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Amid Roster Churn, Redskins Still Seeking An Identity


An NFL team goes to training camp with 80 players. Ultimately it will keep 53 of them, developing its chemistry and its personality along the way.

For the established contenders, this simply means refueling the machine. For the teams that know who and what they are, replenishing the roster becomes a routine search for more of the same. Want an example? Think of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They know what they are. You know what they are. Everyone knows what they are, and they will probably never change what they are.

When the winning stops, when change continually buffets the castle, this overriding sense of team takes a beating. The personality fades. The focus drifts.

So what does it mean to be a member of the Redskins? Who are and what are the Redskins right now?

Historically, that seemed like a no-brainer of a question.

Under George Allen, the Redskins painted the picture of unity, of sound and solid play, of a burning hatred for the Dallas Cowboys. Any player on the team could explain what it meant to be part of the group that revived a dormant franchise and electrified its hometown with a first-ever trip to the Super Bowl and years of solid contention.

As quarterback Billy Kilmer said in Michael Richman's The Redskins Encyclopedia: "I knew that we'd unlocked something here that's unbelievable and that I'd never seen being in the league for 10 years. We got the fans enthused and really brought them alive. It just kept snowballing."

Say the same for Joe Gibbs' teams, at least during his first go-round. The Redskins understood almost instinctively what type of players they wanted and those people bonded, stuck together, built an internal community that kept them tight when other teams fell apart during player strikes in 1982 and 1987. It was not by accident the Redskins won the Super Bowl after each of those disrupted and disjointed years.

Hall of Fame guard Russ Grimm explained it this way to Richman: "A lot of it was the chemistry on that football team. The one thing that sticks in my mind is that coach Gibbs said his toughest job is not the Xs and Os but making sure he picks the right 53 (players). Those are the guys who have to go 17 weeks and even longer into the playoffs."

Those were the Redskins of The Fun Bunch and The Smurfs and, most memorably, The Hogs. In Gibbs' first go-round, from 1981-92, the Redskins qualified four times for the Super Bowl and won it three. They grew together as players and people and could not be split apart.

What, or who, have the Redskins been since Gibbs retired after the '92 season? They've been a declining team, a rebuilding team, a division winner (once), a declining team, a rebuilding team that twice made the playoffs in Gibbs' four-year return. They've established none of the personality traits connected with past success and achieved few of the successes. We know who the Redskins were. Who and what will they be? Those are critical questions as the club goes about reshaping the roster for its second season under head coach Mike Shanahan. It has been a subject of some discussion in a week in which running back Clinton Portis, guard Derrick Dockery and linebacker Andre Carter were all let go.

Portis' best leadership attribute was performance, his ability to carry the load on Sunday. Dockery's slide out of the starting lineup this year diminished his quiet presence. Carter provided veteran presence but also seemed to be a short-timer with the move from defensive end in a 4-3 to linebacker in a 3-4.

Who will lead this team and put his stamp on it? Certainly Shanahan will create the chemical mix but what provides the spark and sustains the explosion? Whose personality emerges? Who fires up the locker room, not only for the excitement of a Sunday but to handle the mundane and the routine with enthusiasm?

It can be the quarterback, though the Redskins' situation right now lends itself to that in no way. It can be a linebacker, and London Fletcher takes care of his group well. Yet he does not create the sort of aura of a Ray Lewis. He's a leader but not an overwhelming, outsized presence.

With most clubs that win and advance to the deeper reaches of the playoffs, even the casual observer can watch and say, "That's his team" and everyone knows who the "he" is. Can we do that with the Redskins?

Who are they? What will they become? Whose personality will they display, whose traits will they take on, whose leadership becomes their building block?

It's a long off-season, and a different one at that. The Redskins need to answer a lot of questions. Feel free to put all of these on the list.

Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at and follow him on

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