Whether coincidental or clumsily intentional, it’s fitting that Scot McCloughan and the Washington Redskins are apart this week when they should be united at the NFL’s premier offseason event. The distance between the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and wherever McCloughan is — Home with family? Locked in Daniel Snyder’s panic room? — symbolizes the disconnect between two parties that still ought to be enjoying a blissful, budding relationship.
Instead, there’s chaos. McCloughan, the general manager who loves draft preparation as much as playoff games, is absent. It could be just as he and the team characterized it: time off to tend to family matters still lingering after the death of his 100-year-old grandmother, Marie McCloughan, on Feb. 6. But this break also comes during a tense period for the franchise and its chief talent evaluator. It’s true that the McCloughan family is grieving. It’s also true that, at work, McCloughan is dealing with a vicious bout of office politics that threatens to unravel the progress that Washington has made the past two years.
The problem isn’t that McCloughan is away right now. It’s that his relationship with the team has become so awkward that every action seems like drama leading to a doomed conclusion. For that, don’t blame the scrutinizing media. Blame Bruce Allen for leading a front office that has been determined to discredit McCloughan and minimize his popularity over the past two months.
Allen, the team president who hasn’t fully dismissed himself from his previous GM duties, has silenced McCloughan. He has spurred the narrative that McCloughan had a subpar second draft and free agency and needs to do better, even though it’s too early to make a definitive declaration about last year’s draft and even though McCloughan, overall, has done good work in only two years. Allen has tried to shift responsibility for Kirk Cousins’s contract debacle to McCloughan. He is also said to blame McCloughan for leaking several negative stories, even though Redskins Park is one of the leakiest buildings in sports because the team does so many foolish things.
But here’s where Allen and this team — I’m bringing back a previous nickname I gave them, the Face Palms — really failed a good man who deserves better: They have let speculation from radio host and former player Chris Cooley about McCloughan’s drinking go without firing back. And now they’re letting the story of McCloughan’s combine absence explode.
There wouldn’t be a story if Washington had announced before the combine that McCloughan couldn’t attend. And on Thursday, Allen had the opportunity to quash the story during interviews at the combine, but he spoke in vague terms. Even if this is just a personal matter, Allen could have done more to defuse the story while remaining coy about what exactly is going on with McCloughan. Instead, Allen left plenty open to speculation.
Here’s hoping that Allen has just failed at another attempt to interact with the media and that all will end up fine after McCloughan leads a good draft.
In less than two years writing columns about this franchise, there’s one truism I have learned not to doubt: If it seems like there’s a problem, if there’s smoke billowing to suggest there’s a problem, if there’s rampant denial that there’s a problem, then there’s a problem. And it’s likely to be much more complicated in reality.
McCloughan deserves better. As far as I know, he has done very little wrong. His biggest crime is being a little loose-lipped, which makes him a media darling but an uncomfortable problem in Allen’s eyes and failing to manage up in an organization that requires deft political gamesmanship. McCloughan is a scout’s scout; he’s all about seeing the potential in young players and working to ensure their skills are developed. The rest of being a GM he only tolerates. That includes dealing with the media. He’s cordial not because he loves seeing his name in headlines; he’s just so passionate about team building that he will talk about finding football players with anyone.
In many conversations I have had recently about McCloughan, it seems he has been mischaracterized in the organization as more power hungry and manipulative than he really is. If anything, his problem is that he’s a little naive about how big a factor those traits are to success. He never wanted to be perceived as Washington’s white knight. In fact, when he arrived, he preached, “It’s not about me. It’s about we.”
It sounds corny, but for him, it’s real. McCloughan wants the influence to do his job well and build a team in the manner that he learned. But when it comes to being the unquestioned boss, he can tolerate push back. And even when Allen has overruled some of his decisions, McCloughan is said to have taken it well and worked around the limitations of his job.
In that way, he’s the ultimate professional. And his approach has led Washington’s return to respectability. Back-to-back winning seasons and a 17-14-1 record aren’t worthy of a parade. But it’s progress for a franchise that usually can’t stick to a plan for more than five minutes.
But if McCloughan and Washington don’t get on the same page — or rather, if Allen doesn’t wise up and keep his general manager in the fold — this relationship can’t last much longer. The franchise has a history of discrediting and then dumping employees. If things don’t change, it seems like McCloughan is next in line for an odd farewell. And the question is, what has he really done wrong?
Something has to give. The speculation and second-guessing don’t match his high level of performance. McCloughan deserves better, and yet the symbolism of his absence this week is stunning: He and the Face Palms are far apart. And no one can be certain why.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.