First and foremost, Hogs Haven wants to thank Washington Capitals' owner, Ted Leonsis, for taking time from his busy schedule to answer our questions. We originally asked Ted how he would move forward with the Redskins given their current state, and he respectfully replied that he could only speak to what he knows, hockey. He also noted that his perspective should be taken with a grain of salt since the Capitals have not yet hoisted a Stanley Cup, but I think it is clear to anyone who follows the NHL that the Capitals are headed in the right direction given their youth and early success. After reading it, I sincerely believe that Ted’s 10-point plan should be used as a blueprint for any team’s front office, especially the Washington Redskins. The plan encapsulates many lessons that Ted has learned over his years of ownership since 1999, including free agents, drafting, and personalities. Here is Ted’s response:
What I have learned about a rebuild to date: A 10 point plan. A Washington Capitals perspective:
1. Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don't fake it--really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, "We are just one player away." Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride--have confidence in the plan--"trust and verify: the progress -- but don't deviate from the plan."
2. Once you make the decision to rebuild--be transparent. Articulate the plan and sell it loudly and proudly to all constituencies, the media, the organization, the fans, your partners, family and anyone who will listen. Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild--in our case it is "a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two."
3. Once you decide to rebuild--bring the house down to the foundation--be consistent with your plan--and with your asks--we always sought to get "a pick and a prospect" in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun--less jaded by pro sports.
4. Commit to building around the draft. Invest in scouting, development, and a system. Articulate that system and stay with it so that all players feel comfortable-- know the language-- know what is expected of them-- read the Oriole Way*. It worked and it is a great tutorial. Draft players that fit the system, not the best player. Draft the best player for the system. Don't deviate or get seduced by agents, media demands, or by just stats or hype. Envision how this player will slide into your system.
5. Be patient with young players-- throw them in the pool to see if they can swim. Believe in them. Show them loyalty. Re-sign the best young players to long term high priced deals. Show the players you are very loyal to them as compared to free agents who achieved highly for another team. Teach them. Celebrate their successes. Use failures as a way to teach and improve. Coaches must be tough but kind to build confidence.
6. Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes. Always meet to discuss analytics and don't be afraid of the truth that the numbers reveal. Manage to outcomes. Manage to let the GM and coach NOT be afraid of taking risks, and make sure there are no surprises. Over communicate. Act like an ethnic family--battle around the dinner table--never in public. Be tight as a team. Protect and enhance each other. Let the right people do their jobs.
7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.
8. Add veterans to the team via shorter term deals as free agents. Signing long-term, expensive deals for vets is very risky. We try to add vets to the mix for two year or three year deals. They fill in around our young core. They are very important for leadership, but they must complement the young core (NOT try to overtake them or be paid more than them). Identify and protect the core. Add veterans to complement them, not visa versa.
9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics--know what the progress is--and where it ranks on the timeline-- be honest in all appraisals; don't be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog-- know the aging of contracts-- protect "optionality" to make trades at deadlines or in off season; never get in cap jail. Having dry powder is very important to make needed moves.
10. Never settle--never rest--keep on improving. Around the edges to the plan, have monthly, quarterly and annual check ups. Refresh the plan when needed but for the right reasons-- "how are we doing against our metrics of success and where are we on our path to a championship." Never listen to bloggers, media, so called experts--to thine own self be true. Enjoy the ride.
This is a very impressive list, and when you look at the Capitals' roster, it is very clear that they stuck to these ten points. In 2001, Ted had fallen into the "win now" trap that many new owners do. He signed big name free agents like Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang. When asked about the Jagr deal in retrospect, he said simply "You live and you learn" and characterized the deal as a situation in which he "let an agent put a gun to my head." Fair enough. The lessons learned from these big splash acquisitions are evident in steps #5 and #8. When Ted and his staff made the difficult decision to rebuild, an impressive chain of events followed:
Jan. 2004 - Jagr traded to Rangers for Anson Carter (freeing $24mil of the $44mil left on Jagr's contract)
Feb. 2004 - Peter Bondra traded to Ottawa for Brooks Laich and 2nd round pick
Feb. 2004 - Robert Lang traded to DET for Tomas Fleischmann, a 1st-round 2004 draft pick and a 4th-round 2006 pick.
March 2004 - Gonchar traded to BOS for Shaone Morrisonn and 1st and 2nd-round picks in the 2004 draft.
March 2006 - Brendan Witt traded to NAS for Kris Beech and 1st round pick.
