Friday, October 27, 2006

The NFL’s most disappointing team this season also faces a troubling question about its long-term future: Is the worst yet to come for the Washington Redskins?

The Redskins, who are in their bye week, are 2-5 and meet teams with winning records in seven of their final nine games. The performance of the offense in general and the quarterback in particular has been spotty, and the defense plummeted in league rankings from top 10 to bottom seven.

The future, however, looks even more distressing. The Redskins entered this season as the oldest team in the league, and they’ll head into the offseason with few draft picks and little salary cap space to use to make improvements.

The Redskins’ rivals in the NFC East — the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys — have stockpiled young talent. The Redskins, meanwhile, have stockpiled veterans on the downside of their careers. Their opening day roster consisted of players with an average age of 27.83, the highest in the NFL.

Eight of the Redskins’ starters on offense and defense already are thirtysomethings: quarterback Mark Brunell (36), offensive tackle Jon Jansen (30), guard Randy Thomas (30), defensive end Phillip Daniels (33), defensive tackle Joe Salave’a (31), linebackers Marcus Washington (30) and Warrick Holdman (30) and cornerback Shawn Springs (31).

Four other starters — offensive tackle Chris Samuels, center Casey Rabach, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and linebacker Lemar Marshall — will join them within a year.

The flow of rookies into the starting lineup, on the other hand, has been decidedly small: Samuels, guard Derrick Dockery, tight end Chris Cooley, cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Sean Taylor are the only such players to enter the lineup since 2000.

That list seems all the shorter in comparison to the other teams in the division.

The Eagles start 13 such players, including Pro Bowl cornerback Sheldon Brown and star running back Brian Westbrook. The Cowboys start 12, including Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams and tight end Jason Witten. The Giants start nine, led by quarterback Eli Manning and Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey.

That trend won’t be reversed soon.

The Redskins will have only one or two picks in the first four rounds of next year’s draft, depending upon the compensation they are required to give for their preseason trade for running back T.J. Duckett.

Their division rivals, meanwhile, are better positioned for the draft. The Cowboys and Giants each have all of their picks in the first four rounds, and the Eagles hold a pick in each of the first three rounds.

The Redskins long have operated in such a manner, often to great success. The George Allen line, “the future is now,” has served as their motto for nearly four decades, whether Allen, Bobby Beathard, Dan Snyder or Joe Gibbs called the shots in the front office.

The Redskins never believed in losing today to build a better tomorrow. Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi always hates “to see holes” when he looks at his roster of picks for the next draft, but the Redskins generally have traded picks like so many Pokemon cards.

Allen drafted only one player before the fourth round in his seven seasons in charge. Beathard traded six of his final seven first-round picks. Snyder, in charge of the 2000, 2002 and 2003 drafts, and Gibbs, who has ruled the front office the past three years, haven’t been as trade crazed. Still, their combined six drafts produced only 13 players, five of them starters, on the current roster.

When Gibbs returned to the Redskins in 2004 after an 11-year retirement, he was thrilled by the prospect of working with the unrestricted free agency that began the month he departed the league. A coach who treasured veterans loved being able to bring in proven players as free agents rather than trying to guess how collegians might adjust to the pros.

“I’d hate to think what our team would look like if we weren’t active in free agency,” Gibbs said this week when asked about the failure of this year’s class of free agents.

Gibbs did well with most of the veterans he imported in 2004: Washington made the Pro Bowl that season, and Springs and Griffin should have. Daniels led the team in sacks last year. All four were key starters for the Redskins team that last season ended a five-year playoff drought.

The most recent free agent classes (Andre Carter, Brandon Lloyd, Adam Archuleta, et al) so far has been disappointing.

In addition to the salary cap-eating contracts, there is a hidden cost to adding such experienced talent. When those players come to the Redskins, they are either hitting their peak (Washington, Griffin) or are on the way down (Brunell, Daniels). And they’re not going to give that little extra something in hopes of landing their first mega-millions contract, as a younger player might.

Some scoffed when the Eagles, who possessed elite cornerbacks in Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, used first- and second-round picks on corners Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown in the 2002 draft. Why not draft a receiver to replace run-of-the-mill starters Todd Pinkston and James Thrash?

Two years later, however, Vincent and Taylor had departed and Sheppard and Brown were starting on the Eagles’ first Super Bowl team in 24 years. And, for good measure, Sheppard made the Pro Bowl.

In contrast, the Redskins had no young offensive linemen on the rise to fill in for injured starters in recent seasons. So when Jansen suffered a season-ending injury in 2004 and Thomas did the same last season, they were replaced by Ray Brown, the oldest lineman to play in the NFL in 75 years. Brown retired in January at 43.

Or compare the Redskins’ defense, the team’s solid foundation the past two years, to that of the Cowboys. The Dallas defense includes six starters under 27, the Redskins’ only two (Taylor and Rogers).

And consider the quarterbacks.

Donovan McNabb, who turns 30 next month, is in his prime in his seventh season as the Eagles’ main man. Manning, 25, is making giant strides in his second year as New York’s full-time starter. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells is gambling that 26-year-old Tony Romo will give the offense the spark that immobile veteran Drew Bledsoe couldn’t.

Gibbs, however, remains committed to over-the-hill Brunell while Jason Campbell, a first-round draft pick last year, watches and waits.

The more obvious problem with bringing in top-shelf veterans, however, is their cost.

Springs, Brunell, Griffin and Daniels alone account for more than $23 million on the Redskins’ 2007 salary cap. Taylor, Rogers, Campbell and their top choice in the 2006 draft, linebacker Rocky McIntosh, cost less than $7 million combined. And getting rid of highly paid players has its costs, too. Former linebacker LaVar Arrington counts nearly $8 million against the Redskins’ cap this year even though he now plays for the Giants.

The Redskins are just $1 million below next year’s projected salary cap of $109 million. Their division rivals, again, are in better position: The Eagles ($31 million under the cap), Cowboys ($22 million) and Giants ($16 million) have plenty of money to spend.

So help isn’t on the way to Redskin Park anytime soon.

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