The expected, refreshing, raise-your-hands-if-you’re-sure aroma of optimism is missing. Instead, I keep catching whiffs of uneasy, nervous perspiration.
A desperate Redskins brain trust finds itself just 20 days away from the start of the NFL Scouting Combine, which also is the deadline for them to use the franchise tag on quarterback Kirk Cousins. And that’s also just six days away from the start of free agency. So, basically, the combine is also the start of free agency, because that’s when teams get a good understanding of market values, and who’s available and who’s not.
Washington has to hit and has to hit big, both in draft evaluations, free agency and the draft itself. The organization can’t afford any more of the swings and misses that dominated the past two free agent classes, or the recent head-scratcher draft picks.
Because so far, the 2017 offseason has not gone well. Already, this team has shown more signs of regression than positive developments.
You’d think after falling just one game short of a second playoff berth, this time should’ve been about regrouping, upgrading and fortifying. But instead, the Redskins have been scrambling.
Joe Barry was the sacrificial lamb after his talent-deficient defense underperformed too frequently in 2016. The Redskins thought they’d be able to bat their eyes and lure a big-name coordinator to replace Barry, but they guessed wrong. None of their top choices wanted the job, and they wound up promoting one of Barry’s assistants, Greg Manusky. Manusky does have a more-extensive defensive coordinator résumé than Barry, but it remains to be seen if he can get the job done.
New defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is well-respected around the league, so he should be an upgrade over Robb Akey. But just what is he going to have to work with? The team’s best defensive lineman, Chris Baker, is now a free agent, and he’s expected to want significantly more than the Redskins, who according to insiders, are only lukewarm on the home-grown talent, are willing to pay. Washington could very well have three new starters along the defensive line. But should anyone feel good about the Redskins’ chances of finding three difference-makers in free agency? Neither of their past two priority free agent D-line signings – Stephen Paea and Kendall Reyes – made it through a full season before getting benched and then cut.
The Redskins this week announced the hiring of Torrian Gray as the new defensive backs coach. Virginia Tech fans are excited about this former Hokie player and coach. But the Redskins only settled on Gray after botching this situation. They originally fired Perry Fewell along with Barry because Fewell didn’t relate well to players because of his hard-nosed inflexibility and ineffective communication skills. The Redskins wanted to promote Aubrey Pleasant, a bright, rising young talent, who worked under Raheem Morris and Fewell, and was the only guy capable of getting through to Bashaud Breeland and other youngsters. Team officials denied the requests of other teams to interview Pleasant. But at the same time, they didn’t want to pay him like they really wanted to keep him, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. And, they didn’t want to spend on an assistant defensive backs coach with any experience. So, frustrated, Pleasant walked.
Now, they have Gray, who came highly recommended by current Redskins defensive back Kendall Fuller and former Redskins safety Kyshoen Jarrett, who both played under Gray at Virginia Tech. But a check around the league returns mixed reviews on Gray. He’s a stickler for details and strong technician. But some say he also can be abrasive and inflexible, just like his former mentor, Fewell; Gray worked under him at Chicago in 2005. League insiders wonder how Gray will do with some of the veterans, who were all in support of Pleasant, and some of the passionate, yet emotional and sensitive younger guys like Breeland and Su’a Cravens, among others.
And concerns continue to loom over the talent. Can Cravens really play safety? Can DeAngelo Hall come back from anterior cruciate ligament surgery and remain the best option at free safety? There has been some talk about moving Breeland from corner to safety, but some within the organization would rather leave him at cornerback.
It’s not all peachy on the offensive side of the ball either. The Redskins never really expected to lose Sean McVay this offseason. But now he’s the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, a move that casts uncertainty on what had been the strength of the team. Yes, it’s Jay Gruden’s system. But he did give up play-calling duties two years ago so he could better focus on the entire team. Now he plans to resume calling plays despite promoting quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh to offensive coordinator – a position Cavanaugh hasn’t held since 2008 while yielding mixed results for Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Extremely detailed and organized, a great communicator and well respected by the players, McVay will be missed and could wind up being a big loss.