With all the picks from the trades, the Caps drafted:
2004: Three #1 picks (Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green)
2006: Two #1 picks (Backstrom and Simeon Varlamov-G)
Added Free Agents: Kozlov (2007) and Brashear/Poti (2006). Kozlov signed for 2 years, Brashear for 1 year, and Tom Poti for 4 years. Semin was drafted in 2002 by the Caps and called up in 2004. Short-term contracts for free agents. Poti was coming off his rookie year, which validates a four-year contract.
How this applies to the REDSKINS:
I really hope Daniel Snyder has some time to read Ted's take. Snyder no doubt has learned from the past, but I still have zero confidence that the Redskins organization as a whole is on the same page. In fact, we all know it's the opposite. When a franchise has as much turnover as the Skins do in the coaching positions, how can we be "building" anything? Gibbs was a "run first" type of coach and built a team that fits his mold. Just last year we hired a West Coast offense coach that needs tall, speedy WRs. To me, this is not a process of building. Are the Skins a playoff team that can compete? Absolutely. Are we a team that is established for an extended playoff run with legit chances for Super Bowl appearances? NO. Every year when free agency starts (okay, except for last year), the Redskins take that Happy Gilmore-esque swing for the best players. The smoking gun is our aging roster and lack of depth. A large part of our defensive and offensive lines are over the age of 30. Portis has 1-2 solid years left, but there is no one groomed to take over that spot in the future (or take some of the load from him now).
Realistically, I don't think our organization has what it takes to build a franchise from the ground up. This is most evident in Snyder's reluctance to hand over the reins to a General Manager, and his creation of an enviornment where coaches seem to have the same job security as Kickers. The free agency carousel always seems to be relied upon as the Skins' best bet for a Super Bowl appearance.
Revisiting the list, the Redskins front office has continually violated ALL ten of Ted's lessons. Let's run through them real quick:
1.) "Have confidence in the plan and don't deviate from it."
The Skins definitely do not have a plan. The owner buys free agents as he sees, and coaches come and go.
2.) "Articulate the plan to the media, fans, partners..."
Dan Snyder is as secretive as it gets. Vinny Cerrato started doing the radio show, but let's be real, that does not give us any insight as to the plan. Simply, because there isn't one.
3.) "Seek a pick and prospect for every trade."
Well, we're the ones trading the picks, so in this sense, we're going backwards.
4.) "Commit to building around the draft."
The Skins only have 4 draft picks this year.
5.) "Show the players you are loyal to them."
I can't help but think of how Gregg Williams let Antonio Pierce walk when he had proven his value. At the time, Pierce embodied the hard-working, professional attitude that the coaches publicly praised, yet we let him walk. Players notice this kind of treatment where hard work is not rewarded. Pierce of course signed with the Giants where he became the defensive captain and anchor for their Super Bowl win.
6.) "Make sure the GM, coach, owner, and business folks are on the EXACT same page."
Well, Snyder and Vinny are on the same page. A blank page.
7.) "No jerks allowed."
I agree 100% with this rule. Unfortunately, it's much more difficult to follow in the NFL. Jerry Jones did not follow this at all and it BURIED him last year. (TO, Tank Johnson, and Pacman Jones). Same with Cincy. There is a reason Bill Parcells is so successful -- he shares a lot of the same ideologies as Ted.
8.) "Add veterans to short-term contracts."
This as we all know is our front-office's worst quality. Over-extending the length of contracts to aged vets. I can't help but think of the 7-year deal we signed Mark Brunell to as he was turning 34 years old.
9.) "Measure and improve - shared metrics."
I'm pretty confident the only metrics the Redskins front office measures to are dollar signs and number of wins.
10.) "Never settle - keep on improving."
This I have mixed emotions on. We have a large field of scouts, however, every year we take the shortcut with free agents. I would think we could add some low-price free agents or trade for value to build our team, but that just doesn't seem to be the case.
The most important thing I learned from Ted's model is hoarding draft picks. It is inevitable that some of the drafted players will turn out to be busts. So the key is not trading the picks away to leave yourself in a situation where you have to get every pick exactly right. It will be exciting to see the Redskins "build" their team in eight hours when Free Agency starts.
* - The Oriole Way was a belief that hard work, professionalism, and a strong understanding of fundamentals were the keys to success at the major league level. It was based on the belief that if every coach, at every level, taught the game the same way, the organization could produce "replacement parts" that could be substituted seamlessly into the big league club with little or no adjustment.