An Examination of What Went Wrong in Washington
Scot McCloughan won one battle in Washington in August 2015. If he’d won two, maybe—maybe—the Redskins wouldn’t be in the mess they’re wading through now.
The then-GM met for five hours one night that summer to try to convince owner Dan Snyder and president Bruce Allen that the time had come, and the team needed to move from Robert Griffin III to Kirk Cousins. Soon thereafter, with Cousins installed as starter, and believing he was in for a big year, McCloughan made a second appeal to the team’s top brass.
Let’s extend Cousins now, he told them, so we’re not stuck holding the bag later.
In the end, the quarterback’s lingering contract situation was one noticeable trigger in the explosion of the relationship between McCloughan and Allen, the team’s top two decision-makers. Most people in Ashburn agree that the deterioration of the Allen/McCloughan partnership is why we’re here. The root of that discord remains up for debate, however, and it might never be definitively settled.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look at what could prevent another lockout/strike four years from now, early team impressions on Joe Mixon, the rebirth of the NFL safety, the league’s future in Las Vegas, the secret behind the Patriots’ sudden offseason aggression and more.
We’ll start, though, by explaining how Washington got back into a spot that’s all too familiar, where organizational chaos envelops the football side of an operation and swallows whole the promise of a new day.
Full disclosure: I bought that promise 100 percent a year ago. My belief, having been around the Redskins, was that they had become as level as they had been at any point during Snyder’s ownership. They had perhaps the top talent evaluator in football. They had an ascending, 40-something head coach with a strong, deep staff. They had a 27-year-old quarterback. They had an increasingly deep roster.
They were good in 2015—division champs and red-hot down the stretch—and poised to get better. Even a jaded fan base was climbing aboard.
A year later the GM is gone, coach Jay Gruden is replacing both his coordinators, the quarterback’s future is murky, and D.C. Drama is back. And after talking with people at every level of the team who were there for the downturn, it’s clear there is passionate disagreement over just what tore all that optimism to shreds.
On one side of this is the idea, floated to the Washington Post by an anonymous team source, that McCloughan’s past demons—he’s publicly talked about his fight with alcoholism—returned to bring him down over the last year. On the other side, there are players and coaches who deny ever having witnessed that, and argue that it is being used as a red herring to take attention off a power struggle between Allen and McCloughan.
“What’s pissing me off is how everything is Scot’s fault,” said one veteran player. “This is not Scot’s fault. Everyone here appreciates Scot. … Let’s be honest, the issues are there, but he’s never gotten in front of the team drunk or anything like that. Whoever is saying that needs to stop.”
“If that was there, he did a good job of hiding it,” said another player. “There was never a discussion about that, at least that I saw.”
What those on the coaching and scouting staffs did see, eventually, was a blurring of lines that created a level of tension in the upper reaches of the club. There were, in particular, three flash points obvious to those not named Allen and McCloughan:
• The Cousins negotiation. At the close of training camp in 2015, McCloughan wanted to try to extend Cousins, but there was concern over how that would go over with Griffin, because some felt the team would still need him at some point. (Whether a fair figure could have been reached with Cousins is open for debate, considering the quarterback’s inconsistent résumé and lack of success at that point.) Finally, that December, McCloughan was given the green light. By then, Cousins’ camp wanted to wait until after the year.
After Cousins’ hot finish, the Skins knew they’d have to franchise Cousins at around $20 million, which framed negotiations in a place where the team wasn’t willing to go. Talks on a long-term deal got off to a rough start, and then control shifted from McCloughan to team negotiator Eric Schaffer. By the time 2016 was winding down, the GM had been removed completely from decision-making on Cousins.
To some inside the club, the use of the exclusive tag on Cousins was a surprise, since there’d been earlier discussion on potentially moving Cousins and going with Colt McCoy or signing someone like Mike Glennon. Point of all this? It’s hard to say that this was necessarily where the problem began, but there’s no question—based on the import of quarterback decisions—that it strained the relationship.
• Su’a Cravens injury. The rookie safety/linebacker injured his biceps on Dec. 11 against the Eagles. Initially the team believed it was a tear. It wound up being a bruise, the kind players often play through. Cravens missed the following Monday’s game against Carolina, and then the next game in Chicago on Christmas Eve.
By then, teammates, some of whom had seen him playing ping-pong at the facility, were openly wondering why he wasn’t pushing through the injury. After he missed two games, the team wanted him to get the arm drained in an effort to play in Week 17. Cravens responded by not showing up to the facility for treatment that day, at which point McCloughan decided to call Cravens.
