Red­skins’ new GM can build around QB

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Jerry Brewer

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.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

GMS­cotMcCloughan’s abil­ity to as­sem­ble a good ros­ter may take pres­sure off Robert Grif­fin III.

KYLE TERADA/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

ScotMcCloughan, left, has a record of stock­ing ros­ters with tal­ent.

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