It is, perhaps, the only shred of the familiar we've had in this long and unique NFL offseason. As the CBA talks finally start to give way to on-field football chatter, there are rumblings -- incessant and ever-increasing rumblings -- that the Washington Redskins are preparing to whip out their wallet and spend fast and furiously in free agency.
By now you've heard the names and the intended headline targets: Santonio Holmes at receiver; Cullen Jenkins and Barry Cofield on the defensive line; Marshall Yanda at guard; with fallback candidates to turn to at all of those needy positions on the Redskins roster. Who knows, maybe even a glitzy early push for prized cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is in the works, with Daniel Snyder's corporate jet awaiting only the filing of its late-night flight plan.
To which I say, those who do not learn the lessons of Albert Haynesworth, Adam Archuleta and Antwaan Randle El are doomed to repeat them.
I know. The Redskins have numerous needs and plentiful salary cap room, and under the NFL's new cap rules (if they're ever finalized) they actually have to spend boatloads of cash this year on player costs of some sort. So why not throw a bunch of money at free agents who might help Washington climb out of last place in the NFC East and truly challenge the more talented Eagles, Giants and Cowboys in this year's division race? There's nowhere to go but up, and nothing to lose but dollars.
And after all, Asomugha is no Haynesworth-level big-money risk, and Holmes, Jenkins, Cofield and Yanda are all seen as productive pieces of the puzzle who wouldn't cash in and then check out as Deion Sanders famously once did after arriving in D.C. to great fanfare. It has been said that Washington's many failures in free agency over the years weren't the fault of free agency per se, they were merely a matter of signing the wrong players. Better evaluation will yield better results, and lead to winning ways. At least that's the hope.
But what exactly has inspired blind faith in Washington's evaluation skills or judgment so far in the two-year Mike Shanahan coaching era? The Donovan McNabb trade debacle? The less-than-smooth finessing of the season-long Haynesworth minefield? A quarterback depth chart that might just be topped by backups John Beck and Rex Grossman at the start of 2011? The obvious regression on defense in switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 formation (ranked 31st last season), and the continued confusion on offense (25th overall in ppg in 2010, with 18.9)?
The Redskins went 6-10 last season and richly deserved their losing record. They appeared poorly coached, lacked critical weapons at the skill positions that are supposedly Shanahan's forte and regressed as the season went on, losing eight of their final 11 games after a somewhat hopeful 3-2 start. It doesn't take a physic to predict that Shanahan is already under considerable pressure to win in 2011, with his honeymoon long over and the luster of his Super Bowl-winning track record faded by the fact he has won exactly one playoff game since John Elway retired following the 1998 season.
All of which makes you wonder if there's a growing sense of desperation at the root of Washington's aggressive plans in free agency. And desperation often leads to dumb decisions in the NFL.
When Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen arrived in early 2010, the days of the Redskins trying to win every NFL offseason championship and build a team through free agency were supposedly over. Last year, in an albeit modest free agency class created by the rules of the uncapped season, Washington largely sat out free agency. The Redskins were going to finally take their time and build a program the right way, through the draft and by avoiding the well-proven pitfalls of over-paying star players who don't necessarily fit into the system and usually offer more sizzle than substance.
Oh, well. Those days of long-range thinking might be over. Already. Perhaps Shanahan doesn't feel like he can afford the time or patience required to follow the blueprints of perennial winners like the Steelers, Packers, Patriots or Colts, who either avoid or dabble in free agency while focusing first and foremost on using the draft to replenish their rosters. Maybe the high-flying Jets are now the model for the Redskins, after last year's big-name shopping spree helped keep New York among the league's elite class.
In fairness, Washington had a very solid, need-based draft in April, taking its eight picks and wheeling and dealing them into 12 selections, with well-received choices like Purdue outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and University of Miami receiver Leonard Hankerson leading the class. It was positively Patriots-like for a Redskins team used to short-shrifting the draft, and it was seen as a step toward the responsible and draft-committed approach that Washington has never seemed to manage while forever chasing its next free agent fix.
But how will the emphasis on this year's draft fit into the big picture if the Redskins go out and set the market and the pace for this most unusual of free agent signing periods? Washington clearly needs talent upgrades at some positions, namely defensive line, receiver and quarterback. Players like Jenkins, Yanda and maybe Green Bay receiver James Jones make some sense to pursue if they're available, and don't command ridiculous contracts. They're not centerpiece-type players, but they are nice complementary pieces to the roster, and they're all coming from winning programs.
However, if I were a Redskins fan, I'd be both wary and worried if Washington fires up Snyder's jet and goes on a cross-country spending spree in the attempt to land the likes of an Asomugha, a Holmes, or a top-tier receiver such as Minnesota's Sidney Rice or the Jets' Braylon Edwards. Those are the kind of headline-producing signings the Redskins have almost always regretted. They need more London Fletcher-type signings, the backbone of a roster variety, and fewer Jesse Armstead, Jeff George and Jeremiah Trotter swings and misses.
A well-planned balance between the draft and the opportunities of free agency is what Washington should be in pursuit of this offseason, and balance on the personnel front is something that has been in short supply in D.C. for a while now. The bigger the name doesn't assure the better player in free agency and Washington, more than any other NFL franchise, should have learned that by now. As the twin Haynesworth and McNabb disasters so painfully proved last year, it's critically vital the Redskins identify and acquire players who fit their schemes and buy into their program. Name value and making a publicity splash should be way, way down Washington's list of priorities.
The Redskins can rightfully claim that they have to make some major signings in free agency, given that every team will now be mandated to spend at minimum 90 percent of the estimated $120 million salary cap this year. And that's now in cash expenditures, as opposed to the previous cap gimmicks like carrying dead money or having numerous likely-to-be-earned incentives reflected in a team's cap number.
Once McNabb and Haynesworth are cleared off the Redskins' books -- and they will be one way or another before long -- Washington is estimated to have between $30 million and $35 million to spend under the salary cap. Some of that will be used to sign the Redskins' 12 draft picks, and more of it should be devoted to contract extensions at some point this year for safety LaRon Landry and the still-productive Fletcher. Of the Redskins' own free agents, the one that makes the most sense to retain is reliable veteran receiver Santana Moss, who will generate interest if he gets to the open market.
Given their history, the moves the Redskins make in free agency will be more scrutinized than any NFL team. With Shanahan clearly needing to boost his credibility after a shaky debut season in D.C., he must balance the pressure to win now with an approach that doesn't re-commit the mistakes of Washington's free agent past.
As a wholly unpredictable free agency season looms, one near-annual rite of the process seems a given: Washington will go on a shopping spree once again, and spend a whole new batch of Daniel Snyder's money. Maybe this time, the results will be fruitful and finally supply that long sought-after quick fix. But if a signing frenzy ensues, and the Redskins are again leading the way, I think we've all seen that movie, and know how it ends. It's only year two of the Shanahan era, but in Washington, no one can stomach another disaster flick.