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Haynesworth Still Looms Over Redskins

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(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Think of Robert Griffin III lined up in the pistol, Alfred Morris in his rear-view, Pierre Garcon and Greg Jennings split wide and Wes Welker in the slot. Sounds sexy, doesn’t it? Unstoppable? Even irresistible? Heck, such a scenario might even make the Washington Redskins the darlings of fantasy football drafts.

It could have happened. In a year not too long ago, it probably would have happened. Here’s the problem: it wouldn’t have worked then and it wouldn’t work now. You know it. I know it. Mike Shanahan knows it. Daniel Snyder might be willing to at least consider the inherent fatality of such a scenario at this point in his ownership. 

A couple of decades into modern NFL free agency, teams and fans have learned this hard, buzz-killing lesson: title teams can be gently accentuated, but not built, via free agency. No team spent more, generated greater levels of false hope and did more damage to its reputation while digesting this bitter commandment of NFL personnel management than the Washington Redskins.

The Redskins, free agency addicts that they were, kept responding to every failed acquisition by doubling-down on free agents the subsequent offseason. The organizational death-spiral only ended when rock bottom was reached: inking Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million contract and guaranteeing him over $40 million. I suppose in sports, as in life, some lessons are learned sooner than others.

Since Mike Shanahan and GM Bruce Allen arrived in town to rescue Daniel Snyder from himself, the team has employed a far more traditional approach to roster management. This offseason, the Redskins completed their makeover by being in contention and signing exactly zero high-profile free agents. Instead, the team quietly focused its limited cap space on retaining the team’s own free agents and the core of a young team that won the NFC East

It was, quite honestly, exactly the right thing to do for a fan-base fatigued by soulless offseason fireworks and a team desperate to cleanse a soiled image. 

Organic Chemistry

It’s counter-intuitive to the uninitiated. Acquiring players like Wes Welker and Greg Jennings is a bad thing? Why? Well, it’s inorganic. It’s like buying genetically modified corn or perfectly ripe tomatoes in February. I mean, it can be done and it’s scientifically amazing, but is it a good thing or too good to be true? On the veggies, I suppose it’s debatable; on the free agent prizes, the answer is the latter.

Free agents tamper with nature—a team’s basic chemistry. The acquisition of talent complies with economics’ law of diminishing marginal returns: additional units of talent will eventually result in decreasing units of output.  Talent is required to win, but eventually its importance is trumped by chemistry. After winning seven straight to close the 2012 season with a division title, the Redskins might finally be on to something. For the first time in maybe 20 years, a ‘Skins team’s record surpassed its talent. Why mess with that?

Basic Human Instinct

One of the ‘Skins’ great failures in their serial, unapologetic and illogical acquisition of free agents—the book will be called “When the Teenagers Stole the Credit Cards”—was the team’s blatant disregard for the effect of financial satisfaction on human ambition—both that of the satisfied individual and his colleagues. The idea that football players are universally and irreproachably motivated to be the best they can be and win Super Bowls is the naïve musings of adolescents.

The unattractive reality is money, especially when acquired in large, instantaneous heaps, often tempers a person’s drive. There are scant few people, non-stop competitors like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, whose thirst for career achievement isn’t compromised by the attainment of financial riches. On the other end of the spectrum lies Albert Haynesworth. Everyone else resides in the considerable spectrum between those poles. The message for free agent shoppers with a stack of blanks checks is this: a fattened wallet will remove a little bit of the fight out of nearly every dog.

This basic human instinct (or flaw)—the softening effect of financial contentment—increases the likelihood that lucrative free agents will underperform to their contracts while dutiful, home grown talents over perform to theirs. When payment becomes too misaligned with performance, a stench forms in the locker room and rots a team at its core. 

For the first time since the original Joe Gibbs era, the Redskins’ payment structure aligns well with production. The team’s highest paid players—Trent Williams, RGIII and London Fletcher—are among its best, and Pierre Garcon, the ‘Skins’ one free agent indulgence last season, was a beast in 2012. Such balance between production and the paychecks is rare in the NFL and unprecedented in D.C. this century. 

I say again, why mess with that?

Worn Our Jerseys

The ‘Skins two brief moments of post-Y2K success—the 2005 and 2007 playoff berths—didn’t feel right. Players such as Mark Brunell, Todd Collins, Clinton Portis, Shawn Springs, Renaldo Wynn, Randy Thomas and Marcus Washington (I could go on) led those playoff runs. To a man, they were poached from other rosters, arrived in D.C., threw on the colors and punched a couple of token tickets to the postseason. They never really felt like “Skins” or, in the case of Portis, justified the price of their acquisition (if you disassociated the presence of Clinton Portis from the absence of Champ Bailey, you’re delusional). The teams seemed cheap, manufactured and compiled for only a brief and soon forgotten moment. Such is life on a free agent roller coaster.

Unlike those trademark hodgepodge Snyder teams, the core of the Redskins’ current roster—RGIII, Alfred Morris, Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan, Darrel Young, Logan Paulsen, Brian Orakpo, et al—is young, talented and homegrown. Now that they’re together, the ‘Skins are absolutely spot on to make every effort to keep them together. After little more than a first date, they’re D.C.’s and D.C. is theirs. This unit has a high ceiling, the promise of a long shelf life and an opportunity to create a lasting connection with a proud franchise and lonely fan base longing for a jersey they can wear out instead of donating as “hardly worn.”

Winning is one thing; winning with your own produces an entirely different experience. Redskins nation has the special opportunity to do just that for the foreseeable future.

I’ll ask for a final time: why mess with that? Apparently not even Daniel Snyder could (even if he was assisted by Roger Goodell).