The story has run under a few different guises — “Redskins Are Old,” for example, or “Redskins Don’t Have Very Many Notable Under-25 Players,” or “Redskins Fielding 2005 Fantasy All-Stars” — but stripped of snark, the essential message is clear: the Redskins have a lot of veterans on the roster as training camp opens today, many of them at the skill positions.
Guys who might fit that description would include running backs Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson, and Willie Parker; wide receivers Joey Galloway, Bobby Wade and maybe even Santana Moss; and quarterback Donovan McNabb. All of these guys are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years old or older; all have had accomplished NFL careers, and — it’s widely assumed — all are expected to contribute to the roster this year. I’m not so sure that assumption is inherently correct, but more on that later.
Signing aging players coming off of injuries is a strategy that has worked well for head coach Mike Shanahan in the past, perhaps most notably in 2004. When his Broncos had trouble in the defensive secondary during the 2003 season, Shanahan made two bold moves to fix the problem.
First, he traded a prolific young running back named Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins for one of the game’s top cover corners, Champ Bailey. And then he went out and signed then-five-time Pro Bowl free agent safety John Lynch.
Lynch was available because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team he’d played on for the past decade, had brought in a new general manager — guy by the name of Bruce Allen, weirdly enough — and Lynch was released because of age, because of neck problems from the 2003 season, and because of his expensive price tag.
Here’s what Lynch had to say about the injury concerns at the time, per David Elfin’s NFL Notebook in the Washington Times:
“Bodies at some point just don’t hold up. I’ve had the issue with the [neck], but I’ve been given a clean bill of health,” Lynch said. “I’ve been cut loose to do any kind of training, and I could play tomorrow. I feel that these should be your prime years because you understand the game much better than you ever have. My best playing days are ahead of me.”
He was right about that. Lynch went on to make the Pro Bowl all four years of his Broncos career before being requesting his release in 2008 because the Broncos couldn’t promise him adequate playing time.
And that’s why I don’t think it’s safe to assume that — just because these guys have had success before, and just because they’re familiar names — they’re in any way guaranteed to contribute this year.
Lynch may not be the best example for that; he’s one of the ones where the gamble worked.
But the greatest wide receiver of all time … that signing didn’t work out so hot. The year after signing Lynch, Shanahan’s Broncos signed Jerry Rice. At the age of 42, Rice was coming off a moderately successful stint with the Raiders (and a completely forgettable half-season with the Seahawks), and signed on with the Broncos to work with Shanahan — his offensive coordinator during his San Francisco days — and compete for a spot anywhere on the depth chart.
“I told Jerry that I don’t know if he’s lost a step or two steps, but you’re going to come here for one reason and that’s to compete with the other guys,” Shanahan said at the time. “And if you’re one of our top five guys at the end of camp, then you’re going to be on our football team. If you’re not, I said I’d have one of the toughest jobs in the world.”
By the time camp ended, Rice wanted to be in the top three of the receiver depth chart, so Shanahan found himself faced with that “toughest job in the world”.
“He did everything he could possibly do to get that job,” Shanahan said at the time, according to an ESPN.com piece. “But it’s my job to be honest to the team and do the tough job. I had to do the right thing for the organization. Jerry understands that. He understood exactly where I was coming from.”
When Shanahan told Rice that he wasn’t in the top three, and — worse — that he might be inactive for some games, Rice walked away. And, in case anyone thinks that Shanahan didn’t know that this was a likely outcome, here’s this quote from a USA Today piece by Jarrett Bell:
“He’s such a fierce competitor,” said Shanahan, who signed Rice on June 1. “If he wasn’t in a key role, I could see him saying, ‘Hey, I’ve done enough.'”
So Shanahan knew what would happen and did it anyway, because it was the right thing for the team.
(The Broncos wideouts who caught passes in Denver’s season opener following Rice’s departure — that is, the three man depth chart that Rice didn’t crack? Rod Smith, Charlie Adams, and Ashley Lelie.)
There are some good players in the list of veteran Redskins up top of the post, but none of them come close to being Jerry Rice — and they’re playing for the last guy to tell Jerry Rice that he wasn’t good enough.
On the other hand, maybe one of the aging players, or the guys coming back from seemingly debilitating injury (such as defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu) — maybe one of them really could turn out to be another John Lynch.
But Rice and Lynch stand as case studies for ways that veterans’ stories might go in a Shanahan camp — and those stories start this afternoon.
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