A year and four days ago, Washington Redskins President Bruce Allen introduced General Manager Scot McCloughan and told a crowd of reporters, team employees and officials at Redskins Park, “This is a great day for the franchise. Because we really feel today, the Redskins are going to get better.”
McCloughan, the former scout who helped shape the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, made no promises for a quick fix of a team that finished last in the NFC East six of the previous seven seasons. But he did promise it would improve through an aggressive, disciplined approach. Now through his first season, which ended with a division championship and a first-round playoff loss to the Packers, McCloughan has shown what he’s capable of and how he goes about accomplishing it.
The Redskins are far from a finished product, and as McCloughan enters his second offseason with the Redskins, a review of how he began the team’s turnaround offers some insight into what might happen next.
Hampered by depth issues for years, the Redskins overcame season-ending injuries to 16 players, including seven starters, along with other shorter injury absences and finished the regular season with a four-game winning streak. Handicapped by inadequate drafts in the past, Washington this season selected four legitimate long-term contributors in guard Brandon Scherff, outside linebacker Preston Smith, running back Matt Jones and wide receiver Jamison Crowder.
Long derailed by a lack of mental toughness, rampant drama and a losing mentality, the team this season developed a reputation as a physical unit, remained unified despite potentially locker-room-fracturing incidents and made an improbable run to the postseason.
McCloughan, Coach Jay Gruden and their assistants and players have a way to go before the Redskins join the ranks of perennial contenders. McCloughan likely would have said that himself had the Redskins not denied requests to interview him. But Year 1 of the McCloughan era brought change that has strengthened the organization at its core while also brightening the prospects for future success.
“Obviously with the talent he’s brought in, and in a way changed this locker room just in one offseason, you can tell he knows what he’s doing,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “And, I mean, to be honest, I feel like he saved us in a way.”
Time will tell whether McCloughan has indeed saved the Redskins for the long term. However, signs at least point to sustainability following this late-season surge toward a winning record more than they did during 2012’s magical Robert Griffin III run.
“To be honest, 2012 and 2015 are like night and day,” Williams said, noting how contributions this season came from all over the roster instead of mainly from one player. “We’ve got veterans contributing, young guys chipping in, offense, special teams. Top to bottom, he’s building this thing.”
The results yielded in McCloughan’s first season surprised outsiders, and even he may concede that by winning the division, the Redskins are ahead of schedule. The last-to-first turnaround hasn’t featured miracle moves, though; instead, positives stemmed from the general manager’s commitment to building a team according to what he believes to be “the right way.”
Communication was among the leading ingredients to this concoction when McCloughan first took over. Rather than coming in and making sweeping changes right off the bat, he listened — to Gruden; to Alex Santos, the director of pro personnel; and to his front-office assistants.
The men discussed their beliefs on how a team should be built and found that they agreed on many of the hallmarks.
“We have the same views on the characteristics of a good football player. It’s excellent,” Gruden said. “A lot of times, when you have a general manager and a head coach, you have different views on what you want. But we have damn near identical views of what we look for in a player in each position. We’re really close. Him, me, Alex Santos and the other guys. We’re all real agreeable. That’s very important.”
From there, McCloughan dove headfirst into pre-draft evaluations, because the draft, as he puts it, is “the lifeline of your organization.” Sure, the team would make signings in free agency, but McCloughan wouldn’t chase the biggest names or hand out blockbuster deals. He would be selective and financially shrewd. Draft-acquired building blocks lead to greater long-term success, he preaches.
McCloughan wanted size, versatility and players from winning backgrounds. He didn’t just want offensive and defensive stars. He also sought special-teams standouts.
“We just want to have good football players at any position,” he said while scouting talent at last year’s Senior Bowl. “If the guy is a dang good football player, that gives us a chance to win, not just for this year, but for the future, then that’s what I’m going for.”
Good football players don’t always mean the brightest stars. During the draft, McCloughan used the fifth overall pick on Scherff, passing on Southern California defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who was regarded by some as the most talented player in the draft. But to McCloughan, Scherff more embodied what the general manager sought: a big, physical, hard-working, no-nonsense player.
McCloughan went for size in the second and third rounds, selecting Smith and Jones. From there, he rounded out his draft with players capable of contributing on special teams, with Crowder (who also has emerged as a talented slot receiver) leading the way.
Meanwhile, as he approached free agency, McCloughan aimed to address a defensive line badly in need of impact players and a secondary needing veterans at cornerback and safety. And he sought locker-room leaders.
Dipping into his past, he signed defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois, cornerback Chris Culliver (both draft picks of his from San Francisco) and safety/special-teams ace Jeron Johnson (a draft pick of his from Seattle), then traded for Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson (another draft pick from San Francisco).
Those players all carried a key ingredient in that they had grown up in Super Bowl-caliber organizations. They, along with Denver nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who also signed in free agency, would help instill a winning mind-set in the locker room and would show young players how to approach the game.
As Williams said, the draft and free agency moves changed the locker room and produced an improved on-field product. Former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly agreed.
“He’s done an outstanding job, which is not surprising,” Casserly said. “I’ve known Scot a long time. Excellent football man. . . . There was a vision for what he wanted to do: Fix the lines, not overpay for guys in free agency but fill holes for the short term, and in the draft, he obviously valued size with the second- and third-round picks. But he got four guys that had real impact in their rookie year, and that’s hard to do. That’s real good drafting.”
The talent acquisition didn’t end after the draft and free agency. As injuries hit during the preseason and throughout the season, the Redskins found themselves in need.
McCloughan, with the help of Santos, repeatedly identified veterans who had been cast off by other teams, plugged them in and received quality performances. Cornerback Will Blackmon ended up playing in 15 games and starting 10, recording 49 tackles, eight pass breakups, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Inside linebacker Mason Foster started the final five games, recording 37 tackles and a forced fumble. Running back Pierre Thomas in the final four games played a clutch role as a change-of-pace back and pass catcher.
“He saw things in us that others didn’t. He’s got that eye,” Blackmon said. “That’s his life. That’s it. He even has the GM stance. Wide stance, elbow on his wrist and his hand on his chin. That’s him. He’s passionate and he loves football. This isn’t a hobby for him. This is his way of life. And it’s pretty cool, because his son comes here, and his son’s the same way. Just loves it. That’s why you want to fight and fight for him. I’m forever grateful.”
Now, as the offseason begins, Phase 2 of McCloughan’s rebuild kicks off. The Redskins emerged from this season having identified their quarterback of the future while nailing down other key pieces to the puzzle. But much work, McCloughan says, remains.
“Got to get better. Got to get better,” he’ll tell anyone asking about the roster.
And so, the acquisition of more building blocks will continue.
“He’ll be relentless,” Casserly predicts. “He’s not giving up.”