As trade rumors swirl, the story has advanced to where Williams will play. This is mind-boggling because we’re still searching for the all the hows and whys of his discontent. From the organization’s perspective, it feels like he just flipped, and you can expect team president Bruce Allen and the rest of the front office to treat Williams’s holdout as a mercurial matter that time and fines can heal.
In reality, it’s a deep and sensitive situation, according to multiple people familiar with it. And Washington had better be careful engaging in a game of chicken with Williams, who is as fearless and principled as they come. Over the past nine years with the franchise, the 31-year-old Pro Bowl left tackle has matured into an upright team leader. Now, in his disgruntled state, those values and beliefs about commitment and trustworthiness will make him a formidable opponent.
Back to the primary questions, which have been answered only in bits and pieces.
How did we get here? Why? It goes beyond the growth on his head that Williams believes the team misdiagnosed. That’s not where his dissatisfaction begins. It’s where it ends, those familiar with it say. That was the last straw. The rest of the story is nuanced and speaks to how easily miscommunication can explode into crisis. It’s true in all aspects of human interaction, but relationships are especially fragile in pro sports, where only the egos are bigger than the money at stake.
The fracturing began about 15 months ago with what seemed like the most innocuous decision. On April 27, 2018, the Redskins used a third-round pick to draft tackle Geron Christian No. 74 overall. Christian has turned out to be a raw prospect, one probably drafted too high, but this is where Williams started to stray mentally.
The move didn’t anger him, but he was perplexed. He wondered why his team, with an urgent need for help at left guard, would draft another tackle when he and Morgan Moses were entrenched starters, and Ty Nsekhe was a well-regarded, versatile backup. Then he considered that Moses had just received a huge payday, and Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff was about due for a lucrative extension. Williams, an eight-figure employee who was just about to turn 30, thought about his mortality and disposability for the first time. Did the drafting of Christian mean the Redskins were initiating the search for his successor?
Williams was in the middle of a seven-month recovery from right knee surgery that ended up being more complicated than he had anticipated. If you’ll recall, Williams played for three months of the 2017 season with a patellar tendon issue, knowing he needed surgery. He didn’t have the procedure until Washington was eliminated from playoff contention.
Many people close to him warned him about continuing to give his body to the organization. What if it cut short his career? What if it cost him millions down the road? Risk yourself for this team? Why? But Williams couldn’t quit. He was too important to the team. He was too loyal. He shunned the fear of others.
“If there’s any way I can continue to go, it’s just hard for me to succumb to anything,” Williams said in December 2017. “I know that’s probably not the best thing for me, but I feel like me being there for my team is the best thing for the team. I guess, as a result, my needs are kind of taking a back seat just so I can be there for the guys who’ve been here for me. This is just me.”
When Christian was drafted, Williams wasn’t afraid of the competition. He was, however, in a vulnerable state of mind during a long rehabilitation. He finally acknowledged NFL reality: In a sport of attrition, loyalty is bad for business. While still committed, his mind-set shifted in a way that several people close to him hadn’t seen previously. But a return to the field lifted his spirits, and the last-minute arrival of friend Adrian Peterson before the 2018 season re-energized him.
Williams wound up making his seventh straight Pro Bowl. But he also missed three games and played through a right thumb injury for most of the season. Another ailment, more doubts. Washington finished 7-9 and failed to qualify for the postseason for the seventh time in his nine seasons. More doubts. More people close to him questioned why he gives so much to an organization full of drama and lacking a clear path to sustained success.
Near the end of the regular season, Williams pondered seeking more financial security. He has two years remaining on a five-year, $66 million contract, but in the final season of that deal, his base salary of $12.5 million is not guaranteed. It didn’t help matters that left tackles Nate Solder and Trent Brown have inflated the left tackle market with new contracts in the past two offseasons. Assuming he plays, Williams will enter this season with the sixth-highest cap hit at his position. If he felt secure about his situation, the money would not be an issue. He is 31, after all. He’s unlikely to reset the market at that age.
As this past offseason progressed, the growth on Williams’s head became the issue that worsened his relationship with Washington from a hairline fracture to a complete break. As previously reported, the growth scared him, and now he has trust issues with the medical staff and the entire organization. It led him to request a trade and ask for a new contract.
Washington was mostly in the dark until Williams started lobbying for change two months ago. This isn’t a matter of the franchise operating with its typical dysfunction. This is a different virus. But here’s where Washington must take responsibility: If the Redskins had been more open with Williams, if they had been transparent or reassuring after drafting Christian and done more to appreciate the injuries he plays through and kept him in the loop the way franchise players often are, these paper cuts don’t result in a massive wound.
On the other hand, Williams could have gone into the office of Allen or Doug Williams or Coach Jay Gruden and aired any grievances. Instead, silence bred misunderstanding. Then the ongoing struggles within Washington’s medical and training staffs caused Williams to take a stand that could lead to his departure and further damage to the franchise’s reputation in the eyes of players.
He prefers to be traded, multiple people have said, confirming a CBS Sports report. It’s possible that money could be a remedy, but this is similar to the infamous Kirk Cousins situation. Pay Williams something ridiculous, and he’s no fool. But it would be a desperate and reckless move for the franchise to make, given Williams’s age and injury history. More than anything, Williams wants his dissatisfaction acknowledged, and he wants a solution to his lack of trust in the medical staff.
As much as Williams idolizes Hall of Fame tackle Walter Jones, there’s another fellow No. 71 that he wants to be like. He desires to have the longevity of Philadelphia’s Jason Peters, who is 37 and still performing at a high level. Williams doubts he can play into his late 30s with Washington managing him. During the season, he already flies in his own team weekly to help him recover from game to game. According to people familiar with the situation, that team met with the Redskins two years ago at the request of Gruden, who was soliciting outside ideas to combat Washington’s long history of injury problems.
Until recently, Williams couldn’t imagine abandoning this team. His team. He will never forget how Washington stood with him during the rocky early portion of his career, how it helped him grow as a man and a player, and how it supported him through multiple suspensions. That’s partly why he plays through so many injuries.
Williams once told me: “Being one of the cornerstones of this franchise, anytime I’m a part of something, I would never give up on it. I would never give up hope.”
Yeah, so . . . he has given up hope.
If Washington thinks it can wait him out and make him bleed money, one person close to him insisted: “His finances are good. Some things are more important than money.”
Assuming Washington can get good value, it should trade Williams before the regular season begins. It would be a terrible ending to a strong partnership. It could possibly burden the development of rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who shouldn’t be allowed to play behind an offensive line that lacks a stable protector of his blind side. But it’s best to remove the cloud hovering with Williams in limbo and prevent the situation from getting uglier.
Of course, Allen isn’t often inclined to do the prudent thing. So prepare yourself. This can get as difficult as he wants it to get.
Barring a kind of miracle the Redskins never pull off, Williams is gone. It feels like it happened quickly, but it was gradual. And what’s worse, there’s a chance it could have been avoided with just a little preemptive adult conversation.