Monday, March 19, 2007

Redskins over a Barrow about Pierce

The Derrick Dockery case is a reminder of the loss of another high potential free agent, Antonio Pierce. Free agent decisions are not made in isolation. Dockery's situation couldn't be more different than Pierce's. A quick history lesson is in order.

The Redskins held Antonio Pierce in low regard throughout his tenure here. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in the dawn of the Spurrier era (2001) and worked in anonymity during that tumultuous time. In April, 2004, new head coach and president Joe Gibbs signed former NY Giants middle linebacker Mike Barrow to a multi-year contract. The signing was significant. Twelve year veteran Barrow was to lead the defense as Mark Brunell was to lead the offense.

Barrow, 34 when he signed with the team, was a cap casualty with the Giants. He was released in spite of a career year in 2003 when he made 177 tackles (122 solo). He was the league leading tackler that season and tallied 1219 tackles in his career. The gaudy numbers over-shadowed two issues: the big step up in his numbers in his "contract year" (73 solo tackles in '02; 122 solo tackles in '03); his age. The years had take its toll. The Giants liked him, but couldn't justify his cost.

Barrow joined the Redskins with an undisclosed knee tendinitis problem that would prevent him from playing in a burgundy uniform -- ever. He was placed on injured reserve and the Skins eventually tapped Pierce to fill in at middle linebacker after considering Lemar Marshall and Derrick Holdman for the role.

With the passage of time, Pierce is remembered as having an outstanding performance in 2004. It wasn't, but it was more than respectable with 112 tackles (85 solo), 1 sack, 2 INTs and 1 TD. A pleasantly surprised Gregg Williams said of Pierce "I think it speaks volumes for Antonio's versatility that he can fit in all of the linebacker positions. Linebackers need to be the heart and soul of your special teams and your defense anyway. He's the ideal guy because he can run and hit and play all three."

The Skins were comfortable enough with Pierce to make him the defensive signal caller. The Redskins defense ranked third in the league in yards allowed per game. But, they never gave up hope in Barrow's return. Pierce's contract expired after the 2004 season. He was vocal in his desire to stay with the team. The Skins, at that time were still playing fantasy football, still going for name value, and Barrow had the bigger name. Pierce was viewed as a valuable contributor, but no more than Barrow's back-up.

To be fair, Coach Gibbs was preoccupied with issues at quarterback and receiver. Mark Brunell wasn't working out and Gibbs was forced to go with Patrick Ramsey. It was Ramsey's play under Spurrier that drove Gibbs to sign Brunell. In addition, receivers Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner were dissatisfied with their role in Gibbs' offense and wanted out. The Redskins lost Pierce to free agency, due in part to inattention, for which both Gibbs and VP of player personnel Vinnie Cerrato acknowledged fault.

Barrow never recovered. He was eventually released. (He's on the Cowboys' practice squad.) Outside linebacker Lemar Marshall filled the breach and did okay in 2005 (98 tackles, 2 sacks). He had better stats (104 tackles, 1.5 sacks) in a disastrous 2006 defensive campaign. Pierce blossomed at the playoff bound Giants. He made the Pro Bowl. The Giants describe him as the leader of their defense. He is an authentic NFL star.

Pierce is exhibit "A" for critics of the Redskins personnel management philosophy. The indictment is Snyder's/Cerrato's/Gibbs' tendency to sign outside "names" to rich contracts in preference to home grown talent, often to disappointing results. And worse, the coaching staff -- oldest in the NFL -- don't seem to develop, or even appreciate, their young talent.

Derrick Dockery does not fit that category. By all outward appearances, the Redskins made a determined effort to sign him before the free agency period. In contrast to Pierce, Doc never publicly said that he wanted to stay. Indeed, OT Chris Samuels was more vocal, offering to restructure his contract in order to re-sign Dockery. It was evident by mid-February that Dockery would test the free agent market and eventually be lost to it.

In London Fletcher-Baker, the Redskins might have replaced Mike Barrow, but not Pierce, whose best years are still ahead of him. Fletcher-Baker is a natural middle linebacker. Like Barrow, he is a "name" player with the Buffalo connection important to Gregg Williams. Both weigh in at about 245 lbs, but Fletcher-Baker is 5'10" while Barrow is 6'2". Fletcher-Baker makes up in consistency what he lacks in stature. He joins the Redskins at age 31. Barrow was 34. If age hasn't taken a toll, Fletcher-Baker might have two good years left in his tank.

And, he wants to be here.

Photo: Mike Barrow,
Photo: Antonio Pierce,


Ben Folsom said...

Dan Snyder, like a spoiled little kid that gets whatever he wants, tires of his toys before they are worn out and goes looking for new ones.

Master4Caster said...

Instant gratification in a throw-away world.