Reporting David Elfin
A year ago, the Redskins, like all NFL teams, had very little time to work free agency because of the lockout. Still, Mike Shanahan landed three solid starters — nose tackle Barry Cofield, end Stephen Bowen and cornerback Josh Wilson — who helped Washington’s defense rise from 30th to to 13th In the rankings as well as guard Chris Chester and punter Sav Rocca.
That group was a big improvement on Shanahan’s first free agent class in Washington, which produced little and whose only remaining member is former starting quarterback Rex Grossman.
Maybe Shanahan should ask for another much-delayed opening to free agency this offseason because the Redskins’ free agent class of 2012 has been a major bust through nine games.
Receiver Pierre Garcon, the most expensive and highly-touted of the bunch, has barely been on the field since he injured his right foot at the end of a scintillating first quarter in the opener at New Orleans.
Garcon’s still ahead of strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who has had more injuries to his left knee (three) than games (two, the first two of preseason).
Then there’s free safety Tanard Jackson, a good guy who just can’t kick his drug habit, a problem that earned him a season-long suspension by the NFL.
Fellow free agent Madieu Williams stepped in for Jackson and has been part of the reason the Redskins have crashed to 28th on defense and are on pace to set a record for passing yards allowed.
Garcon’s fellow receiver Josh Morgan also signed during the first hours of free agency. He has 29 catches for 307 yards but not one has gone for more than 21 yards and he hasn’t scored. Morgan’s most notable moment came when he threw a football at Cortland Finnegan after his frustration at being hit all day by the Rams’ cornerback got the best of him. The 15-yard penalty knocked Washington out of field goal range and was the final blow of an upset loss at St. Louis.
Morgan’s still the standout of the group since cornerback Cedric Griffin hasn’t really made a difference for the awful pass defense and missed three games with a hamstring injury.
Cornerback Leigh Torrence was let go on June 1. Linebacker Jonathan Goff blew a knee early in training camp and was waived. Tackle James Lee and kicker Neil Rackers were gone before the preseason finale. Linebacker Bryan Kehl was one of the final cuts.
Sadly for Washington fans, Shanahan’s Class of 2012 isn’t the Redskins’ most disappointing in the NFL’s 20 years of free agency, a period that not so coincidentally corresponds neatly with the franchise’s fall from one of the league’s best to one of its worst.
Washington’s first free agent class – receiver Tim McGee, defensive end Al Noga and linebackers Carl Banks and Rick Graf were all busts. So were tight end Ethan Horton and defensive end Leonard Marshall in 1994, Norv Turner’s first season, but the new coach was blessed with two real standouts, receiver Henry Ellard and linebacker Ken Harvey. The latter was chosen for four straight Pro Bowls.
The failures of safeties James Washington and Stanley Richard from the class of 1995 were balanced by the success of running back Terry Allen, linebacker Marvcus Patton and, eventually, quarterback Trent Green.
Briefly useful offensive linemen Bob Dahl and Jeff Uhlenhake arrived in 1996 and Pro Bowl cornerback Cris Dishman made up for receiver Alvin Harper’s ugly 1997 tenure, although defensive tackles Chris Mims, Chris Zorich and Steve Emtman couldn’t cover for Sean Gilbert’s holdout.
Defensive Player of the Year Dana Stubblefield arrived from San Francisco with a big splash in 1998 but was a zero in Washington. That disaster wasn’t topped until the Redskins foolishly signed Defensive Player of the Year Albert Haynesworth away from Tennessee in 2009 for $41 million guaranteed.
The Redskins scored with defensive end Marco Coleman and fullback Larry Centers for the 1999 NFC East title season, but infamously failed with the star-studded group of Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith (who was actually fine here), Jeff George, Mark Carrier and Sam Shade in 2000.
Coach Marty Schottenheimer halted Dan Snyder’s aging stars gameplan in 2001, but the owner’s wallet opened wide again in 2002. Only defensive lineman Daryl Gardener produced much and only defensive end Renaldo Wynn endured. Middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter didn’t nor did the slew of former Steve Spurrier Gators. The Jet-Skins of 2003 (Laveranues Coles, Randy Thomas and John Hall) were better and the former wound up bringing receiver Santana Moss in a trade two years later, eight days after center Casey Rabach signed.
That was during the second regime of coach Joe Gibbs, whose best free agent class was his first (defensive end Phillip Daniels, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, linebacker Marcus Washington and cornerback Shawn Springs) in 2004. Gibbs wasn’t nearly as smart in 2006 when the Redskins lavished large contracts on safety Adam Archuleta, receivers Antwaan Randle-El and Brandon Lloyd and defensive end Andre Carter.
Gibbs succeeded with his final major free agent signee, bringing in London Fletcher to quarterback the defense as the linebacker is still doing six seasons later. Shanahan should be so fortunate to have any free agent whom he has added last that long as a top-notch starter.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin