February 26, 2009

Taking Free Agency in Context

I had been treating myself to a break the past couple of weeks ... figure even obsessed fans need some kind of offseason.

That all ended the minute the web started buzzing with Albert Haynesworth (hereinafter AH)-to-the-Redskins rumors.

One minute I had both feet firmly on the ground, it was mid-February and I was focused on family, my day job and the general pursuit of happiness.

The next, as the AH thing picked up steam, I was transported to early September ...

There’s Albert Haynesworth, collapsing a 3rd-and-long pocket in Dallas QB Tony Romo’s face.

Romo knows he needs an extra second to let his receiver clear the first down marker. He can’t step up, so he starts to bail right ... but encounters Jason Taylor there, closing fast with evil intent. He glances left, but there’s Andre Carter bearing down, a fiendish grin on his usually corporate face.

Romo ignores the alarm bells in his head–he’s a playmaker after all. He flicks his eyes beyond the line of scrimmage, spies a flash of white jersey ... and smiles inside his head. Only losers need to throw on rhythm; only robots need 3.2 seconds to throw to the right spot on this play--3.0 will do just fine.

Two tenths of a second before becoming a burgundy and gold sandwich, Romo flicks a sweet sidearm job toward the sideline ... and discovers, as 500 pounds of agitated defensive lineman drives him to the earth and much to his chagrin, that in all the excitement he has lost track of a certain safety ... who steps cleanly in front of the white jersey in question, gathers in the rock and takes off the other way.

Where were we? Oh, right. February.

Come midnight tonight, the wires will be alive with free agency news–who has signed where, who is rumored to sign there, whether Redskins One is on the ground in some key FA town, heading that way, or secreted in a hanger somewhere complete off the radar.

And at some point, chances are the Redskins will make a move. Maybe a big one. At that point I’ll be forced to remind myself, as I am every year, not to decide in the immediate aftermath, and not even with a few days to think about it, if this or any other one move they made is a good one or bad one.

I’ll do my best to remember that the offseason is an eight month process. That even if a headliner like Haynesworth comes aboard, there are dozens of questions that will have to be answered before I can meaningfully assess the move.

I suspect you’ve been asking yourself many of the same ones thinking about a possible AH signing:

Will they have to let anyone go they really want to keep in order to get him?

Would signing a monster defensive tackle in free agency mean the Redskins don’t intend to look seriously at the defensive line in the draft?

What other changes will be made on the defensive side of the ball that will impact how AH would be used–what they might ask him to do?

What changes on the other side of the ball might happen that could impact how Blache calls defenses? What if the offense improves and actually provides some point support? What if the offense continues to struggle?

Exactly what brand of AH would we be getting; the one that has earned a reputation as one of the dominant forces in football over the past two years, or one that might go Stubblefield on us, suddenly and mysteriously seeming to lose interest in tearing opposing linemen, running and quarterbacks limb from limb?

Is the fact that AH brainlocked and stomped on an opposing players' unprotected face with his cleats a sign this maybe isn't a guy custom-fit to a London Fletcher, Cornelius Griffin locker room?

How long would AH have to play for the Redskins, and at what level, to justify the superstar contract he is going to command?

The bin I pulled those questions from is overflowing with more, as I know you know, so I won’t waste our time with more today. I know you get my drift.

Between the advent of free agency tonight and final roster cuts just before the start of 2009 regular season, the Redskins will be in a state of flux. Throughout that time, as fans we’ll have ups and downs as certain players are added that change our perspective on the entire team, not to mention our concept of what it is the front office is trying to accomplish. Same thing will happen as players in the news are not signed, current players are let go and other have their contracts reworked.

And the seemingly biggest moves–an AH signing, for instance–won’t even necessarily be the ones we look back on in a year or two, and say, "that's where it started."

Last February, was the name Kerry Collins on our collective radar? How about Kurt Warner? Darren Sproles? Chris Horton?

How many times over the course of the last twelve months do you suppose NY Jets fans had their feelings about the Brett Favre signing do abrupt about-faces?

To bring it closer to home, consider your feelings today on the Jason Taylor signing. For purposes of discussion ... what if, come January, the Redskins have ridden an improved Jason Campbell passing game, and a running game freed up from constant eight-man fronts, supported by a defense that has managed to come up with three or four of the kind of “big plays” that have been glaringly absent the past few years, and find themselves having turned 8-8 into 12-4?

Now suppose, for a second, that those 12-4 Redskins hit the playoffs relatively healthy, the daydream I painted earlier starts to play out on the field ... and suddenly the Redskins are riding a solid offense and strong pass-rushing defense deep into January?

