Howard Bryant reports that a serious shake-up of the Washington Redskins is likely this offseason, both because they woefully underachieved and because of continued ineptitude in managing the salary cap.
With three games remaining, the prospect of the front office breaking up this team is on the minds of many players, especially the defensive free agents brought in for Joe Gibbs’s first season, the group the coach often refers to as “True Redskins.” Close-knit defensive linemen Cornelius Griffin, Phillip Daniels, Joe Salave’a and Renaldo Wynn, linebacker Marcus Washington and Springs are faced with the twin concerns of suffering from a collective bad year and having high 2007 salaries.
The 2004 signings — quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Clinton Portis also are part of that group — believed last season’s playoff run would lead to greater accomplishments this season. But with the team 4-9, the Redskins will have to decide whether the Redskins’ defense suffered from a fluke season in which nothing went right or is in irreparable decline.
Gibbs and owner Daniel Snyder have, over the past few weeks, discussed the defense and concluded that the answer is the former, according to a team source, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly. Despite the fact that each of the 2004 contracts was structured for three years of cost containment and a steep escalation in the fourth year, Gibbs and Snyder believe the defense can still be playoff-caliber and both are, at least for now, committed to keeping its core intact, the salary cap notwithstanding.
“From what I understand, they’re not going to let the cap get in the way of keeping this team together,” the source said, a sentiment seconded Friday by Gibbs. “I really do think that this was just one of those years,” Gibbs said. “We’ve always said we like that group. I certainly don’t think that I saw signs that told me we needed to blow this whole thing up. In the offseason we’re going to study this thing from A to Z because when you have the year we’ve had you have to learn from it.”
The team faces difficult decisions, according to sources with extensive knowledge of the Redskins’ cap situation who asked not to be identified because they are not allowed to speak publicly. Gibbs and some of his players are headed toward an uneasy collision between the inclusive, emotional rhetoric he has traditionally affixed to his 2004 class and the cold edge of business, where both player and team must determine their financial worth with wavering degrees of sentimentality.
League salary cap experts analyzing the Redskins’ situation said some players, perhaps Springs, Griffin and Washington, likely would be asked to restructure their contracts. Coming off the travails of this season, however, there may be less willingness from some players to restructure or accept pay cuts. This is especially true when last season’s restructuring was followed by the departure of some popular veterans and the signing of a well-paid free agent class that fell far short of expectations.
The Redskins have three major options. The first is to ask the player to take a pay cut, a strong possibility in the case of Brunell, who at 36 is unlikely to sign elsewhere for what he is scheduled to earn in Washington. The strategy would be to appeal to Brunell’s sense of place and comfort level with the Redskins — weeks ago Brunell was one of two players to voluntarily restructure his contract to allow the team to sign Ladell Betts to a five-year contract — and his relationship with Gibbs. Brunell, however, may believe he can start or have a better chance to play in another market.
The second option is to trade on the sense of family Gibbs has tried to create and ask players to rework their contracts. Last season, Griffin, Daniels and right tackle Jon Jansen were among the Redskins who restructured their contracts. But unlike 2005, when the Redskins were coming off a playoff appearance, there is little momentum pushing the players and the front office together. And it might be unwise for the Redskins to restructure contracts of players they do not want to keep beyond 2007.
The third option is to cut the player, either on March 1 or after June 1, whichever benefits the Redskins’ cap position. The sources said Wynn, considered one of the team’s leaders, is in danger of being in this category. His contract expires after 2007 and represents a $4 million cap hit next year.
Springs will count $7.35 million against the salary cap for next season with a base of $4.87 million. In a weak free agent market for cornerbacks — Buffalo’s Nate Clements and New England’s Asante Samuel are the best — Springs appears in a strong position. He is due $2 million should the team release him and he become a free agent March 1, and he could take his chances to earn the nearly $5 million he would have been paid by the Redskins on the open market.
Worse for the Redskins is that 2005 top 10 pick Carlos Rogers has not proven himself to be a shutdown cornerback, adding to Springs’s value. Rogers has played in 12 games this season and does not have an interception. Springs has played in just seven games, has an interception and, in last Sunday’s 21-19 loss to Philadelphia, held wide receiver Donte Stallworth to three catches for 31 yards, though Stallworth did beat Springs for a key first down that helped the Eagles run out the clock.
As a Cowboys fan living in Redskin Country, I have mixed feelings about all this. I listen to local sports radio and all the criticism of Gibbs and company, most of which I think is just frustration rather than serious analysis.
The bottom line is that Gibbs still knows how to coach and evaluate personnel but not how to serve as the de facto GM. Daniel Snyder is a shrewd businessman who reminds me of a young Jerry Jones in some ways. The difference, though, is twofold. First, Jones initially turned most personnel decisions over to Jimmy Johnson, who was naturally good at it despite coming in as a rookie from the college ranks. Second, Jones began his stint during the pre-salary cap, pre-free agency era. It’s a different ballgame now, in many ways.
Bringing in a new coaching staff and “name” players every off-season isn’t going to get the job done. Frankly, it makes little sense for the Redskins to pay a lot of money to keep guys like Mark Brunell around. Nor can a team over-pay for under-performing veterans. The Redskins are going to have to start drafting players rather than trading their picks if they’re going to become competitive. And they’re going to have to invest in keeping young talent at key positions, locking them up to long term deals.
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