Redskins’ new GM can build around QB
Just in time to preempt an overflow of training camp optimism, the Robert Griffin III critics— a ubiquitous bunch now— pointed once more last week at the dark, gray cloud hovering over the Washington Redskins’ season.
This time, the never-ending audit of Griffin featured an ESPN.com ranking that placed him among the bottom five starting quarterbacks in the NFL and included some scathing declarations by anonymous coaches and executives that, at age 25, he is done, shot, never to dazzle again. Then came the inevitable reaction, ranging from annoyance to fret to resignation. And now, with practice set to begin Thursday, you’re left to muster excitement, somehow, about a team whose most wellknown player is undergoing a living autopsy.
Here’s the thing, though, that few realize: As much as the Griffin saga will swallow the attention, as much as this season represents the tipping point of his once-promising career, the franchise isn’t stuck in neutral while waiting for a verdict on whether Griffin’s star can still shine. In fact, their progress under first-year General Manager Scot McCloughan isn’t necessarily tied to the quarterback.
As a columnist who worked in Seattle and followed the NFC West for nine seasons, I have a nuanced understanding of McCloughan’s work and his success in helping San Francisco and Seattle build some of the most talented NFL rosters of the past decade. It’s fascinating to explore some of the approaches and philosophies and also how a collaborative spirit turned around two previously dysfunctional franchises.
There are many applicable examples from McCloughan’s past, and one underrated key is a knack for building around the quarterback. This is different from identifying a franchise quarterback early in the process and then finding the proper pieces to complement that guy. That’s the traditional and preferred model for everyone, including McCloughan. But how does a team rebuild in a timely manner if it isn’t fortunate enough to acquire that special creature or if that young quarterback takes more time than expected or if finding Mr. Right requires a few swings and misses?
Since arriving in January, McCloughan has explained the thinking several times, often in response to questions about Griffin. His words have been taken more as a cop-out than a team-building strategy, but when he talks about wanting to give Griffin more time and focuses on improving the talent around the quarterback and relieving some of the burden, he isn’t dodging the issue. In San Francisco and Seattle, this approach worked.
It took too long in San Francisco. The 49ers drafted Alex Smith No. 1 overall in 2005, during the first draft after McCloughan joined the franchise as its vice president of player personnel. Coach Mike Nolan had all the power then, but by 2008, McCloughan had been promoted to general manager. It took Smith six years, until Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011 as the head coach, to become a reliable, winning quarterback. Even McCloughan was gone by then, dismissed in March 2010 because of alcohol problems. But he left San Francisco with a fully stocked roster and a core that made three straight NFC championship games from 2012 to 2014. The team was so loaded that Smith could function as a complementary piece for the first year and a half of Harbaugh’s run. Then Harbaugh turned to Colin Kaepernick, who has better talent but who also plays his best when operating more as a role player.
In Seattle, where McCloughan served as a senior personnel executive under John Schneider, the Seahawks went from a five win team to the Super Bowl champion in four years. They didn’t draft their franchise quarterback, Russell Wilson, until the third year of that process. Despite being taken in the third round in 2012, Wilson was able to thrive immediately because the rest of the team was already built to win: strong running game, great defense, deep roster, competitive, physical and athletic.
Griffin is often criticized for not being a strong leader, and Wilson is often praised for that trait. But the truth is, with the way the Seahawks are built, Wilson doesn’t have to do much leading. The team covers some of his youth and immaturity. Wilson is just asked to play well within the parameters of a quarterback-friendly system. His talent elevates the Seahawks, but they can survive his struggles.
Teams are starting to copy the approach, even with veteran quarterbacks. Dallas became a true contender by creating the league’s best offensive line, committing to running the football more and streamlining Tony Romo’s responsibilities. Smith is now in Kansas City, working under a $68 million contract, managing Andy Reid’s offense. In Philadelphia, Chip Kelly has posted back-to-back 10-win seasons while employing complementary quarterbacks.
We’re not talking about recreating Trent Dilfer and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who remain an anomaly. But even though the quarterback has the largest role, his job doesn’t have to be as big as Peyton Manning’s or Tom Brady’s. It’s still true that, regardless of the rest of the roster, you’ll always have a chance if you have a great quarterback. But there’s a movement to be more flexible and holistic, to make life easier for the quarterback, to avoid stunting the whole team’s growth because it’s so hard to find a great signal caller.
In any given year, there are maybe eight elite NFL quarterbacks, and that may be a generous claim. What do the other 24 or so teams do? Like the Redskins, most of them lose, keep starting over and continue overextending themselves to acquire the next possible quarterback savior. There is an alternate route.
While quarterback remains the most important position in team sports, McCloughan has contributed to teams that have shown how to function well during the difficult search for that franchise player. It’s not about minimizing the need for a great quarterback. It’s about maximizing every draft and every avenue to acquire better players, with a focus on improving the overall talent base with each move, resisting the temptation to overreach because of need and insisting on becoming a physical team with prototypical size. The thoughts are an extension of what McCloughan learned as a young executive in Green Bay, which has had nearly a 25-year run of exemplary draft and quarterback-finding practices.
McCloughan spent his first offseason improving the offensive and defensive lines, trying to diversify the running game and giving Coach Jay Gruden a locker room with players who are more passionate and competitive. Now Washington has an opportunity to make progress, even if Griffin falters and the franchise has to rescind his $16.1 million option for 2016 (it’s guaranteed against injury and can be taken back only if Griffin is healthy).
After a 7-25 record over the past two seasons, the fastest route to respectability is through Griffin’s redemption. So it’s easy to define the upcoming season’s expectations by his performance. But if McCloughan truly gets to build the team his way, this year is much more about Brandon Scherff, Preston Smith and the rest of the 10-player 2015 draft class.
The Griffin situation is the high-profile cloud, always hovering, impossible to ignore. This season, it will produce its last rainfall, or it will defer to sunshine.
Either way, McCloughan has an entire roster to build.
GMScotMcCloughan’s ability to assemble a good roster may take pressure off Robert Griffin III.
ScotMcCloughan, left, has a record of stocking rosters with talent.