- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

Joe Gibbs tried to explain yesterday but, really, what could he say? In the space of a week, the Redskins had lost three of their best young players — Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot to free agency and pouty Laveranues Coles to the Jets in a trade. Coach Joe put the best possible spin on it, noting that the club had re-signed the vast majority of its free agents the past two years, but how many Clifton Smiths add up to an Antonio Pierce? How many Ethan Albrights equal a Fred Smoot?

No, the loss of Pierce, Smoot and Coles were power punches directly to Gibbs’ midsection — and more importantly, to the team’s never-ending “rebuilding” efforts. “The last couple of days,” he admitted, had been some of “the toughest days I’ve faced. … I don’t like it.”

Who does — except the players themselves, who are not only wealthier now but also in better circumstances? After all, Coles’ Jets and Smoot’s Vikings made the playoffs last season, and Pierce’s Giants were in the playoffs the season before that (and in the Super Bowl two seasons before that). The Redskins, on the other hand, are 0-for-the-millennium as far as the playoffs are concerned.

And don’t think that didn’t enter into players’ various equations. Sure, money played a part — it always plays a part — but it’s easier to get a guy to settle for a little less if you’re a contender rather than a pretender. Considering all the subtractions from the roster recently, it’s hard to see the Redskins making any quantum leaps next season, and Pierce, Smoot and Coles no doubt share that view.

The uncomfortable question the team needs to ask itself right now is: Why do these players — Champ Bailey last year, the aforementioned three this year — want to leave? It’s hard to build anything if you can’t hang on to young talent, and aside from throwing piles of dough at LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels, the Redskins have had mixed results at best in this department.

A better way to approach the problem might be to ask: Why would anyone want to stay? The owner, Dan Snyder, is willing to spend but has been extravagantly wasteful. The coach, after an 11-year hiatus, is still coming to grips with the changes in the game. One of the highest-paid players on the club, Mark Brunell, figures to spend the coming season on the bench. And, oh yes, the team hasn’t had a winning record since 1999.

Does that sound like the Garden of Eden to you?

Gibbs sure is getting an education in his first year back on the job. Free agency and the salary cap, he’s learning, have changed the entire concept of empire building. Worse, it’s the players who often have the upper hand now. Dealing with them can be like dealing with David Spade in that television commercial. You make them an offer, and they say, “No”; you make them another offer, and they still say, “No.”

In the old days, John Riggins and Art Monk might have had tea with the USFL, but — thanks to Jack Kent Cooke’s Open Wallet Policy — they ultimately stayed with the “Redskins family.” Now, though, everybody shops himself around, even obscure restricted free agents, and teams have to pick and choose who they keep. The Redskins wanted to retain Pierce and Smoot, they just ran out of cap space.

They might have had more flexibility if they hadn’t been so adventurous last offseason, when they broke all records for check writing. I asked Gibbs about that after the finale against the Vikes, asked him whether he wished he hadn’t spent quite so liberally in his first year — before he had seen his players in action and gotten a better feel for the club’s needs.

He replied by ticking off the names of all the free agents the Redskins had signed — Cornelius Griffin, Marcus Washington, Shawn Springs et al. “I don’t know that anybody in the league had a better offseason than we did,” he said. What he left out, of course, was that all this frenzied recruiting had produced exactly one more victory than the year before. One more win!

And now Pierce, Smoot and Coles have followed Bailey out the door. Three more players in the prime of their careers will do their footballing for someone else. (On the plus side, Joe Salave’a and Mike Sellers are sticking around, though that doesn’t quite seem to even things out.)

You know what no one has mentioned in awhile? Sean Taylor’s desire — expressed not long after the ink was dry on his rookie contract — for a new deal. So we have that potential soap opera to look forward to … while we ponder the unfortunate departures of three starters, three “core Redskins.”

It just never ends, does it?

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