That didn’t go over well with Allen. Some veterans felt McCloughan was simply trying to uphold the culture that he and Gruden had worked to build, which is seen as a “Seattle” thing (McCloughan worked for the Seahawks from 2011-13): If you see something, say something. But certainly there’d be some debate in the football world over whether it’s a GM’s place to handle those things. (Cravens sat out the finale.)
• Bashaud Breeland’s outburst. At another point in December, the third-year corner—who’d been seen internally as moody following the Josh Norman signing—blew an assignment, and was called by a coach on it. He argued. The coach argued back. Then Breeland blew another assignment, took his helmet off and sat on a cooler on the sideline. From the perspective of the coaching staff, these sorts of squabbles with players were not uncommon.
But after practice, in the locker room, McCloughan saw Breeland coming out of the shower and bluntly told the third-year corner to come to his office after he was dressed. Word of the confrontation got around, and it led to another squabble in the front office over boundaries.
As was the case with Cravens, some players believed Breeland needed to be shaken and didn’t mind McCloughan doing it. Clearly, others within the organization didn’t think it was his place.
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So the season ended with the Redskins losing a win-or-go-home game against the Giants on New Year’s Day. Obviously, in the time since, things got worse. It’s been theorized that Allen grew jealous of the credit McCloughan got for the team turning a few corners over the past two years. Conversely, there have been rumblings of dissatisfaction over McCloughan’s 2016 draft and free-agent haul.
And there was more sinister talk, but few actual accounts, of McCloughan’s drinking being a visible issue. “It was whispered about all the time,” says one staffer, “but I never saw it, and I don’t know anyone who did.”
Maybe we eventually get more answers on what really happened. What I do know is that the conclusion predicted by some in Ashburn—Eventually, those people forecast, there would be problems over power and McCloughan’s past issues would be raised as he departed—has come true.
This one really never was about Snyder, as far as I can tell. It was about Allen and McCloughan, two guys who entered into a partnership two years ago founded in large part on trust, based on Allen’s history with McCloughan’s father and brother, whom he’d worked with around the turn of the century in Oakland.
That trust, as you can see, didn’t last long. And the Redskins are starting over. Again.
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FIRST AND 10
1. Nine offensive linemen got deals worth $8 million per or more in free agency, a reflection of league-wide scarcity/needs and a very weak draft class up front.
2. Credit Lions GM Bob Quinn. Detroit thinks it got better at two line spots in going from Riley Reiff and Larry Warford to Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang. And the collective price on Wagner/Lang was $1.25 million per cheaper.
3. The very specific vision Kyle Shanahan has on offense? It’s written all over the Niners’ additions: a heady center (Jeremy Zuttah), X receiver (Pierre Garçon), game-breaker (Marquise Goodwin) and pass-catching back (Kyle Juszczyk).
4. Some checkpoints for the Tony Romo saga: Everyone is under one roof for the annual league meeting March 26-29; and Denver opens its offseason program on April 3, while Dallas and Houston start April 17.
5. I’d expect the Browns to make a real run at Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo. I also know other teams have come away with the impression he’s not being moved.
6. One sign Garoppolo won’t be moved? There are coaches and front-office staff in Chicago who love Garoppolo. And the Bears moved on and signed Mike Glennon.
7. Two contracts the Vikings finalized Wednesday represent pretty cool stories—Terence Newman because of his age (39), and Adam Thielen because he’s a former tryout guy getting (relatively) rich.
8. Attention in Tampa was on how DeSean Jackson could make Mike Evans more effective at receiver. I think Redskins import Chris Baker should do the same for Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle.
9. Teams don’t often get credit for keeping their own in free agency, but Miami deserves it for holding on to DE Andre Branch (who beat out Mario Williams in 2016) and WR Kenny Stills, and extending Reshad Jones.
10. I mentioned this before, but it merits repeating: Calais Campbell’s standing as a model teammate/veteran is part of why he was in line to get another monster contract at 30. And he did. Four years, $60 million in Jacksonville.
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1. Labor peace in question? As you read this, the NFLPA is holding its player rep meeting in Phoenix. A week from Sunday, NFL owners will gather for their annual meeting, down the street at the Arizona Biltmore. And here’s what you need to know: The players are discussing the March 2021 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, and the owners will talk about it next week. With four years to go, why should you care? Mostly because this is the start of figuring out whether or not we’re bound for another lockout or strike.
I’ll give you one reason to be optimistic that the run-up to 2021 will be different from the death march to 2011: The players have some leverage this time. The league’s television deals expire two years after the labor deal does. And if there’s uncertainty surrounding the labor situation, coupled with the uncertainty of what television will look like going forward, it would become exponentially more difficult for the networks and league to hammer out an extension to their deals. No extension to the TV deals? It becomes much harder for the league to plan from a business standpoint.
