CREDIT: US Presswire
Tuesday, WonkBlog’s Neil Irwin dove into the economic reasons for why Washington’s professional football team isn’t very good. The team has followed up its NFC East-winning 2012 season with an 0-3 start in 2013, and it hasn’t been pretty: it is last in the NFL in defensive yards allowed, it’s been dominated by the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, and Robert Griffin III, the team’s prized possession, has been a shell of his rookie self as he continues to heal from off-season knee surgery.
Irwin’s diagnosis includes one salient, if fairly obvious, observation: Washington’s signing of troubled defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, and then its attempt to shimmy around the salary cap by cutting him in the cap-less 2010 season, has hurt the team in a major way. So has the fact that they’re handing too much money to linebacker London Fletcher, who can’t tackle anything that’s moving. But I don’t agree with Irwin’s argument that trading four draft picks to nab RGIII with the second pick of the 2012 NFL Draft was a bad move:
Griffin was taken second in the 2012 NFL draft, but the team had only the No. 6 pick. To get the higher pick in the draft, they traded away their 2012 first- and second-round picks and their 2013 and 2014 first-round picks.
That was foolish. Since the 2011 revamped deal between the NFL and the players’ union, every draft pick is a license to get a young, promising player, at below what his market rate would be if there were a simple auction for talent. The Washington team traded away its ability to replenish its ranks of younger players for three years in exchange for one (albeit, extraordinarily talented) player.
Griffin indeed came with a high-cost in terms of draft picks, and Irwin may be right that it’s hurting Washington in the immediate term. Maybe Janoris Jenkins, who St. Louis took with Washington’s second round pick in 2012, and Morris Claiborne, who went fifth to Dallas in that draft, might have helped the pass defense. But would they have helped more than RGIII, who helped Washington win the NFC East last year despite an pass defense that ranked 30th in the league? I’m not convinced. All three of the players Washington could have drafted would be in their first or second year. The fourth would still be in college, and thus not helping the team now. Washington also moved to improve its secondary in the 2013 draft, taking safeties Baccari Rambo and Phillip Thomas and defensive back David Amerson. Thomas’ season ended due to injury, and while neither Rambo nor Amerson has been very good yet, they’ve also been pressed into action by injuries and suspensions and have faced three of the NFL’s best passing offenses. Washington’s other major problems have been tackling and its pass rush, but it’s hard to imagine it would have used any of those four picks — or at least the three that are already gone — to fill those needs. It expected its pass rush, with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan both healthy, to be better than it has been, and neither defensive line nor linebacker was considered a pressing need in either draft.
I’m not convinced, either, that using those picks on someone other than RGIII would have generated a better result. Did they overpay? Probably, but if a team is going to overpay for anyone, a quarterback is a good bet. The goal is to build a team that can win the Super Bowl, right? Well, the majority of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were first-round picks, and of the last 21 Super Bowl winners, 15 were led by a quarterback the winning team either drafted or acquired through a draft-related trade. All of them save Tom Brady were taken in the first round. So while it’s true, as Irwin notes, that late-round picks like Brady and Brad Johnson (No. 227 in 1992) have won Super Bowls, they are outliers. Good defenses and game-managing quarterbacks may have won a couple Super Bowls earlier this century, but great quarterbacks are still the easiest ticket to the Lombardi Trophy. There’s nowhere easier to find a great quarterback than in the first round of the draft, and sometimes they command a high price.
The key, of course, is finding the right one, and that is a lot harder to do. Waiting for someone to fall to their slot, as Irwin notes other teams have done, wasn’t really an option. Taking Ryan Tannehill at six would have been considered a stretch even if Washington loved him as much as Miami did at eight. Seattle took Russell Wilson in the second-round with designs of having him backup Matt Flynn — waiting ’til their second pick to take a flyer on Wilson would have been a major gamble for Washington. Trading down in the first round would have left them choosing from Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler, picks that may have put them in the position of taking another quarterback in this year’s draft. And waiting until the 2013 draft wasn’t an option, considering the lack of quarterback depth everyone knew it would have. Outside of Andrew Luck, there hasn’t been a quarterback in three years who was considered as much of a sure-thing as Griffin.
So Washington saw its guy and made a move, and even if it had to pay a high price, there’s a good chance it’ll pay off. Sure, Washington could have used those four picks to fill other needs. But Griffin is still a financial bargain: at four years and $21 million, he’s far cheaper than first-round quarterbacks like Matt Ryan (six years, $72 million) and Sam Bradford (six years, $76 million) who came in before the slotted salary structure. If Griffin never gets healthy, if he never puts Washington back in position to do what it did in 2012, the move will be as foolish as Irwin thinks it is today. But it isn’t the root cause of Washington’s problems now — the Haynesworth mess is still the primary factor preventing them from addressing their biggest needs — and if Griffin turns out as good as he could be, the franchise’s future is brighter with RGIII than it would have been without him. There’s nothing more important in the NFL than the quarterback. Even if they paid a high price, now Washington has one.