Monday, March 12, 2012

A Position of Strength and Weakness

In football as in life, it’s always best to deal from a position of strength. The corollary is likewise true: it’s never best to deal from a position of weakness. But as bad as that may be, it’s always worse to deal from a position of weakness that is contrived, which is why the Washington Redskins’ stupefying trade for the rights to presumably draft Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III is so, well, stupefying.

The Redskins, like much of the NFL frankly, wanted an upgrade at quarterback. Believing that Griffin is the next coming of fill-in-the-blank, the Redskins over exaggerated their need to the point where they made a deal unlike anything the NFL has seen since Mike Ditka traded away every one of his draft picks in order to obtain Ricky Williams. Does anyone remember how that worked out?

When desperation meets stupidity, bad things often happen to a franchise.

You could analyze the trade in every conceivable way but keeping it simple illustrates how completely dumb Redskins owner Dan Snyder really is. It’s something we’ve known for years but still appreciate the occasional reminder.

If you believe, as most likely do, that RGIII is a better quarterback prospect then Sam Bradford, the St. Louis Rams’ quarterback, then the case could have and should have been made that the Rams should have held on to the pick and traded Bradford, a fine prospect with some significant but not RGIII-caliber market value.

But the Rams, knowing that good is good enough at quarterback in the NFL, felt it was far better to stand pat with the quarterback already in the fold and work from a position of strength by picking the pocket of the addle-brained Snyder. It kept them from having to perform the more complicated calculus of building around RGIII, who would have arrived with the same sort of limitations that (along with injuries) plagued Bradford last season, namely a flimsy supporting cast.

As it is, the Rams now have 5 first round picks in the next 3 drafts, courtesy of the Redskins. Even for teams with mediocre drafting ability, those kinds of odds bode well for creating massive improvement, particularly when compared to the work the Redskins will have to do without the benefit of decent draft choices in the next several years.

Just watch how much better Bradford suddenly will get with blue chip talent around him.

I’m sure that Snyder mollified himself with the bromide that if RGIII is who they think he is, the first round picks he gave up will be late in the first round anyway and hence less valuable. Could be, but let’s remember, they’re still first round picks, which always trumps them being second round picks.

The Redskins end up with RGIII (presumably) and now will have to overpay in the free agent market over the next few years if they are to have any hope in creating a credible support system for their new asset. And let’s just be charitable and say that under Snyder, the Redskins have participated in the free agent market with disastrous results. If we were being unvarnished, we’d point out that the reason Snyder is so disrespected as an owner has everything to do with the ridiculous bets he’s made in free agency. Another column for another day, I suppose.

On most days the malfunctioning of Snyder’s stupidity alarm would be the top story in the NFL. Right now, though, it’s competing with storylines involving a handful of other quarterbacks, such as Matt Flynn, Peyton Manning and perhaps Tim Tebow for adequate air time. That’s because teams like the Browns, who made a spirited push for the draft’s second pick, are impacted by all the other machinations involving quarterbacks, including the bonehead move the Redskins just made.

All this demonstrates once again that left tackles are prized and speedy wide receivers are coveted, quarterbacks are still the most important assets in the NFL. But even as the most prized, their value has a limit.

When Browns’ general manager Tom Heckert decided not to pull the trigger on giving up both of this year’s first round picks in order to be able to draft Griffin, it served as a reminder that the only way to cultivate the most important asset in the NFL, you have to surround him with adequate weapons. As important as the quarterback is, he’s not so important as to sacrifice the rest of the offense.

It means, too, that Heckert likely reached the same conclusion of McCoy that St. Louis reached of Bradford. Good often is good enough.

It’s amazing, really, how good or bad a quarterback can be based on the players around him. McCoy hasn’t yet sold himself to Heckert, Mike Holmgren or head coach Pat Shurmur. But it’s pretty clear that McCoy’s done enough to keep Heckert from having to deal from a position of complete weakness in trying to craft an acceptable trade for the Rams. Limits do get drawn and Heckert, far better than someone like Snyder, understands that constructing a good team has much in common with completing a 1000 piece jig saw puzzle then it does in finding one corner piece.

Heckert, in just two seasons, has demonstrated that his ability to draft good, solid football players eclipses any other who’s held a similar role with the Browns in the last 12 years, at least. Granted, it’s not a high bar he’s had to scale, but he’s scaled it nonetheless.

The fact that Heckert set a reasonable price to trade up for RGIII and then wisely got out when Snyder went all in is reason enough to continue to trust that Heckert is doing the right things for this franchise now and for the next several years to come.

Heckert is correct, for example, when he underscores the simple fact that free agency is no way to build and sustain a football team. There are gaps that can and should get filled but it’s rarely done by overpaying for a superstar.

Yet if Heckert had made that trade, he would have been forced to dip deeply perhaps in the free agency pool to get Griffin a viable supporting cast. It wouldn’t have been a one and done dip in that pool, either, but a sustained effort for the next few seasons in order to bridge the gap created by surrendering so many draft picks in the first place. That gets expensive fast and hasn't proved to be successful for any team, including those aforementioned Redskins.

This is what brings it all back around to Snyder. The NFL has watched in both horror and amusement as Snyder has run the Redskins franchise in the ground for a variety of reasons, including one imprudent free agent acquisition after another.

Indeed the case could be made that the Redskins were so desperate to get Griffin because of all the personnel screw ups they’ve made in the last several years. Yet here they go again, seemingly covering up one mistake while simultaneously opening up new holes.

It reminds me of when the Texas Rangers and owner Tom Hicks signed Alex Rodriguez to a contract worth in excess of $250 million. Unencumbered by a salary cap, Hicks went all in and then spent what he didn't have without even stopping to consider two important points. Rodriguez couldn’t play all 9 positions at once and it takes even more money to surround Rodriguez with enough talent to actually win a World Series. Hicks more than demonstrated that an endless bankroll does indeed have an end.

It’s not an accident that the Rangers got better after they unloaded Rodriguez on the Yankees. And it won’t be an accident when Snyder wakes up some time in the next few years and realizes that he was a tad impetuous when he mortgaged his team’s future for one player. That will probably come when his fortune dwindles and he's forced to sell the team like a junior Art Modell.

RGIII has every chance to be a very special player in the NFL. But there isn’t a scenario where it would have made sense for the Browns to match the Redskins’ offer or, God forbid, better it for the Heisman Trophy winner. The Browns are far more likely to get better faster without Griffin then with him, at least at the price he would have cost both directly and indirectly.


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