An outcome as fathomable as a politician declining a lobbyist’s invitation to lunch occurred for Redskins fans on Sunday, September 27, 2009 when the Detroit Lions defeated the Washington Redskins, 19-14, to snap a 19-game losing streak. In the bewildering aftermath, the fans predictably rose as one to demand changes, starting with firing Jim Zorn and benching the starting quarterback, Jason Campbell, and not necessarily in that order.
No plausible alternatives appear on the horizon at this point in the season if Snyder were to decide to fire Zorn. That inconvenient detail may not matter, however, if the Redskins lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home on Sunday, October 4, 2009.
But the swirling tempest emanating from Redskins Park in Ashburn, VA portends a new chapter in the fascinating evolution of Dan Snyder as an owner in the NFL. Snyder wants to win, as he has repeatedly maintained. The wrinkle lies in the fact that Snyder wants to win his way, with his hand firmly planted in every part of the process. Therefore, he continues to dismiss the idea of hiring a proven “football executive” to run his franchise. That would mean relinquishing control, and Snyder has been there, done that, although it’s unclear whether he still has the t-shirt to prove it. Snyder granted Marty Schottenheimer complete control during the no-nonsense coach’s combustible tenure with the team. Just as Coach “Yes, I said Oklahoma Drill” Schottenheimer appeared to turn the team’s fortunes around on the field, Snyder fired him, simply because he could no longer tolerate sitting on his hands and watching the team begin to win without him being directly involved.
So the franchise soldiers on with Vinny Cerrato as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations. Cerrato boasts decades of experience in football, along with a budding career as a radio talk show host. This varied résumé does not seem to help him overcome the fans’ suspicions that he earned the role based on his personal friendship with Snyder.
Amid this house that Snyder has built, the hiring of Jim Zorn, a coach borne of an opaque, convoluted search process, makes perfect sense. First, Zorn was hired as the offensive coordinator, even before a head coach was named. Two weeks later, Snyder then introduced Zorn as the next head coach of the Washington Redskins. Perhaps at the time Snyder believed he had completed a master stroke comparable to Bobby Beathard’s hiring of a then-obscure assistant named Joe Gibbs. But the hiring of Zorn now seems like an ill-fated decision, as it appears Zorn will need more time and seasoning to successfully make the transition from quarterbacks coach to the top spot.
Perhaps one day Zorn will blossom into a good NFL head coach. But there’s more to being a head coach than play-calling, especially in Washington, DC, where even Senators and Congressman would concede that the Redskins are the only game in town. The head coach of the Redskins must tread with care at Redskins Park, like a goat herder walking across an Afghanistan landscape littered with landmines buried from decades of conflict. It seems hard enough in today’s NFL to coax multi-millionaire athletes to strive for something beyond their paycheck; that task appears even harder when the players’ allegiance lie with the owner, the man who paid them top dollar.
Zorn seems to be a decent, honorable man, with a variety of interests beyond football. However, only 32 head coaching jobs exist in the NFL. At this rarified altitude only the strongest will succeed; those prepared and ready to assume the throne. In the stodgy business world before the establishment of the World Wide Web, managers accepted the notion that employees got promoted once they have proven that they are capable of performing the bigger job. That antiquated notion disappeared faster than the time it took for Snyder to offer Zorn the head coaching job. Success in the NFL is measured in wins, not in how well-rounded, decent the man is, or how much he is able to mold the whole man. The pinnacle of the profession cannot serve as a laboratory for on-the-job training or a testing ground for possible candidates. The only person allowed to enjoy on-the-job training at Redskins Park occupies the spacious corner office.
Fans love to debate who among the many coaches wearing Super Bowl rings currently waiting on the sidelines for the next opportunity would best serve as the Redskins next head coach. Before that happens, a sea change would have to wash over Redskins Park. Presumable, a coach holding such unassailable credentials would demand some degree of control. Additionally, any prospective head coach would have to sort out some thorny issues with Cerrato beyond racquetball court reservations and radio broadcast schedules. And as always, the specter of “past performance does not predict future success” continues to linger over Redskins Park like an early-morning fog.
This convergence of events now brings us to the point where we can clearly see a possible inflection point in the evolution of Dan Snyder as an NFL owner. How badly does he want to win? Does he want it enough to give up the reins again and turn over his franchise to a proven winner?
The division of labor represents an economic theory as old as time. Surely a businessman as astute as Snyder understands this. Just as much as he likely also believes that he can handle a bigger share of the pie, even one shaped like a football.
How this scenario plays out should prove interesting. Given the fact that the current team does not appear willing to compete on the field, watching Snyder’s next move remains the only game left in DC.