Flying by the Seat Of Their Pants
A pproximately 21⁄ hours after the
2 start of the NFL draft, a great wind blew at Redskins Park, rotors hummed and a helicopter rose from behind the headquarters, whisking Coach Joe Gibbs to a FedEx Field draft party. Around the rest of the league, other coaches buried themselves in their war rooms scouring player lists, making picks, building futures. But the moment Washington filled its glaring holes on the defensive line with a safety, the priority became a party 30 miles away. Who needs a silly old draft anyway? And so as the coach chop, chop, chopped into the sky, banking right over the parking lot and soaring over the trees, the Redskins’ draft board for the next two hours was left to scouts and assorted underlings. For the Redskins of Gibbs’s second tour here, this seemed as good a plan as any they’ve had.
Around the rest of the NFL, team executives hear the word “Washington” and their faces cloud. They lean in and ask the question they mull internally all the time: “Who makes the decisions there?” Is it Gibbs? Vinny Cerrato? Daniel Snyder? Anybody? Every team must have a master plan, they say, a framework upon which all decisions are made and a direction is plotted. They wonder if this franchise has one and suggest it does not.
Four years into Gibbs II, they are still slapping names on a roster, gushing about talent even when they don’t seem to know if that talent fits best with the other players on the team. For weeks the Redskins tried desperately to rid themselves of Saturday’s first round, maybe of the whole first day of the draft altogether by trying to trade for yet another starting player developed by another team, figuring that throwing $20 million more in guaranteed money for Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs was a better bet than trying to develop from within.
Briggs is a talented defender, a good player who may or may not be an overrated product of playing on the same defense as Brian Urlacher, who could be the most dominant defensive player in the league. Either way, he is not a $20 million player. Nor would he have solved the pass rush and tackling problems that plagued the Redskins up front. Not to mention what taking on such a contract would do to the salary cap long term.
By now it should be clear that the Gibbs Redskins are not into franchise building. The master plan the other teams wonder about has been to slap pieces together in hopes that somewhere they find a magic mix of players and get Gibbs his one last Super Bowl before he jumps back into the helicopter and flies away for good. It would be a charming thought if the NFL hadn’t changed so much the last few years.
The salary cap rules all decisions today. It’s an understanding that has settled into every team headquarters but this one and perhaps Oakland. With the cap constantly rising, teams are able to keep their best players, meaning fewer and fewer top free agents come onto the market, thus limiting the pool of elite, experienced players. That the Redskins were ready to throw $20 million in bonus money at Briggs shows how limited the field of immediate replacements really is.
Once again a draft day came and the Redskins, having dealt most of their picks, were mostly bystanders. They did hold onto their No. 6 choice and used it to take LaRon Landry, who is considered a solid tackler. With 4.3 speed, he can run down ballcarriers. If he progresses as most in the league believe, he should soon be a starter and might just give the Redskins a building block for the future.
But as most of the other teams in the league put together their defenses in the mold now considered most effective, by building with draft picks and filling an occasional hole with a free agent, the Redskins have reversed the process, loading up with free agents and filling in with draftees. With the pick of Landry, Washington now has two players on whom it can rebuild for years to come — Landry and Sean Taylor. Both are safeties — not shutdown corners, not pass-rushing defensive ends, not run-stuffing linebackers.
Before he boarded the helicopter, Gibbs dropped by an auditorium to sum up the team’s first day of the draft. He did not seem concerned that the team still does not have a dependable tackler in the middle, saying the coaching staff remains excited about Kedric Golston and Cornelius Griffin. He also said they are prepared to rely on Phillip Daniels and his three sacks last season to deliver the pass rush.
On a day when hope normally abounds, enthusiasm was muted around Redskins Park. Gibbs said by the time they arrived at headquarters in the morning the coaches were resigned to not trading their top pick. He talked about getting the best value for the pick, implying that the pass rushers and tackles were not as good as Landry, which may well be true.
It’s hard to look at this first day of the draft and feel any better about the Redskins. They appear to be better in the secondary and have added a desperately needed leader in linebacker London Fletcher, but for a team that needs to win now before Gibbs leaves for good, they still don’t have a pass rush and have left the offense in the hands of a quarterback with just seven NFL starts.
The coach may have been climbing, but on what is usually a significant day for most teams, there was still little reason to believe the franchise was rising with him.