The Washington Redskins have gotten pretty good at collecting loose talent. They needed to draft a young quarterback; say hello to Dwayne Haskins, an incredible value with the No. 15 pick. They needed to sign an impact free agent; welcome Landon Collins, already a three-time Pro Bowl selection at 25 years old. They needed to add speed; prepare to feel the wind pick up as rookies Montez Sweat, Terry McLaurin, Bryce Love and Cole Holcomb sprint past you during training camp.
In a vacuum, your favorite ne’er-do-well franchise is performing just fine. Decision by decision, each roster selection makes sense. Each choice is highly justifiable. Even if you may disagree about specific players or risks taken, the approach is usually understandable, if not spot-on. For the most part, the past five offseasons — the first two with Scot McCloughan, then the past three led by an eclectic front-office mix with similar team-building intentions — represent a novel period of sustained competence in Daniel Snyder’s 20 years of ownership.
Yet for all this accumulation of seemingly good ingredients, the meal still doesn’t taste right. The team has made only one playoff appearance and experienced just two winning seasons during this span. The 2019 draft is over, and the reaction underscores Washington’s current dilemma: Draft analysts are tossing out bouquets of A grades for this 10-player class, but few would go as far as declaring the entire team a safe bet to make the playoffs.
The nagging question: If the Redskins are drafting so well, if they’re being wiser about free agency than they have in the past, why are they still failing?
After another feel-good draft, that question will hover over the rest of 2019 as coach Jay Gruden works to develop this retooled roster, and everlasting team president Bruce Allen, assuming his polo shirts aren’t made of Teflon, also tries to reward Snyder’s patience. Have they created nothing more than a new way to win off the field?
In the past, to win the offseason, they had to sign contracts such as the $84 million Collins deal or Josh Norman’s $75 million pact with regularity. Then the season would begin, and they flopped. The difference now is they’re far more financially responsible and focused on the kind of classic, draft-based roster construction that fans spent years calling for them to enact. Right now, they’re limiting the major free agency splurges to just a few every four or five seasons, and even those big contracts are structured in smart and creative ways to maintain salary cap flexibility.
Still, they haven’t won big. Why?
The optimist in me wants to offer the theory that, because the franchise has been out of whack for so long, it has taken more time than usual to get right. Perhaps it has taken twice as long as the typical three-year process. Perhaps slow and gradual was needed in this case. It’s possible that, with Haskins to groom and a defense that could feature seven or eight defensive starters who are 26 or younger this season, the foundation is finally as solid as it needs to be.
If that were the case, it would be wonderful because the same-ol’-Skins narrative is turning old and wrinkly. But it’s not that simple, of course. Stop looking for sunshine, and there are concerns.
As I’ve written before, the process has been extended because the franchise has made safe picks — low ceiling, high floor — that have minimized the bust factor but left the team without sufficient top-tier talent. In his five seasons, Gruden has required some on-the-job training as the head coach, and while I think he has handled this difficult situation much better than he is given credit for, much of the team’s inconsistency falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff. In addition, the McCloughan firing and subsequent front-office shuffle cost Washington time, even though the current football operations department has recovered well.
Doug Williams, the senior vice president of player personnel, is a great unifier as a leader. Kyle Smith, who has been the director of college personnel for the past two drafts, is a real talent. Eric Schaffer, the senior vice president of football operations and general counsel, is a do-it-all, stabilizing influence who manages the salary cap well. As a team, the entire front office works well together. Of course, Allen has the real power, and you always should worry about the manner in which he uses it. But when the entire department is aligned — which is most of the time — there’s good synergy and creativity.
Let’s go back to that word “aligned,” however. If there’s one thing Washington must do to make the most of its pockets of positivity, it would be to realign itself. That’s the missing component. Currently, the roster is a mash-up of three philosophies: pre-McCloughan, his two-year stint and post-McCloughan. When you average the past, the present and the future, you come up with the 2019 Redskins. Ideally, you’d rather see the majority of the roster on the same developmental track.
Washington has made a lot of moves that can be deemed acceptable in the moment. But the moment is ever-changing, especially for this franchise. As much as it has aspired to take a consistent and straight path, the celebrated McCloughan marriage and fast and ugly divorce messed with the progression. So did the ascension and departure of quarterback Kirk Cousins. So has Gruden’s inability to find a permanent defensive coordinator; Greg Manusky, about to enter his third season in charge, is the third of the Gruden era.
The roster is about one good offseason away from possessing the ideal talent of a perennial playoff contender. Of course, the team could play above its head, but 2020 is the most accurate ETA, assuming the right moves are made. The next year should be about shuffling to make sure the roster and the organization are all headed in the same direction. Right now, Washington is trying to do two things at once: Win now to fulfill those “We’re close” vows, and prepare for a future with Haskins. Considering how in opposition those goals are, it’s impressive that the franchise almost made the possibility of doing both believable.
But the Redskins are dividing their energy too much. They’re halfway to nowhere. They’re halfway to more declarations of, “Well, it seemed like a good plan at the time.” Instead, over the next year, they need to arrange themselves in a more orderly fashion. Make long-term decisions on the coach and team president; eliminate the yearly speculation. Go even younger with the roster — no more stopgap veterans and players in clear decline — and break commitments to those who can’t stay healthy. The defense has a definite direction and identity; build on it. Then find an offensive direction and identity, and make sure it fits Haskins.
This is how Washington can stop collecting talent and start building with it. Every NFL team can find good players. Most teams can develop them, too. But maximize personnel and win? There’s a feel and a consistency required, not from just the coaches but the entire organization.
After years of using the right approach to add intriguing but mismatched parts, the final skill — the greatest skill — is putting it all together.