Since the start of unfettered free agency in 1993, no team has been constructed with more of a win-now philosophy than this year's Redskins. To wit: In 2001, Washington's 15 top-salaried players will have a combined cap value of $53.2 million—and that top 15 doesn't include the two most valuable offensive players, quarterback Brad Johnson and running back Stephen Davis.
"The owner [ Daniel Snyder] has been outspoken in saying he wants to win a Super Bowl this year," says 32-year-old free safety Mark Carrier, a free-agent pickup who spent the past three seasons with the Lions. "Hey, everybody in this camp is thinking the same way. Why hide it? This is what the NFL wanted. I think the window of opportunity is going to be short for every good team now. Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Washington...I'm not sure any of us will have a long run at it."
The Redskins helped themselves greatly in the off-season. The selection of outside linebacker LaVar Arrington and left tackle Chris Samuels with the second and third draft picks, respectively, should give Washington two young cornerstones. Defensive end Bruce Smith, a free-agent signee from the Bills, should be on the field for 70% of the defensive downs and, at age 37 and playing on grass, he has at least one productive season left.
Cornerback Deion Sanders somehow finagled an $8 million signing bonus from Snyder. Before the Cowboys released Sanders, Dallas's team doctors advised owner Jerry Jones that Sanders's efforts to compensate for the left big toe he had surgically repaired in April 1999 had caused him to hurt other body parts, notably his right hamstring and right knee last season. (He had arthroscopic surgery on that knee in January.) But Sanders at 80% still gives the Skins the game's best collection of corners, which includes Champ Bailey and the ageless Darrell Green.
Quarterback Jeff George was signed, over the mild objections of coach Norv Turner, as a $4.5 million-a-year backup to the efficient Johnson. That could get sticky. Turner loves Johnson. But $4.5 million-a-year backups usually don't stay in that position for long, and George is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,816 yards and 23 touchdowns after taking over in the Vikings' sixth game. Turner may feel pressure from upstairs—i.e., Snyder—to play George if Johnson struggles even a little.
The Redskins have some savvy new defensive coaches—coordinator Ray Rhodes and linebackers coach Foge Fazio—to help stop the bleeding on a unit that finished 27th in the league against the run last season. Still, with newcomers Arrington and Smith seen primarily as pass rushers, no player of significance was brought in to address that shortcoming. "That's a misleading stat," Turner says of the 123.3 yards a game (and 4.5 yards per carry) that Washington gave up on the ground. "Over the last eight weeks we played really solid against the run. I think you'll see us use more eight-man fronts to shut down the run. We can do that because Deion allows us to."
Yes, but only if he's healthy. "You've got to be realistic about Deion," Turner admits, "and you've got to say he probably won't play a 16-game schedule. But one week, if his hamstring's sore, we could rest him and plug Darrell in there." Amazing. You pay a guy $8 million to sign, and you don't expect him to play every week.
The Redskins had the NFL's second-rated offense last year, with Johnson throwing for 4,005 yards and Davis rushing for an NFC-best 1,405. They're back with a better supporting cast. Samuels had an up-and-down camp, but he should be an improvement on veteran Andy Heck at left tackle. Turner raves about backup wideout James Thrash, who after an excellent summer could catch 50 balls playing behind Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell. "I think Thrash is their best receiver," says Rams general manager Charlie Armey.
Washington arguably has the most talented team in the league. It has assembled quality depth in most areas. Success, however, could come down to how well Turner teaches chemistry class, because collections of stellar individuals don't necessarily make stellar teams (see Kansas City in 1998, and Carolina in '97 and '98).
Nevertheless, lots of coaches would love to have Turner's problem. "This team has something special in the making," says Smith, one of the mainstays of the Buffalo team that played in four consecutive Super Bowls. "I can feel it."