The bye week was anything but settled and peaceful at Redskins Park. Coach Mike Shanahan spent the early portions of it trying to explain his remarks following last Sunday’s loss to the Carolina Panthers that the remainder of the Redskins season would be about seeing who “is going to be on your football team for years to come.”
Shanahan later told reporters, then his players, that he wasn’t giving up on the season. But now that the issue of the Redskins’ future has been raised, it is worth exploring. The nine games prior to the bye week showed that the Redskins have their primary building block in place in rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. But that nine-game stretch also demonstrated that they are far from having a complete team and it raised questions about their ability to morph into a contender not only this season, but next season and beyond.
It has become clear as the Redskins struggled to a 3-6 record that they have a shortage of play-makers to complement Griffin on offense and significant deficiencies on a defense that has been among the worst in the NFL. The problem is that addressing those issues won’t be easy. The Redskins have a shortage of top draft picks after paying a heavy price earlier this year to get Griffin, and they face a second year of salary cap restrictions after being sanctioned by the league in March.
“The salary cap thing is huge for them,” said Charley Casserly, a former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans. “When you trade draft picks away like they did, the way you compensate is through free agency and the cap. So that’s an issue.”
Casserly added that the Redskins can overcome those handicaps. “They’ve got to get lucky with some late-round draft picks, with some undrafted free agents,” he said. “They just have to scout very well and find some guys in other ways.”
When people in and around the sport are asked to list the Redskins’ needs they almost invariably list a wide receiver and a right tackle on offense. They also talk about the team’s glaring needs for a cornerback or two and a safety on defense.
“Their biggest problem is their defense,” said Tim Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback for several teams, including the Redskins. “In their defense, they’ve lost some good players [to injuries]. But other guys just haven’t played well.”
The list could grow to include a tight end if the Redskins don’t re-sign Fred Davis, and a pass rusher on defense if outside linebacker Brian Orakpo continues to have problems with the pectoral muscle that he has torn in consecutive seasons.
Many of those needs are significant. A cornerback with superb coverage skills is a valued NFL commodity, one that generally is filled only by using a first-round draft choice or writing a big check to make a marquee signing in free agency. The draft probably won’t be an option, at least in the foreseeable future. The Redskins traded their first-round draft selections in each of the next two years to the St. Louis Rams to move up in the first-round order to land Griffin in April.
Few are criticizing that maneuver, even with its hefty price tag. Griffin has been everything that he was advertised to be, and more. But he needs help.
The Redskins signed Pierre Garcon to a five-year, $42.5 million contract on the opening day of free agency in March. Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, have said they believe Garcon is capable of being a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver when he’s healthy. But Garcon hasn’t been healthy since the first quarter of the season-opening game in New Orleans, and he potentially will have to undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament in his foot. Some within the league question whether the Redskins, even with Garcon healthy, have a legitimate No. 1 receiver or a group of wideouts that overall is good enough to contend.
“The quarterback is so good that they might be able to cut some corners and not fill every single hole they’ve got there. But they do have a ways to go yet,” said an executive with one NFL team, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be viewed as prying in the Redskins’ business.
Even so, Casserly said he believes the Redskins are within striking distance of contender status.
“Garcon being hurt is disappointing to everyone involved because he could have really helped them,” he said. “But the running back [rookie Alfred Morris] is a legitimately good player. Garcon is a legitimately good player. He’s proven that. Davis is a good player. They’re just missing some of their main guys right now. The quarterback is legitimate.
“Defensively, you’ve got to re-do the secondary for the most part. [Cornerback Josh] Wilson can play in this league. But they’ve got to revamp the secondary, and they know that. I don’t think they’re very far away from being a contender. It’s maybe a year or two away…. They’ve made a lot of good moves in the last two years.”
Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, agreed that the Redskins might not be too far away from having a roster worthy of being a contender. He pointed out that when the Indianapolis Colts drafted quarterback Andrew Luck first overall in April and the Redskins took Griffin second, the consensus at the time was that Griffin would have a more talented team around him in his rookie season. Yet the Colts, with Luck, are 6-3.
“I think you can look and see teams with worse rosters [than the Redskins’] and they might be in the playoffs this year,” Hasselbeck said.
The shortage of draft picks usually would cause little fretting for the Redskins. They merely would make a plan to go all-out in free agency next March. But that approach is complicated by the fact that the Redskins aren’t finished with their salary cap issues. The league, with the assent of the NFL Players Association, reduced the Redskins’ salary cap by $36 million over two years for the manner in which the team structured players’ contracts during the sport’s season without a salary cap in 2010.
Team officials were forced to make some last-minute adjustments in March to their free-agency plans for this year. There has been more time, at least, to plan for next year’s shopping.
“Obviously that’s very strong,” Mike Shanahan said last week. “You’re talking about $36 million. And you find out 10 minutes before your free agency starts — you plan something for 2-1/2 years and you find out 10 minutes through the newspaper that you just got hit with $36 million. So, yeah, it is a wakeup call.”
Shanahan this past week defended the team’s direction during his coaching tenure. He said the Redskins “started over” in rebuilding their roster after he took over. He said he is convinced that the team is headed in the right direction, even with its 14-27 record under him and its last-place vantage point in the NFC East more than halfway through his third season.
“We’ll always address our weaknesses and our needs in the offseason as much as we can,” Shanahan said, “and go from there.”