If that were to happen ... might your view of the Jason Taylor signing change? Would it impact whatever pre-assessment you might have made on a prospective Albert Haynesworth signing?

I suspect so. I know mine would.

Let us raise a glass, then, to the start of the "real" offseason, but resolve to keep our wits about us as it unfolds.

February 6, 2009

Sounds of Silence

Three kinds of silence have been on my mind this week.

I. The one coming from Ashburn. I don’t know about you, but after the clamor of recent offseasons past, I'm finding the current calm quite comforting.

And why not? For once, all the really big questions are off the table. For better or worse, we know who is going to be owning the team, we know who is going to be generally managing it, and we know who is going to be wearing the headsets on the sidelines.

Beyond that, we know who is going to man the high profile positions on the field.

We know who is going to be the quarterback–or at least we think we do. We’re pretty sure we know who is going to be at running back. We’re pretty sure the receivers who will take the field on opening day are on the roster today.

We’re not in bad shape in the secondary, either, and we're arguably okay for at least one more year at linebacker (he says solemnly, burning incense and chanting for the continued health of one London Fletcher).

The line of scrimmage, of course–both sides–is another matter. Predictions of total disaster ahead may be overly dramatic, but there is definitely cause for concern–if not at the start of the year, certainly as another marathon season that it is grinds into December.

But the point here wasn’t to break down the roster--that’s for another day. The point is to acknowledge something or a rarity in these parts of late ... the reality that well into February, the Washington Redskins are not a nightly lead story on Sportscenter. No coaching tumult, no serious player unrest, no legal drama, nothing.

I find it ... soothing.

II. Okay, it’s another day.

This silence, despite all attempts at reason, is making me nervous. It’s the silence that is not getting broken by word out of Redskins Park that it is no-kidding, get-out-of-our-way, dead damn serious about fixing the lines of scrimmage.

Oh sure, I know they can’t tip their hand.

I know they’re feverishly working the draft and free agent boards.

I know in their heart of hearts they know their offensive line will be an average of 32 years old come September, and cannot possibly be expected to last another entire season without injury or attrition leaving them, once again, marginally effective in crunch time.  

And I know they know they haven’t had a legitimate, consistent, double-team-eating, elite pass rusher since Charles Mann left for the West Coast after the 1993 season.  For those scoring at home ... that was in Richie Petitbone Era.  

You know what it is?  It’s that this sounds like same silence we have heard about this matter for so very long.  And it’s that in recent years past I’ve written confidently, at time of year, that this is surely the year the Redskins pull the trigger, that this is surely the year they’re going to finally get serious about upgrading their lines. 

I don’t want them tipping their hand, I really don't.  And I'm only half serious here.  But the half that is would seriouly like to hear something–anything at all–that might quiet the nagging thought in my head that free agency will again come and go, and the draft will again come and go, and when the dust has settled, we’ll all look around and realize the song remains the same.

It’s quiet. Too quiet.

III. A man died Tuesday.

When he was a young man, he laughed and cried Washington Redskins football with his friend. They were in their 20's then, young and immortal, lives and the universe spread before them. The team they loved was not just winning championships and sealing lifelong memories in those days, they were doing so with a degree of class rarely seen in professional sport.

Those were glorious times for these men. They were a rich and lasting building block in a relationship that eventually turned friends into brothers.

When life eventually led, as it often does, to one brother living here and the other living there, taking from them the ability to live and die burgundy and gold on Sundays together, they adapted. They developed a code.

A highlight-reel play ... one ring.

A key score ... one ring.

A victory ... one ring.

The man who died Tuesday was a big man. Big in size, big in heart, big in personality. He had big appetites, for many things ... things that at times themselves were left to dictate when enough was enough. He was not an easy man; he had a stubborn streak as deep as his heart was big, a fierce independence that often ran counter to the interests of his relationships, his health, his life.

As the years passed, the man’s life sometimes got away from him. But the child behind the eyes never faltered. He was all too often unable see his faults as reflected in the eyes of his people or his world, but was as loyal and forgiving of the faults in others as any man likely to have walked the earth. 

Well, this man’s time came on Tuesday. It came suddenly, quietly, naturally and utterly unbefitting a man of such outsize dimensions.

Some men go through life waiting for it to happen. Others charge through it full throttle, hair on fire, beating their chest with a twinkle in their eye, talking too loud, charging ahead heedless of the furniture crunching underfoot, living, loving, laughing and crying ‘til the day their final sun comes up.

That was my friend.

For the rest of my days, when the burgundy and gold highlight-reel play unfolds, when the key score is tallied, when the final victory gun sounds ... my phone will be silent. It will not ring.

Not even once.

Godspeed brother.