ASHBURN, Va. -- On the 13th day of free agency, the Washington Redskins finally prepared to welcome a visitor.
Receiver D.J. Hackett was to arrive late Wednesday afternoon, have dinner with executive vice president Vinny Cerrato, spend the night in the area and get the full Redskins Park tour on Thursday.
The routine was noteworthy on many fronts. The Redskins, after setting the standard for aggressive free-agent spending for most of this decade, had reversed course completely and sat idle during the first dozen days of the open market.
Furthermore, Hackett has post-Washington visits planned with Tampa Bay and Carolina. In the past, there seemed little need to schedule anything else because the Redskins would offer too much money to turn down.
Finally, there was the fact that Cerrato was more than willing to sit down and talk about Hackett's visit in advance. That would have never happened under Joe Gibbs, who, for all his talents, took paranoia and secrecy to the extreme.
The feeling is akin to what the NBA's Washington Wizards experienced after Michael Jordan's departure. Gibbs was far more successful than His Airness in Washington -- Gibbs II produced two playoff seasons in four years -- but both had a domineering presence and tight control of most aspects of the team.
Gibbs resigned as coach and team president in January. Filling the enormous void is Cerrato, and, to a lesser extent, new coach Jim Zorn. Cerrato was given a new title and is essentially the team's general manager, a necessity given that Zorn already has his hands full as a rookie head coach who was hired a month after the season ended.
"Joe was president and was responsible for everything," Cerrato said. "Jim's the head coach, so some of the duties have to go someplace, so I have a lot of those duties. The thing that you want Jim to be able to do is worry about his coaches and the players and worry about football, and so to take some of that stuff off of Jim is what I've done."
Fairly or not, Cerrato has always been easy to pick on. He's known best for being owner Dan Snyder's right-hand man and racquetball buddy. A popular perception is that when a front office decision goes wrong, Cerrato must have had something to do it, yet he's rarely received the widespread kudos when a player worked out well.
Cerrato's relatively low profile hasn't helped -- Gibbs was the team spokesman for nearly all matters -- but that has changed since Gibbs' departure. Cerrato is now the voice of the front office, leaving little doubt who should get the praise and blame for the Redskins' moves this offseason.
Asked about his image, Cerrato noted there was one person who always publicly backed him: Gibbs.
"When you have a Hall of Fame coach say, 'This guy does a good job' and that we worked well together, I think that gives you credibility," Cerrato said. "I think that says a lot."
As for the quiet free agency, Cerrato said the Redskins didn't need to be aggressive this year. The team went to the playoffs last season, and all 22 projected starters are signed for 2008. Their only moves to date have been to re-sign backup quarterback Todd Collins, kick returner Rock Cartwright and defensive tackle Ryan Boschetti.
"We weren't in a position where we were in dire need, like we have been in the past, when we needed a starter," Cerrato said. "Like last year, we needed a middle linebacker, so we were aggressive to go get that. This year we weren't in that position where we were desperate to go get somebody and to have to go overpay a lot."
There are other factors. There were fewer big-name players available this year, so the price was high for those who were buying. Also, Cerrato had much less salary cap space than his big-spending counterparts. Plus, the Redskins want to put more emphasis on the draft, which sometimes seemed an afterthought during the Gibbs years.
The Redskins do have needs. A big receiver is necessary for Zorn's West Coast offense, so Hackett is getting a look. The standard procedure from years past would have been to invite Hackett to visit on the first day of free agency and sign him to a contract on the spot. Instead, Cerrato has wisely waited for the market to settle down before inviting the four-year veteran who caught 32 passes last season for Seattle.
"We'll kind of pick and choose," Cerrato said. "If there's somebody who's in our price range who we feel can help us, we'll bring them in."
Cerrato was asked if it felt good not being the team setting the pace on the free-agent market this year.
"It feels good," he answered, "to have been in the playoffs. That's the start. We do have a good group of guys."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press