So this time around the league should be motivated to get something done early. Whether the two sides will be able to pull it off—given their dealings with each other over the past few years—is another question all together. The economic negotiations will be different, particularly with content likely continuing to move from television (where players currently get a 55 percent cut) to digital (where they get a 45 percent cut). The non-economic talks (health and safety, the calendar, Thursday Night Football, etc.) should be more analogous to those in the past. But no matter how you slice it, there’s a lot to work through, so the question becomes when these guys will get started. We might have a better idea in a couple weeks.
2. The rebirth of the safety. Eric Berry scored $13 million per year in Kansas City. LSU’s Jamal Adams and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker are roundly seen as top-five prospects in this year’s draft class and are likely to go inside the top 10. And those signs are proof positive that the safety position has been reborn in professional football.
Five years ago the box safety was being phased out, and teams were comfortable moving corners to fill in at free safety. Today? The old box guy has been transformed into two groups: the hybrid dime linebacker, and the hybrid super-sized corner who can cover slot receivers and tight ends. And the sideline-to-sideline range and instincts in a free safety have never been more important, with more teams looking to run a version of Pete Carroll’s scheme and needing an Earl Thomas to pull it off. (Adams is the former. Hooker is the latter.)
In affirming the trend, one veteran secondary coach added that the analytics community has been pushing the value of the position on football decision-makers, too, on the premise that teams with two good players at those positions give up markedly fewer big plays. In an era when offenses do more and more to manufacture favorable matchups, having the right guy to get everyone lined up correctly back there is more valuable than ever. That responsibility fell to Adams at LSU, and it’s one reason why NFL teams are so smitten with him.
“Safeties nowadays have to be the quarterback of the defense—that’s why the value’s gone up, that’s why the coaches on this level, college level, high school level, have put a premium on safeties,” he told me. “Being that guy who can go down to cornerback, being that leader, controlling the defense, all of it. … You have to be able to do everything. The game is changing to where they can find a defense’s weakness, and if you can’t cover as a safety, you’re gonna come down in that slot and have some trouble.”
In the end, that’s why college coaches are putting their more well-rounded athletes at safety, and why the supply is starting to build—this year’s draft class is deep behind Hooker and Adams. It’s an interesting trend, and one you’ll be able to see developing in real time at the end of April.
3. Mixon could go on Friday of draft weekend. We covered Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon extensively in this space a couple weeks back. Since then, teams have started to meet with him, so I figured I’d check with someone who’d actually had some face time with the running back. As is obvious, the ugly incident of July 2014—Mixon punched and broke bones in the face of fellow Oklahoma student Amelia Molitor during a dispute in a restaurant—is and has been (and should be) at the forefront of teams’ vetting of the former Sooners star. At least at this point, it looks like Mixon is winning over some people.
“After meeting with him, I think the kid had a two-second lapse in judgment three years ago,” said one AFC assistant coach who’s met with him extensively. “Look, he’s a first-round talent, and he could start for almost any team in the league that doesn’t have an Ezekiel Elliott. I would have zero problem as a coach taking him on as a player. The problem is getting your front office on board, with how it might affect business or public relations. But I like him.” So I asked the coach then what convinced him that Mixon was past the incident, and he responded, “When you look at the kid, he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, has a serious girlfriend. You just have to talk to him, it’s the vibe you get from him.”
This particular coach said he regards Mixon as the No. 2 talent at the position in the draft, behind only LSU’s Leonard Fournette, and ahead of Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. The reason is versatility. At 228 pounds, Mixon is a legit bell cow on first and second down, and he has the ability to play receiver at an NFL level. The acknowledgement was made here that it’s likely no team would be able to take him in the first round and make him the face of its draft class. But this coach believed Mixon would be gone by the time his team picked in the second round. I don’t think Mixon will go quite that high. But based on early information from teams, I’m guessing he’ll be off the board at some point on the Friday night of draft weekend.
4. The key to the Raiders’ deal in Vegas. A good number of high-level folks across the NFL figured the Raiders’ run at Las Vegas was done when casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Goldman Sachs pulled out earlier this year. And a lot of those same people are now back on board the bandwagon to bring the league to Sin City. Why? Simple. It’s Bank of America.
