Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2011

Redskins’ New Approach Promises Near-Term Pain

In the two weeks since NFL owners voted 31-0 to approve a tentative new labor deal and lifted their lockout of players, teams have scrambled to understand the new economic rules even as they raced to sign free agents. Today the newly reformed Players Association ratified the 10-year collective bargaining agreement, which allowed all of those newly signed free agents to finally take to the practice fields with their teammates.

Between the vote by the owners and that of the players many NFL franchises spent freely, if not necessarily wisely, to restock their rosters. The Philadelphia Eagles were one of the most active clubs, opening owner Jeffrey Lurie’s checkbook to sign defensive end Jason Babin, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, quarterback Vince Young, and running back Ronnie Brown, all of whom are former Pro-Bowlers. Then the Eagles topped themselves by inking premiere cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to a 5-year, $60 million deal. In winning the battle for Asomugha’s services Philadelphia beat out competing bids from the Jets, Cowboys, and Texans.

Further up the East Coast the Patriots were going their preferred route of trading mid to low-level draft picks for veteran players with issues in the belief that a chance to contend for a Super Bowl will cause those players to leave their issues at the locker room door. Thus for the modest price of some fifth and sixth round picks in future years, New England acquired eternally voluble wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and perennially petulant defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

But as teams around the league sought to compress a full off-season’s worth of activity into a couple of weeks, one franchise that was largely missing in action was Washington. The Redskins, who during Dan Snyder’s dozen years of ownership have won the off-season championship enough times to retire the trophy, made only modest headlines by making two trades that were fully expected. They sent Haynesworth, the underperforming locker room poison to New England; and dispatched quarterback Donovan McNabb, obtained with much fanfare from the Eagles just one season earlier, to Minnesota.

Fans surely greeted the first deal with relief and a hearty chorus of “good riddance.” Had the Patriots offered only toothpicks instead of draft picks, Redskins’ fans would have still been in favor of trading Haynesworth. The McNabb trade was made necessary when head coach Mike Shanahan, spurred on by his son and offensive coordinator Kyle essentially gave up on the six-time Pro Bowler halfway through last season.

What was missing from the Redskins in the past two weeks was the dramatic news conference introducing a big-name free agent newly signed to a lucrative contract. In another year, if he knew of the Eagles’ $60 million offer to Asomugha, Snyder would have dangled $80 million, and then bid against himself by increasing the offer to $90. This would have been especially true if it was a year in which Washington was actually fairly well stocked at cornerback, while desperately needing, say, offensive linemen.

So there can now be no doubt that a new age has dawned at Redskins’ Park. Just three playoff appearances in twelve years and last place finishes in the NFC East four of the past five seasons have apparently finally convinced Dan Snyder that he needs to stop treating his NFL franchise as if it were some teenager’s fantasy league squad. Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen appear to be firmly in control. Allen has a budget that he intends to stick to, and Shanahan has a system that he believes will work. In time, that may all be good news for Redskins fans.

The question for Shanahan and Allen is just how patient those fans, and in the background Snyder, are willing to be. Because while powerhouse franchises like New England, Pittsburgh, and most recently Green Bay have proven that a long-term strategy of building a team through the draft and selective use of free agency can win championships, it also helps if you have Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers calling signals. At this year’s Redskins training camp, the number one quarterback on the team’s depth chart is 29-year old John Beck. The fourth year pro started four games as a rookie for the hapless 2007 Miami Dolphins, and not a single one since. None of those starts resulted in a Miami victory. In his last start Beck was lifted after going 1 for 6 in his first three series. But Shanahan is said to be impressed with Beck’s work ethic.

Now that newly signed free agents can join team practices, Beck’s competition for the starting quarterback’s job is the oft-injured Rex Grossman, who replaced McNabb as the starter at the end of last season. In eight seasons in the NFL Grossman has thrown as many interceptions as he has touchdowns, with 40 of each. But he no doubt is a hard worker as well.

Shanahan demands not just hard work but also total allegiance to his system. McNabb is gone after just one season, having been judged lacking a commitment to the former. Haynesworth is thankfully gone, having failed magnificently on both counts. It’s an approach that Shanahan proved could work in Denver, where he won two Super Bowls. Of course, in Denver he had a quarterback named John Elway. These Redskins have a lot of little-known players, led by two hard workers named Beck and Grossman. Yes, it’s good to see Dan Snyder finally letting the adults run the show; and yes in time, there may be good news for Redskins fans. But the season that opens at FedEx field against the New York Giants in what will surely be a dramatic and emotional setting on September 11th, has the potential to have those fans wishing the lockout was never lifted.

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