The defensive backfield in Washington has been unsettled for years, with no cure in sight
The 2004 NFL Draft saw the Miami Hurricanes gift six players to the NFL in the first round, a record that still stands.
In the eye of that perfect storm of promise, one Hurricane stood above all. His name was Sean Taylor and he was selected fifth overall by the Washington Redskins. Taylor was the cream of the crop. The first of many. A God among titans, as the NFL deemed.
It’s important to remember Taylor’s skill and ability. He was better than good, he was transcendent, the type of player who despite having his life tragically cut short will always be remembered among the very best of the best. It’s important to remember this. Because in the wake of Sean Taylor’s departure from the halls of FedEx Field, a trail of destruction is all that remains.
Where opponents once feared to run, they now gallop like gazelles on a flat plain. Where quarterbacks once deigned to throw, they now find vast open pastures. An offense used to be in jeopardy when #21 roamed the defensive backfield, but that is no longer the case. Not even close.
Washington’s 16-year game of roulette under center garners the headlines, and deservedly so. But the situation at safety is just as bad, if not worse. The last decade has produced enough holes in the defensive backfield to play a full 18, plus a tiebreak. The problem? The Redskins attacked the problem in the most Redskins way imaginable.
The Redskins Way
You only need two ingredients to properly concoct the Redskins Way: a bumbling, fantastical owner, and truckloads of expendable dough. Together, they create a stew of ineptitude and any salt added to taste only finds its way into the wound. In both the draft and free agency, Dan Synder’s organization has failed beyond a shadow of a doubt.
First, the draft. Dan Snyder does not like the draft. Or, to phrase it better, he does not see the value in the draft. Snyder sees the value in the Robert Griffins and the Brian Orakpos, the Chris Samuelses and the LaVar Arringtons. But beyond that first round, he sees a detritus of useless throwaways. The Patriots, a team far superior to the Redskins in more ways than should be possible, are known for hoarding draft picks and developing players. Washington only truly cares about that first pick, that star pupil, the franchise savior that renders anything after the first round superfluous.
To his credit, Snyder has improved in this regard – more out of necessity than anything related to his football acumen – but it still stands. The Redskins do not draft well outside of the first round, and to say they even draft well in the first round is doubtful. Since 2006, Washington has drafted exactly zero Pro Bowl or All-Pro safeties, and every safety they’ve drafted is no longer with the team. Reed Doughty, LaRon Landry, Kareem Moore, Chris Horton, DeJon Gomes, Jordan Bernstein, Phillip Thomas, and Bacarri Rambo – none of these names will sniff the ring of honor. Some had their moments, but all flamed out quickly. Only one, Landry, was drafted with any kind of realistic dream of stardom.
The most damning aspect of the Redskins’ inability to draft safeties is that Doughty is probably the most accomplished of that bunch. Half deaf, slow, without a single notable physical attribute, he became one of the most beloved Redskins despite his subpar play. When Reed Doughty is the crown jewel in a decade of drafts, something is seriously amiss.
Washington can’t draft safeties. So why is that? Why is it that they always seem to draft projects and prospects, as opposed to shoe-in starters like Landry was supposed to be?
Free agent free-for-alls
Here, we find ourselves in step two of the Redskins Way: money. Washington has failed to draft any talent at safety since LaRon Landry, but context is important. It’s not that Snyder and Co. were simply disregarding safeties, they were disregarding the draft itself – and turning to free agency. In 2006, for example, the Redskins (unsurprisingly lacking a first-round pick) settled on Rocky McIntosh despite future impact safeties Roman Harper, Danieal Manning and Bernard Pollard still being on the board. Why not address the position? Because they already had.
Instead of re-signing Ryan Clark, at the time a criminally underrated player who had blossomed into a home-grown star in the last great defense Washington has seen, the Redskins stiffed him and tossed money in the direction of Adam Archuleta. Lots of money. TONS OF MONEY. While Clark went on to be a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion as a member of the fearsome Steelers defenses of the late 2000s, Archuleta lasted for seven total starts after being handed a six-year, $30 million contract – at the time, the biggest contract ever bestowed upon an NFL safety. Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb are the highest-profile busts in recent Redskins memory, but Archuleta is right up there as one of the biggest mistakes Snyder has ever made. Washington ended up trading Archuleta to the Bears for a sixth-round pick the following season, which they promptly wasted on Carson Palmer’s brother, Jordan.
Archuleta stands as one of the shining epitomes of Snyder’s tenure.
The great duo
If there’s one thing that Snyder did right in addressing the safety position, it was drafting LaRon Landry in 2007. Don’t scoff: it’s the same way I feel about Snyder gifting the Rams a multitude of picks to draft Robert Griffin. Neither move panned out particularly well, but you can’t fault the man for making a move that, at the time, was logical. Anyone would have done it.
Landry was the clear-cut best safety in the draft with some scouts regarding him as the best defensive player, period. Drafting him ended up costing Washington dearly down the road but no one questioned the decision. The consensus was that Joe Gibbs now had two premier safeties to play with, Landry and Taylor, a dynamic duo if ever there was one.
And for at least half a season, Landry and Taylor patrolled the so-called Area 51, arguably the greatest combination of hitting power ever put in a defensive backfield. Madden’s hit stick couldn’t do these two justice. Receivers were afraid to approach the crushing young stars. Weekly, it seemed as though the two were competing to see who could knock more opponents out cold.
Landry was a Pro Bowl alternate that year and played admirably opposite Doughty following Taylor’s death, but he never grew as a player in the following years. The knock on him was consistent: a player who too often goes for the big hit while disregarding coverage. Highlight reel stuff, to be sure, but the Redskins’ defense ultimately suffered because of it.