Bank of America was already the Raiders’ lead bank, meaning it was fully abreast of the deal that owner Mark Davis was brokering and the financing plan that Goldman had in place. Bank of America also is a frequent lender in NFL stadium projects. Given that background, the speed with which BoA stepped in to take the place of Goldman/Adelson buoyed the confidence of owners and the league. Add that to the respect many of those owners gained for Davis in his ability to put together a solution while mired in a tough situation, following the league shooting down its bid at partnering on a Southern California stadium with the Chargers, and there’s the feeling that the Vegas move will be pushed through.
At this point, most of the trepidation regarding the move to Vegas centers on the idea of leaving the country’s sixth-biggest market for the 40th-biggest, particularly at a time when the Niners’ move to the South Bay opened the East Bay and North Bay (and affluent Marin County) as potential growth areas for the Raiders. “It’s not just the sixth-biggest market, it’s arguably the most vibrant market in the country in terms of growth, economics and demographics,” said one source. “And you’re leaving to go a market that has [among] the most foreclosures per capita in the country.” The resulting concern here would be the Raiders’ ability to move their premium product—PSLs, suites and club seats—in Vegas. Another potential problem would be the shadow that Adelson casts in Vegas, and whether losing him will affect the team’s ability to build the business relationships it will need locally.
But the fact is that Oakland has shown a reluctance to do business with the NFL (whereas the Vegas government has proven it’ll be a partner), and there is no viable deal on the table there. So chances are, for the first time since the 1990s, owners will support a team’s move to a smaller market, something that the G3 and G4 plans for funding stadiums were designed to prevent.
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OFFSEASON LESSON TO LEAVE WITH YOU
For all the bouquets thrown the Patriots’ way over the past week, the team really just did what it always does: assess and find other teams’ misfits worth pursuing. The difference this year is that they had more than $60 million in cap space to carry that out. And therein is the lesson to take with you in evaluating the moves of each team:
Always figure out why a player was available in the first place.
If you look at the Patriots’ haul, each guy was available for a very specific reason, and it was not because he couldn’t play.
“They certainly expanded their market search beyond the free agents and through the trade market, where they found sellers willing to do deals,” one AFC exec said in observing the move. “So Kony Ealy, Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen—they fill holes. And yes, circumstances led to those guys being available.”
Here are those circumstances …
• Dwayne Allen: New Colts GM Chris Ballard basically chose Jack Doyle over Allen at tight end, in handing Doyle a three-year, $19 million deal, and wanted to get Eric Swope more snaps. Allen simply wasn’t consistent enough and lacked focus in Indy. But he’s legitimately one of the more talented two-way tight ends in football—a real red-zone threat with top-shelf blocking ability—and the Pats are betting that working with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski will be an elixir.
• Rex Burkhead: Last year the Bengals signed Giovanni Bernard to a four-year, $16.6 million deal. This year, backfield mate Jeremy Hill is playing for a new contract. The fact is, this was a position, given the Bengals’ attrition elsewhere, that Cincinnati knew it’d have to churn a little bit. And so the Patriots swooped in and got a versatile back who is what Bill Belichick likes to call a “four-down player.”
• Brandin Cooks: He publicly groused in New Orleans, and it went past that. Some evaluators grading him as a trade piece noticed his body language going south in games where he wasn’t the focal point of the offense, which happens in a Sean Payton scheme that tends to feature different players from week to week. So the Saints, faced with the decision of whether to exercise Cooks’ fifth-year option, decided to move on. The Pats spread the ball like the Saints do, so this will be interesting.
• Kony Ealy: Not much different from the Allen circumstance—the Panthers simply chose to pay another player, Mario Addison in this case, making it easier for them to move on with Ealy going into a contract year. Ealy has flashed the pass-rush ability that made him a first-round possibility back in 2014 (we saw it for sure in Super Bowl 50), and also the inconsistency that knocked him into the second round that year.
• Stephon Gilmore: This is a little different, of course, given that the Patriots gave Gilmore a deal that wasn’t far off from the Jets’ Darrelle Revis deal contract they giggled at a couple years ago. The Bills saw Gilmore as a player just outside the top 10 at his position, but what really clinched his exit is a scheme change. Rex Ryan’s defense simply puts a great premium on great corners, and Sean McDermott’s zone-heavy system has been proven to work without top-of-the-market players at the position.
The Patriots have done this sort of thing in the past, identifying how guys like Mike Vrabel and Wes Welker were undervalued in some years, and why guys like Randy Moss and Corey Dillon were available in other years. And it doesn’t always work. Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth are examples of that.
But there’s at least some logic behind the aggression the Patriots exhibited, and that seemed uncharacteristic of them, early in free agency. It’s logic they’ve used in the past without having the kind of financial flexibility they did this year.
It’s logic, too, that isn’t always applied by teams making these sorts of splashes.
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