.
The good news is that this structure has produced two winning records and put the team within striking distance of building a sustainable contender. On the other hand, Washington seemingly has been in turmoil since it collapsed at the end of last season and missed the playoffs. And now, in a crucial offseason, a lack of cohesion could hinder the team’s chances to nail a few tough decisions, most notably Kirk Cousins’s contract situation.
The franchise can go in either direction. It is a few good decisions from being a 10-win team for several seasons. And it is a few misguided decisions from sinking back to 5-11 territory.
It would help public confidence if McCloughan could share his vision for improving the defense and tweaking an offense on the verge of greatness. But he is being pushed to the background, under fire to have a great draft and free agency after a lackluster showing last year.
In the big picture, that’s not a terrible thing. Many NFL GMs talk as little as possible. But with Washington, there is always more to the story, and this time, it’s an admission of what many hoped wouldn't be true.
For all his talent, McCloughan is limited in what he can do within this organization. He took a job with an inflated title at a time when he had little negotiating leverage because of past mistakes. Although he has made an impact, it’s hard to be a savior under those conditions.
It was a fairy tale that couldn’t last: A troubled yet genius talent evaluator joins the NFL’s most arrogantly inept franchise, redeems himself, resurrects the team’s past glory and skips off into the sunset, having changed the hearts and minds of many. That’s how hope embellished the possibilities.
In reality, however, McCloughan is a human, flawed like us all, who took a good job that he couldn’t be sure would come along again. And fanciful tales don’t come cloaked in burgundy and gold.