- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

There’s no instructional book, no “Idiot’s Guide to NFL General Managing,” that tells you how to build a winning pro football team. George Halas didn’t come down from some mountaintop with a pair of stone tablets. Don Shula, as far as I know, hasn’t published his diaries.

No, every club concocts its own formula and tries to make it work - some, obviously, more successfully than others. Luck aside, the Super Bowl champ is really the team that had the best plan that year - or did the best job of implementing its plan - the best job of prioritizing, identifying talent, acquiring it, nurturing it. This is how Lombardi Trophies are won.

For years, Dan Snyder’s Redskins went off on their own tangent. They simply didn’t operate the way other franchises did. At first, Snyder seemed to be collecting football cards rather than players - Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, etc., etc. After he outgrew that phase, he bucked the consensus by resolutely refusing to build through the draft. One free agent after another came through the doors in Ashburn, with decidedly mixed results (never mind the expense).

But as Dan the Man begins his 10th season as owner, the organization shows signs of becoming more conventional. The Redskins actually had 10 draft picks this year, and all 10 made the 53-man roster.

“The average age of our backups, I’m told, is around 25; last year it was over 28,” says Vinny Cerrato, recently promoted to vice president of football operations. “If you’re going to pay the starting guys what we do, you have to have younger [and cheaper] guys behind them that you’re developing.”

Can you believe this is the Redskins talking - the no-patience, never-saw-a-draft-choice-they-couldn’t-trade Redskins? That’s what a decade with 79 losses and 70 wins will do to you. Snyder and Cerrato, tired of quick fixes that, too often, don’t fix anything, have decided to plot a different course. Redskins fans can only hope they’re in it for the long haul.

Now that Joe Gibbs is gone, Cerrato says, he has more control over the team’s free agent shopping. And how has he exercised this control? By convincing his boss that - brace yourself - sometimes it pays to wait, to wait out the market instead of always diving headfirst into it.

“You don’t have to have your roster set in March,” he says.

You don’t? Who would have guessed after watching the hyperactive Snyder all these offseasons?

“We were criticized after the draft for not getting a defensive end,” says Cerrato, “and we ended up with Jason Taylor [for a second-round pick] and Erasmus James [for a conditional seventh-rounder]. There are different ways to get people.”

Well, well, well. The Redskins have finally wised up, have finally figured out that, for all the differences between the old NFL and the modern NFL, the draft remains as crucial to success as ever - supplemented, of course, by the occasional trade or free agent signing.

The issue nowadays is more: Which positions do you target? Which do you consider most important to winning? (After quarterback, that is.)

More and more teams are making the defensive line (read: pass rush) their top priority. The Patriots certainly have. Their starting front of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren were all No. 1 picks.

Or look at the Seahawks. Their depth chart includes two defensive linemen who were first-rounders (Marcus Tubbs, Lawrence Jackson), one who was a second-rounder (Darryl Tapp), plus two big-money free agents (Julian Peterson, Patrick Kerney), both of whom specialize in bringing pressure.

The Eagles, meanwhile, have spent two firsts (Mike Patterson, Broderick Bunkley) and two seconds (Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws) on defensive linemen - in just the last four drafts. And in this year’s draft, you may have noticed, the biggest move in the first round was made by the Jaguars, who jumped from 26th to eighth so they could get, yes, a defensive lineman, Florida end Derrick Harvey.

These aren’t just any organizations, either; they’re among the best in the NFL. And they’ve come to the conclusion, as others have, that in today’s wide-open game, you had better be able to rush the passer - especially in the fourth quarter.

That’s why the Redskins’ approach has been so puzzling. Since Snyder became the owner in May of ‘99, they haven’t used a single first- or second-round pick on a defensive lineman. No other club has blown off the D-line in the draft to that extent (though the Raiders and Bengals have come close).

And what, ladies and gentlemen, was the key to the Giants’ stunning Super Bowl win over the Patriots last February? All together now: the pass rush. In fact, the Giants (53) and Pats (47) were 1-2 in the league in sacks. Think that’s a coincidence?

Not that there aren’t other routes to the Super Bowl. The Colts won a title with a nigh unstoppable offense (and, by the end, a pretty stingy defense). Did you know that every one of Indianapolis’ skill position players on offense this season was a No. 1 pick - the quarterback (Peyton Manning), the running back (Joseph Addai), all three receivers (Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Anthony Gonzalez), even the tight end (Dallas Clark)? I’m not sure that’s ever happened before.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, are on the verge of great things despite going eight years (2000-07) without drafting an offensive player in Round 1. (Jerry Jones finally broke down and took running back Felix Jones this year.)

Taylor is a nice addition for the Redskins, sure, but he’s only a short-term solution. If Snyder and Cerrato want to build a championship team, history tells us, they’re going to have to start investing some of their high picks in pass rushers. Call it the next step in their long-overdue Rejoining of the NFL Mainstream.

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