Soon, Landry became a hassle. He rated as one of the worst safeties in football in 2008 and 2009 before having a career resurgence following a move to strong safety in 2010. Before a season-ending injury after nine games, Landry was near the top of many Defensive Player of the Year lists. Injuries continued to plague him, and his tenure ended when the Redskins chose not to re-sign him at the end of the 2011 season.
Calling Landry a failure is cruel, though he did save his only Pro Bowl appearance for the next season, his first with the New York Jets (in typical former Redskin fashion). He played well at times and made an undeniable impact. The hard part about Landry’s legacy is what the Redskins missed out on: Adrian Peterson was picked immediately after him
, followed by Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch, and Darrelle Revis, to name a few. Landry is known more for not being Adrian Peterson and for being the human manifestation of the Incredible Hulk than he is for being a safety.
It’s the perfect example of Snyder making the right call, but having it blow up in his face. Instead of having the greatest safety tandem in the history of football, Washington ended up with tragedy and an under-performer. The Redskins never recovered.
Safeties from a hat
LaRon Landry’s 2010 campaign was the last season a Redskins safety had any positive impact whatsoever. Snyder tried everything to replace him, and simply could not do it. In 2011 and 2012, he resorted to throwing the kitchen sink at the problem, a strategy akin to picking names from a hat and stapling them to a contract.
Before Landry’s first injury in 2011, Snyder ponied up for another vastly overrated safety from the St. Louis Rams. Learning nothing from the Archuleta disaster, he dipped into the Rams’ “talent pool” and nabbed Oshiomogho Atogwe for five years and $26 million, despite St. Louis releasing him in the second year of a five year, $32 million deal. Needless to say, this didn’t work out; Atogwe was known only for snagging eight interceptions in 2007 and couldn’t play the position otherwise. He was released the following year, another massive bust on Snyder’s ever-growing ledger.
Clearly frustrated with the lack of progress on the safety, front, Snyder literally picked anyone he could find in 2012. The NFL can be a quick-fix league but they have to be smart fixes, and this was not one of them. He signed the legendary triumvirate of Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams, and Tanard Jackson. They all promptly failed in bizarrely unique ways: Williams was simply ineffective, Meriweather couldn’t stop tearing his own muscles while illegally pulverizing the opposition’s heads, and Jackson never saw the field because of injury and a recurring drug problem.
Bacarri Rambo proves you should never play for the Redskins
So, as you can see, Washington had failed in every imaginable way. Every way. No bones about it. In 2013, Snyder decided it was time to address the problem with the draft once again.
Well, that didn’t work. After drafting David Amerson to fill a similarly glaring hole at cornerback (Amerson, shocking absolutely nobody, is no longer on the team), the Redskins looked safety. They drafted Phillip Thomas out of Fresno State in the fourth round (passing on the disappointing but immaculately named safety Shamarko Thomas eight picks earlier. Shamarko Shamarko Shamarko). At the time, experts thought it could become a sneaky-good steal. Thomas was a project, but one that could ultimately develop into a full-time starter. In the sixth round, they picked up Bacarri Rambo, another project, but who had excelled in the battlefields of the SEC.
Jesus, playing safety for the Redskins is worse than being the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Inevitably, Thomas never saw the field during the regular season, suffering an injury in the first preseason game and missing the entire season. He was released in 2015 without playing a down.
Rambo played…well…terribly when forced into action, as any sixth-round pick would. He was benched and then came back and struggled again. He was released near the start of 2014.
And then it happened. The most predictable storyline of all time. Rambo was picked up by the Buffalo Bills and is currently enjoying the best season of his career. He’s not a Pro Bowler, but he picked off Aaron Rodgers twice – something so impossible to do that I have a better chance of bending a spoon with my mind. He even won AFC defensive player of the week for his performance on national fucking television against the Jets, forcing two fumbles, recovering one (the other was recovered for a touchdown), and winning the game with an interception inside of a minute.
This, more than anything, is a decisive example of Washington’s failure to properly address the position.
These issues define the Redskins more than their perpetually rotating quarterback carousel. If anything, this situation makes the quarterback problem seem simple by comparison. Because while there might be a blue-chip passer in the next draft or two, the can’t-miss safety is a rarer proposition. Great safeties aren’t megastars; they make their unit better by their play and if that unit is broken, there’s nothing one defensive player can do to fix it. The Redskins need more than a safety. They need an organizational overhaul, one that is currently taking place under general manager Scot McCloughan. His philosophy is the ultimate trump card and could be the saving grace for a stumbling defense.
So how do we fix this problem?
Ahhh, the million-dollar question. The answer?
You don’t fix the problem. It’s impossible, at this point. The Redskins could have Earl Thomas and the ghost of Ronnie Lott back there and it would hardly make a difference. The defense itself is broken. The lineman don’t have gap discipline, there’s no pass rush, the cornerbacks can’t cover consistently, the linebackers have no chance in coverage…no safety will thrive in this environment until the defense as a whole improves.
That doesn’t mean disregarding the position entirely – far from it, in fact; if the Redskins find themselves in a position to sign or draft an impact safety, they should. But they should also remember that a star safety does not a great defense make. More than the opposite side of the ball, defense is about unit cohesion. It’s about teamwork and communication. To fix the problem at safety, they need to fix everything else first. A piece here, a piece there. A solid signing every now and again. A change in philosophy. Building blocks for the future, building, building, building, creating a unit proud to patrol the field.
Somehow, that makes the problem seem more manageable.