As I've said before, whether the front office, the players or the fans want to admit it, the 2010 season for the Washington Redskins was a rebuilding year.
Though they made a couple of moves that seemed to fly in the opposite direction of rebuilding (such as trading for Donovan McNabb and signing free agent veterans like Joey Galloway and Larry Johnson), and despite analysts painting the teams as "old" (NFL Network analyst and columnist Michael Lombardi accused Mike Shanahan of trying to recreate George Allen's "Over the Hill Gang), there was far more new than old put on the field.
The Redskins fielded a team that seemed to get younger as the season went on, as players were released, benched or injured, allowing younger players to step up and prove themselves worth of starting.
Though many a person will tell you the Redskins are the oldest team in the league, one has to realize that the difference between the youngest team in the league, the Carolina Panthers, and the Redskins is only two years. The average age of everyone on the team is 27, which in relative terms is still fairly young, depending on what position it is.
But as time clicks ever closer to the draft, and to the combine, and with free agency an uncertainty, not to mention several veterans' contracts coming up, one has to ask the question: are fans really ready for what rebuilding actually means?
Reactions to this season say "not so much".
Look no further for proof than kicker Graham Gano of just how little tolerance a team can have for a young guy.
Yes, I realize that the Redskins lost a lot of football games by a field goal or less, and if Gano had kicked a couple more, the Redskins could have a season that was above .500. And even I have spent many a Sunday, screaming "Damn it, Gano!" at my TV as he missed field goals. I almost had a heart attack every time he yanked one wide in the Tampa Bay game.
But it's easy to forget that he is a young, inexperienced kicker, and that he also helped the Redskins win a couple of games. The Redskins lose against Dallas in the first game of the season if Gano doesn't kick two field goals. He kicked the winning field goals in overtime versus Green Bay and Tennessee.
Pretty much the only kicker in football history who is guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame is Adam Vinatieri, who is widely known as the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history. But one probably wouldn't guessed that, in his rookie season, he made 27 field goals out of an attempted 35.
Gano only finished with three less than Vinatieri with 24. This isn't to say Gano is the next great kicker, but more to say that a year under someone's belt is a year to learn what it takes to be a player and to have the mental makeup it takes to win football games.
Over and over again, on this site and others, I've seen people claim that this is the year the Redskins will finally get it right. With a new CBA unlikely to be reached before March 4, no one knows when free agency will start, and this is thought to be good news for the Redskins.
The thought process is that it will force the Redskins to build exclusively through the draft instead of look to fill holes through free agency. Frequently used examples are the Patriots, Steelers, and now Packers as teams that have been built primarily through the draft that have won Super Bowls.
The problem with this mentality is two-fold, however. For one, the Redskins have far more holes than they have draft picks to fill them. It's fun to think about building exclusively through the draft, but one has to wonder how wise it really is.
The Redskins will be entering the draft looking for defensive tackles, outside linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, quarterbacks, wide receivers and offensive linemen. Unless Redskins general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Mike Shanahan swing one hell of a deal with a team, it seems unlikely the Redskins will come out of the draft having filled all those needs.
The second is a more obvious one. I'm not one to object to the team getting younger. Youthful teams are starting to come to form, and the Redskins will be smart to join the race, or they'll get left in the dust. However, the fact that most Redskins fans seem to ignore is that young players make mistakes.
Young players blow coverages. They fumble footballs, or miss field goals, or throw interceptions, or give up sacks. And that is where the real issue comes.
Dan Snyder is an extension of his fanbase. I know that makes people puke, but it's the truth. Snyder has been anything but patient when it comes to his football team, and fans have been anything but patient when it comes to the product on the field.
It's easy to point to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and say "look how young they are, and they went 10-6!", but the reality is that the Bucs had to go 3-13 before that happened.
The only way young players get better is by playing football, but the worry, at least in the DMV, has to be whether or not we, as a fan base, are prepared to deal with a large class of rookie football players and second year guys all going through growing pains all at once.
There's already dissent about what young players can and can't contribute in the future. Rookie wide receiver Anthony Armstrong had an extremely productive season by all accounts, and he earned his spot on the football team the hard way. He didn't get drafted, more or less guaranteeing himself a spot. He had to fight for it.
Yet the talk about Armstrong since the season has ended has been about how he's nothing but a No. 3 or 4 receiver, and how we should draft another guy, or (somewhat surprisingly, unless you're a Redskins fan, then you get used to this kind of hypocrisy) how we should add these free agents because Armstrong is no good.
The flaws in Armstrong's game—namely, his route running and his ability to beat press coverage—should improve with time playing the game. Coach Shanahan has repeatedly talked about Armstrong's ability to play every wide receiver position on the field, and should Santana Moss not return to the team, Armstrong would likely be the man to take his spot as the slot receiver.
If Armstrong struggles to adjust, are we going to allow him to grow, or are we going to start talking, as we always do, and demand that a kid from the practice squad or whatever jerk gets cut from another team get bought in to replace him?
The Redskins hold the 10th pick overall, and many seem to think the Redskins will (or should) pick a quarterback. If McNabb isn't going to be here (and signs say he likely won't), that slates Rex Grossman as the starter. This is an unacceptable situation to some, and they say they'd rather start a rookie than see Grossman under center whenever the season starts.
But how long until he becomes a bust? A season? A game? This is the fan base that labeled Jason Campbell a bust before he ever really got a showcase what he could be, a fan base that now would rather preemptively whine about not taking Aaron Rogers when it had a perfectly good, talented quarterback that the team never took the time to develop.
If the Redskins take Cam Newton or Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert in the first round, and they sink, will they get the same treatment that Campbell got? Be labeled a bust and a wasted draft pick while a bunch of armchair head coaches say "we should've taken this guy instead!".
It's a question that needs to be answered. How patient can Redskins fans be? Young teams struggle. The Carolina Panthers became the youngest team in the league over the course of the season, and they struggled mightily. The Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers went 6-10 when Aaron Rogers finally got the keys to the car.
Instant successes are rare in this league. Incredibly. A younger Washington Redskins team would undoubtedly be a great thing, in the future. The improvement wouldn't show itself for a couple seasons.
The question is always going to be how patient the fan base is, because despite all the claims that Snyder doesn't listen, he does, and if the fans' penchant for being as inpatient as they usually are pop up again, we will find ourselves in the same situation in a few years.
Everything will not be sunshine and roses if the Redskins just build through the draft. Free agency has its benefits, and more importantly, veteran players and leadership has its benefits as well. The days of overpaid free agents are gone; that has never been Bruce Allen's or Mike Shanahan's M.O.
With so many holes, simply ignoring free agency doesn't help anything. And it doesn't help the Redskins win any games in the short term. And though many people will claim they will be happy to lose for a season or two, I sincerely have my doubts.
The Atlanta Falcons are a team that seems to have found a balance between building primarily through the draft while also adding free agents at key spots. The result for them has been several highly successful seasons. You can have it both ways.
Rookies struggle. They make mistakes. It's part of the game.
What has me worried about a prolonged period of losing?
People already want to label first round draft pick Trent Williams a bust. This is despite the fact that the entire offensive line suffered and struggled when he was out of the game. But because he gave up some sacks (what rookie left tackle doesn't?), people already want to talk about how we should've drafted the oft-injured Russell Okung instead.
I can handle the losing as rookies adjust to playing in the big leagues.
My problem is, I'm just not sure if anyone else is. And God knows I can't stand another season of football where Redskins fans spend more time complaining then dealing with the realities of what it takes to build (or re-build) a football team.