The Redskins hope that Gruden as play-caller and Cavanaugh as O.C. ensures a seamless transition, but the future of Cousins remains unresolved. Gruden and team president Bruce Allen remain adamant that Cousins will remain with the team. But is that franchise tag, or long-term deal? The Redskins prefer the latter, but well aware of differing opinions within the organization regarding his ceiling and worth, the quarterback still is a little salty and will not give a hometown discount. Things could change quickly, but there are no indications that the sides are venturing closer in negotiations, and so the franchise tag remains a high likelihood. Another franchise tag means a raise from a $20 million to $24 million salary this year, but it also means Cousins likely will not be here next year. The Redskins lose all future leverage if they franchise Cousins a second straight year. Tagging him a third offseason basically isn’t an option in 2018. That would mean having to pay him 144 percent of his previous salary, which translates into $35 million in 2018, which is too outlandish. So, Cousins would wind up being able to test the market. And despite handling himself with professionalism this offseason and last, Cousins would likely have lost all remaining slivers of goodwill toward the franchise if he doesn’t receive a long-term deal this year. Lowball a guy not once, but twice, after back-to-back career years, and he’s most assuredly ticked off and seeing himself as 16 games away from free agency.
But Gruden needs Cousins. He’s standing on the table for his quarterback. He’s already lost his right-hand man in McVay. Losing his quarterback spells regression in what’s supposed to be the year that he earns himself a contract extension.
However, those differing opinions over Cousins could wind up sabotaging the whole thing for Gruden. Even if Cousins returns, all of his weapons may not. It doesn’t sound as if the Redskins plan to re-sign DeSean Jackson, who is extremely talented, but too inconsistent for management’s taste. The team likes Pierre Garcon, and Garcon says he wants to be here. But as many as five other teams (Rams, Eagles, Bears, Cowboys, 49ers) are expected to want this reliable veteran to serve as a security blanket for their young quarterbacks.
If any of those come correct (financially), and the Redskins do the Redskins thing and lowball their own rather than giving them the respect they deserve, Garcon will likely shrug and go elsewhere. That would leave Washington with a poor receiving corps for Cousins (or whichever quarterback) to work with.
So, Gruden needs Allen, who has owner Daniel Snyder’s ear, to agree with him and make Cousins’s big pay day to happen, and he also needs his leading wide receiver back in the fold as well. Meanwhile, Gruden also needs general manager Scot McCloughan to have a home-run offseason. McCloughan needs that as well.
So far, while he has helped change the mind-set of the franchise, McCloughan hasn’t produced the drafts that the Redskins hoped for when Allen hired him in 2015. From that first draft class, guard Brandon Scherff earned Pro Bowl honors and wide receiver Jamison Crowder is a stud, but the jury remains out on outside linebacker Preston Smith, running back Matt Jones and guard Arie Kouandjio. The 2016 draft class’s first-round pick, wide receiver Josh Doctson, has barely played because of mysterious Achilles’ tendon injuries. Cravens and Fuller seem to have potential, but neither have solidified roles as of yet, and defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis and quarterback Nate Sudfeld currently look like nothing but backups.
After two slow-developing draft classes and a couple of botched free agent shopping periods, McCloughan has Allen breathing down his neck. The team president wouldn’t let the general manager speak to reporters at the Senior Bowl, and word is, he won’t be permitted to do his usual interview session with local reporters at the combine either. Allen apparently wants McCloughan completely locked in on talent evaluation.
If things don’t play out well this offseason, and in the 2017 season itself, not only will Cousins (if only franchised) likely be elsewhere in 2018, but Gruden and McCloughan (and depending on how ugly, maybe Allen, too) possibly could be as well. How crazy, but imaginable, is that? Two years of prosperity and then everything crashes and burns? It does fall in line with the franchises’s inability to sustain success over the past quarter century.
But, for everyone involved, let’s hope that this time, the powers that be can push all the right buttons and pull all the right levers this offseason.
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