Redskins are being prudent, pragmatic

If the past three years haven't offered enough proof that Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder is making good on his promise to stay out of the way and let Mike Shanahan run the team the way he wants to run it, then surely the past three weeks have.

Glaring holes remain unfilled in the secondary. A couple of valued veterans were cut or allowed to leave. They can't sign their tight end. A massive salary-cap penalty imposed by the league a year ago has paralyzed the Redskins' offseason, and so far they've been ... patient? Practical? Smart about the way they've handled it?

The Redskins are being all of these things. In March? Brave new world, indeed.

I asked Shanahan last week at the owners meetings in Phoenix whether his plan was to keep the cap-penalty issue a one-year problem -- to take a few hits this year but avoid trying to solve the problem by restructuring player contracts and pushing money back into future years. His answer was "I think so, yes," which meant that was his preference but that he can't rule out an odious restructuring or two depending on circumstances and need. Shanahan is on record as opposing that too-common NFL practice of solving today's cap problems by creating future ones. The Redskins used to do it quite liberally, but since Shanahan arrived they've responsibly avoided it. So while restructuring with someone like Pierre Garcon or Trent Williams or Chris Chester or Barry Cofield might help the Redskins fill those holes at safety and cornerback or re-sign Fred Davis, Shanahan prefers to keep that to last-resort territory.

This was not an easy decision to make, nor is it an easy one with which to live. The Redskins are furious about the $18 million in cap penalties they were assessed in each of the past two offseasons for their spending behavior during the uncapped 2010 season. They huffed and puffed and threatened to sue, as people do when they feel they've been wronged but know they have no recourse. They held out real (if unrealistic) hope that the league would cut them a break and give them some of the money back. They tried being nasty about it and they tried being nice. But none of it worked, and so here they are.

It has not been all gloomy, of course. The Redskins are playing with house money to a certain extent, coming off a 10-win season and a division title, and with their brilliant young franchise quarterback's knee on the mend. A down season in Washington wouldn't do in Shanahan at this point, and honestly there's no reason to assume he's going to have one anyway. The NFC East is not, currently, among the league's strongest divisions, and the work the Redskins have been able to do this offseason has kept much of the defending division champion roster intact.

DeAngelo Hall (cap cut) and Lorenzo Alexander (signed with Arizona) are the only two players so far they wanted to keep and could not. They managed to hold onto starters like Darrel Young, Kory Lichtensteiger and Tyler Polumbus. They talked some veterans into helpful, this-year-only restructures that involved pay cuts or converting guaranteed money into incentive clauses. They signed a free-agent cornerback, E.J. Biggers, who fills a need even if he's only a No. 3.

The Redskins have managed to operate, under difficult circumstances, in a manner that allows them to believe they can defend their title as long as Robert Griffin III can get back on the field following knee surgery. They haven't done anything exciting, because they haven't been able to. But the fact that they've chosen to handle this situation in a prudent and responsible manner -- and the fact that Snyder hasn't stepped in and commanded anyone to do otherwise -- is a strong indication that the Redskins' franchise is in a much better place than it was three years ago.

Things run coolly and intelligently in Ashburn these days. Even when the people in charge have a ready-made excuse to veer from the plan, they appear determined not to do so. And if you're a Redskins fan frustrated by the lack of offseason activity, that has to give you confidence about the direction of the franchise and the way it's being run.