- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

It's Week 8 of the NFL season, and the Washington Redskins just signed a probable starting guard off the street, switched their starting quarterback for the third time and shuffled their receiving corps yet again.

Coach Steve Spurrier, an offensive wizard at the college and USFL levels, is guiding the league's 23rd-ranked unit in his first NFL season. He has disputed that he is "fiddling" with the roster, contending that he is simply trying to figure out who his best players are.

Would the identity of his best players be clearer if the Redskins had made different moves during the offseason? Probably. Over the past few days, interviews with a number of people inside and very close to the organization revealed three key reasons for the Redskins' unsettled offensive personnel.

First, the continued turnover in the scouting department and on the coaching staff has left a shallow base of knowledge to fill offensive positions with the right players. Only one offensive coach (Kim Helton) has more than two seasons of NFL experience, and Helton hadn't coached in the league since 1992.

Second, Spurrier believed he could make the offense run with pretty much whatever he was given. He pushed for few if any moves during the offseason, but in recent weeks he has begun to understand the importance of NFL-caliber personnel.

Third, the current personnel structure remains top-heavy. Decisions are heavily influenced by owner Dan Snyder, vice president of football operations Joe Mendes, director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato and executive Pepper Rodgers. Thus, it's no surprise that the team doesn't seem to have a unifying philosophy.

Ultimately, most of the people interviewed believe that the setup is reasonably sound, because it comes to consensus from a lot of opinions (notably coaches' not a given in all systems). Engaging in philosophical battles over potential draftees in the war room, for example, is considered healthy though, it should be noted, there is usually a coach or general manager figure who makes final decisions, which Washington does not have.

But insiders also think the situation is evolving. And change regarding the aforementioned first and second factors could lessen the shuffling of personnel in future seasons.

With regard to the first factor (low base of knowledge), an offseason of continuity should make a big difference. The personnel department has had four chiefs or combinations of chiefs over the past four years: Charley Casserly (1990-1999), Snyder and Cerrato (2000), Marty Schottenheimer (2001) and now the current mix.

Each chief had his own scouts, though some have remained through the turnover. Current director of pro scouting Scott Campbell, for example, was brought in by Schottenheimer, while director of college scouting Ron Nay has been with the club for six years.

Meanwhile, the head coaching post has undergone similar change: Norv Turner (1994-2000), interim coach Terry Robiskie (2000), Schottenheimer (2001) and Spurrier. And at defensive coordinator: Mike Nolan (1997-1999), Ray Rhodes (2000), Kurt Schottenheimer (2001) and now Marvin Lewis.

Continuity will help scouts and coaches work together to figure out which players fit the system. The Redskins, who had a record payroll approaching $100million in 2000, now realize they can't overspend at every position because of the salary cap. The value of modestly priced players increases if they fit the system, and a coach who has been in the league the last five or six years might know of a diamond in the rough who would thrive in this scheme.

Guard is one position where depth of knowledge might have helped. Rod Jones signed a three-year, $3million deal early in free agency, but he was overweight and struggled to adjust from tackle to guard. Now he's on injured reserve with a torn biceps and modestly talented David Loverne has been a starter all season when healthy.

Club officials don't think there was another viable guard in free agency or in the draft's early rounds. But this week they signed Tre Johnson, who has been on the street since Aug.31, and it appears likely he'll win a starting job. In coming seasons, the team should be able to better identify low-priced players who fit Spurrier's system.

With regard to the second factor (Spurrier's miscalculations about the NFL), the change already is under way. The coach has begun acknowledging NFL axioms such as the importance of a quarterback who can run and how all defenses can create pressure. And last weekend at Green Bay, he gave running back Stephen Davis 24 carries in a loss; previously, Davis averaged just 13 carries in defeats.

Until recently, the coach thought his system could make any combination of quarterbacks and wide receivers work. The club didn't chase New England's Drew Bledsoe (now the NFL's third-ranked passer with Buffalo). The move would have been costly from a trade and a cap standpoint, but it was possible and Spurrier didn't push for it.

In fact, at one point Spurrier didn't think he needed current starter Shane Matthews, believing he could go into the season with Danny Wuerffel, Sage Rosenfels and Patrick Ramsey. The coach was lukewarm on drafting Ramsey and, in early August, tried to trade him.

At wide receiver, Spurrier never showed any interest in veteran free agents like Keenan McCardell (who has 29 catches for Tampa Bay) or Antonio Freeman (17 receptions for Philadelphia), believing he had more than enough talent in Jacquez Green, Kevin Lockett, Chris Doering and Derrius Thompson. Although that quartet does have some talent, none of the members has produced consistently.

Everyone in the organization believes Spurrier is a smart person who is learning rapidly. Next season he is expected to take the more active role in personnel that some of Washington's coaches already play. His increased understanding of the NFL should be an asset as the club searches for talent.

With regard to the third factor (a top-heavy structure), it is unclear whether anything will change. And that, people outside the organization say, could be the ultimate downfall of the Redskins' personnel system.

This offseason the diversity of opinion was evident. The team splurged for linebacker Jeremiah Trotter at a position where it already had starter Kevin Mitchell, but it dropped twice in the first round to draft a player (Ramsey) who wasn't expected to contribute this season. And in the second round, the team selected a player (running back Ladell Betts) who clearly wouldn't challenge for Davis' starting job.

For now, many of the people interviewed feel that the binge-and-purge system can succeed despite its lack of a clear leader or philosophy. Ultimately, they believe, it doesn't matter whether the moves are pricey or frugal, just so long as the scouting behind them is solid.

Whether they are right should be more evident by Week 8 next season.

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