Fly­ing by the Seat Of Their Pants

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - Les Car­pen­ter

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.

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