- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

Since Vince Lombardi arrived in 1969, no team has valued first round draft picks less than the Redskins. In 38 drafts, they’ve traded out of the first round 22 times, more than double the nearest team.

At first glance, the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers were similar franchises in the spring of 1974. Coaches George Allen and Chuck Noll had led their teams to the playoffs the previous two seasons — three in a row for the Redskins — to end decades of dismal records.

But while the emotional Allen lived his “The Future Is Now” philosophy by stacking his roster with reliable veterans on the wrong side of age 30, the low-key Noll was building long-term.

Take, for example, the 1974 NFL Draft. Noll selected receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert and center Mike Webster before Allen — who had traded his first five picks — finally made a selection.

The Steelers won the first of four Super Bowl titles in six years that season while the Redskins would reach the postseason just twice in that span and did not win a playoff game. And all four of those 1974 Steelers rookies are enshrined in the Hall of Fame with Allen and Noll.

Those contrasting approaches to building a winning team have defined the Redskins and Steelers for more than three decades. Pittsburgh began plucking Hall of Fame players who helped form their dynastic 1970s run before their current coach, Mike Tomlin, was born. Washington was dealing picks for players before Dan Snyder watched his first game.

The Redskins have traded out of the first round in 22 of 38 drafts since the legendary Vince Lombardi’s arrival in 1969. No other team has gone without a first-round selection in more than nine of those drafts.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have taken a player in the first round every spring since Noll came to Pittsburgh in 1969. In addition to the aforementioned Hall of Famers, the Steelers’ first-rounders have included enshrinees Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris, likely Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, perennial Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca and superb safety Troy Polamalu. The Steelers selected all of those players in years the Redskins traded away their first-round selection.

While the Redskins — 30 years after Allen’s last draft — have talked for weeks about trading this year’s first-round pick (the sixth overall, and their only selection in the first four rounds), the Steelers — 15 years after Noll’s departure — are expected to stand pat at No. 15.

“There are teams that will hang onto picks no matter what,” said Bobby Beathard, the Redskins’ general manager from 1978 to 1989. “They won’t try to trade for multiple picks. They won’t trade down or up. They stick with the hand they’re dealt. They’re not even worth calling. We were certainly a team willing to deal so we got a lot of calls.”

That has been the case for nearly four decades in Washington.

Lombardi didn’t use a first-rounder in either of his two Redskins drafts. Allen chose only two players before the fifth round in his seven drafts.

“Mark Murphy [who made Allen’s last Redskins team as an undrafted rookie safety] once told me that George’s playbook started on page 50,” said Charley Casserly, who worked for Allen and Beathard before serving as Washington’s general manager from 1989 to 1999. “You had to learn the first 49 pages by yourself.”

That doomed most rookies, which was just fine with Allen, who trusted them about as much as he did the media. Just five of Allen’s draft choices started a game as a rookie during his 1971-77 Washington tenure.

Beathard inherited an aging roster from Allen in 1978 but didn’t truly restock it until the 1981 draft, when he chose four Pro Bowl players: offensive linemen Mark May and Russ Grimm, defensive end Dexter Manley and receiver Charlie Brown. Beathard made four trades en route to winding up with the then-normal complement of 12 picks.

“George’s philosophy was 180 degrees from mine,” Beathard said. “We believed the draft had to be the foundation of your team. We traded away No. 1s to get more draft choices. It wasn’t only the first-round picks that were important. It was all the way down to the end.”

Indeed, Beathard struck gold with tight end Clint Didier (12th round), linebacker Monte Coleman and guard Raleigh McKenzie (11th), guard Mark Schlereth (10th), Brown (eighth) and quarterback Mark Rypien and tackle Ed Simmons (sixth). That success was critical, because after drafting May, Art Monk and Darrell Green with his initial three first-rounders, Beathard traded away his last six top picks as well as the first one of Casserly’s tenure.

Casserly was groomed by Allen and Beathard but performed more like Noll and Pittsburgh’s old-school owner, Dan Rooney. Casserly traded out of the first round in just one of his nine drafts, when he acquired former top overall pick Dan Wilkinson from Cincinnati for the 17th choice in the 1998 draft.

Not that Casserly’s first-round batting average was anything like Beathard’s.

He whiffed on top-five picks Desmond Howard, Heath Shuler and Michael Westbrook, and No. 30 Andre Johnson never played a down. Casserly’s final first-rounder, cornerback Champ Bailey, was easily his best pick, but newcomer Snyder still fired him three months after the draft.

“There is no right or wrong way to handle the draft,” Casserly said. “There are just different philosophies. I generally tried to hold on to the first-round picks so that we’d have more flexibility on draft day. If I could get a proven player for a pick, I would consider it, but in the salary cap system [which began in 1994], you don’t want to do it too often because it eats away at your cap. You need your [cheaper] draft choices to balance your cap.”

Failing to take that into account has contributed to Washington’s struggles during the Snyder era, during which the team has had just one winning season in his seven full years of ownership. The Steelers, who posted five winning seasons and won a Super Bowl during that same stretch, had 29 draft picks on their roster at the end of last season. The Redskins had 15.

If the Redskins don’t acquire more picks this weekend, this will be the fifth straight draft in which they won’t select the allotted complement of seven choices.

No matter how often coach Joe Gibbs talks about wanting to have a full draft, that’s just not his style.

“Joe has always had the win-now philosophy,” said Casserly, who helped Gibbs win three Super Bowls during the Hall of Fame coach’s first Redskins tenure (1981-92).

“We fall in the category of being more aggressive,” Gibbs agreed. “That’s the way it was before when I was here. Bobby was real aggressive, wanting to trade away [first-rounders] a lot of times. Today it’s based on Dan being as aggressive as he is. Other teams are pretty much draft-conscious.”

Unrestricted free agency, which began the month that Gibbs retired in 1993, has made the coach even less draft-conscious than he was the first time around.

“If a guy is playing in the league, he’s going to cost more money, but also there’s probably less chance that you’re going to miss something,” Gibbs said. “With the draft, you’re projecting a guy coming out of college going into pro ball. Why won’t he be the same kind of player? You’ve got me. But you see it over and over and over again.”

Just like every April, when the Steelers use their first-rounder and accumulate a bunch of draft picks while the Redskins do the exact opposite.

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