Coaching, roster changes have hurt Redskins

The Redskins, Bears, Cardinals and Lions have struggled because of instability in either the coaching staff or roster.

Updated: August 31, 2005, 12:32 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Redskins owner Dan Snyder means well. He really does.

He doesn't blink at putting up a $100 million payroll to win. There isn't a big-name free agent who isn't on his radar screen if his head coach wants him. He'll try the best and the brightest in college -- Steve Spurrier -- or, if that doesn't work, he'll talk Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs out of retirement to coach his Redskins.

With franchise revenues topping the NFL at around $300 million, Snyder just wants to win. But the constant churn of his zeal continues to make the Redskins one of the most unstable franchises. Call it impatience. Call it a home-run mentality. Snyder just wants to win.

Joe Gibbs
The Redskins were 6-10 during Gibbs' first year back with the team last season.

But can they? The Redskins have remodeled the roster so many times during Snyder's seven years, it's hard to know whether his efforts are making any headway. The Redskins aren't taking the time to develop draft choices, the ultimate way of building franchise success and stability. The Redskins have a league-low 18 draft choices on their current roster. Most of the top teams have twice that number.

While free agency has helped the Redskins, it has its limitations. Free-agent signings eat up salary cap room and shorten the window of opportunity for players to gel as a team. For the 2006 season, the Redskins already have $116 million of cap dollars committed, second only to the Broncos. That's a manageable number if the cap goes toward $100 million, but even if it doesn't, the Redskins will have to make tough decisions on which players to keep.

Since making the playoffs in Snyder's first year at 10-6, the Redskins have gone 8-8, 8-8, 7-9, 5-11 and 6-10. They've had four head coaches and numerous changes in coordinators. Even in Gibbs' second season, there is a major change. Gibbs wanted more explosiveness and yards-after-the-catch from his receiving unit. At high cap costs, Gibbs unloaded Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner and Darnerien McCants, the top three wide receivers before Gibbs' arrival. He brought in smaller, quicker receivers Santana Moss and David Patten.

That strategy might fail if Patrick Ramsey, who has struggled to gain the full support of his coaches, can't get the most out of the offense. Still, Snyder won't give up. He knows the free-agent successes of last season -- Cornelius Griffin, Marcus Washington and Shawn Springs -- have been the cornerstone of a hot, aggressive defense. And that Clinton Portis, acquired in a trade with Denver for the 2004 season, is one of the game's top halfbacks.

In a league that continues to escalate the importance of quarterback play, no team has had more instability than the Chicago Bears. Since 1992, they have had 27 quarterback changes. In six of the past seven years, at least three different quarterbacks started during the season. Playoff teams normally have quarterbacks with 20 touchdown passes. Since 1966, the Bears have had only one such season from a quarterback. Erik Kramer threw 25 touchdown passes in 1995.

During the 1990s, teams could get away with average play at quarterback. That isn't the case in 2005. The NFL continues to evolve into more of an offensive league. In the late 1990s, the quarterback pool was aging, and colleges weren't cranking out NFL-style quarterbacks like they are now.

The Bears tried. They spent a first-round pick on Cade McNown in 1999. Teammates didn't like him and he failed, putting the Bears in the tough position of filling in with seasoned veterans. They went from Shane Matthews to Jim Miller to Chris Chandler to Kordell Stewart. They drafted Rex Grossman two years ago, but injuries have limited him to just six games and he might miss the entire 2005 season. Now, they are rushing fourth-round choice Kyle Orton into the starting job out of desperation.

Orton was supposed to be No. 3 on the depth chart. Now, he's the starter.

It's a shame because the Bears made major strides in establishing a top-10-caliber defense for second-year coach Lovie Smith. The front seven is aggressive. The secondary is solid. The scheme is sound. But until the Bears end their instability at quarterback, the problems will continue.

Dennis Green may be ending the long instability problems of the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are one of seven NFL teams never to be in a Super Bowl, and they are tied with the Lions for the longest Super Bowl-less streak at 39.

Green had a vision in building the Minnesota Vikings and he brings it to the Cardinals. In his second season, he has assembled one of the league's most exciting young defenses. It finished 12th last season and added playmakers Antrel Rolle, Chike Okeafor and Orlando Huff to a unit that had caught everyone's eye this preseason.

Before Green, the Cardinals struggled with a plan. Pity former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis, a great motivator and good coach. Owner Bill Bidwill kept giving him the league's youngest roster. In three years, the Cardinals finished 16-32 and McGinnis lost his job.

Green has a plan, and Bidwill is buying into it.

While free agency has helped the Redskins, it has its limitations. Free-agent signings eat up salary cap room and shorten the window of opportunities for players to gel as a team.

The Lions have a plan and can't be considered unstable. Matt Millen has been the team president for five years. Over the past four years, the Lions have had the league's worst record at 16-48. But for the first three years, the Lions didn't consider themselves in the rebuilding mold. They had the NFC's second oldest roster. Recently, the Lions have gotten younger and more athletic.

The franchise is at a crossroads at one position -- quarterback. Joey Harrington has 30 losses pinned to his résumé and he's struggling to have his teammates and Lions fans stay with him. Monday night's embarrassing 37-13 loss to the Rams didn't help. Harrington struggled. Fans booed. Players seemed to be frustrated.

For the sake of stability, the Lions need Harrington to succeed because Millen has assembled a potential all-star cast on offense. His receiving corps is loaded with Roy Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Johnson, Mike Williams and tight end Marcus Pollard. Halfback Kevin Jones has 1,800-yard potential.

Quarterback instability can pull down a franchise. Just ask the Bears. Harrington needs to get off to a winning start to calm the internal critics and finally bring stability to the Lions.

Overall, the NFC has fallen behind the AFC in terms of stability because NFC franchises seem to be quicker at pulling the trigger on firing a head coach. Coaching changes bring roster changes, and it's hard to build franchise stability with fluctuating rosters.

The 49ers were the only NFC team to make a head coaching change this season, but many changes are expected leaguewide after the season. If the NFC can minimize the number of head coaching switches compared to the AFC in 2006, it can continue to close the gap.

Stability in rosters and at the quarterback position are the keys to success in the NFL.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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