Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” This quote comes to mind as I follow the chaos that has roared throughout Redskins Park in Ashburn, VA like a California wildfire. After lackluster performances to open the 2009-2010 season, including losses to the previously winless Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers, it appears that Jim Zorn will only wear the maroon and black as head coach of the Washington Redskins for the two remaining games leading up to the bye week, during which time Snyder will presumably relieve Zorn of his duties.
While we may safely pencil in a loss to the divisional powerhouse Philadelphia Eagles during the Monday Night Football game on October 26, the scarier game looms this Sunday, October 18, at FedEx Field, against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs will enter the game with a 0-5 record for the season. Such a normally woeful record must surely cause the whole Redskins organization’s knees to wobble and buckle, like Superman standing before a glowing chunk of Kryptonite. Lose to the Chiefs, and the fuming Snyder may not be able to arrest the guillotine until the bye week.
So for now, many names continue to emerge as potential head coaching candidates, men prominently wearing huge Super Bowl “table” rings on their fingers: Holmgren, Cowher, Shanahan, Gruden. These former coaches all boast the sterling résumés with the sufficient cachet to capture Snyder’s attention and cause his purse strings to snap like strands of twine straining under an unbearable load.
However, as rumors emerge as to the parameters of a head coach relationship that Snyder desires, the words of Groucho Marx begin to echo loud and clear. As a fan, I do not envision liking any head coach who would agree to come to DC to coach the Redskins under Snyder’s conditions.
Snyder wants to continue to remain heavily involved in personnel decisions and seems adamant in letting Vinny Cerrato continue his role as executive vice president of football operations; in reality, the de facto general manager. In the best traditions of the city which gives the team its namesake, the town that invented and perfected the art of spin control, Snyder must leave Cerrato in place to provide cover as Snyder continues to experiment with the game he surely feels he can ultimately master. Like a U.S. Secret Service agent leaping forth to absorb a bullet meant for the President of the United States, Cerrato will faithfully stand up and absorb the wrath and disdain of the fans and media as Snyder continues to accumulate expensive big-name free agents and overhyped draft choices like a fantasy football general manager. For this, Snyder rewards Cerrato with his very own radio show on the team’s flagship radio station, and the opportunity to throw racquetball games against his magnanimous benefactor.
Thus, the next head coach will have to coax victories out of a team assembled by Cerrato (pssst, it’s really assembled by Snyder). Why would a coach who has already risen to the top of his profession agree to return to the grueling grind of coaching an NFL team hamstrung by these untenable conditions? Simply for a long, rewarding drink from the faucet of Snyder’s fortune.
Thus, the next head coach will fly into DC on Redskins One, the team’s private jet, with a hunger to win suppressed by the contentment of financial security for life, and a burning desire to once again climb to the mountaintop soothed by the cooling salve of Snyder’s millions.
The fans will have to deal with the specter of many more years of on-field mediocrity on their own.
Jim Zorn precariously occupies the head coach position for the Redskins. If Dan Snyder were to fire Zorn and post a help wanted ad, I imagine it would look something like this.
The following represents, of course, a parody. Because we know when it comes to matters pertaining to the Redskins under Snyder’s ownership, the truth is often stranger than fiction.
HEAD COACH, WASHINGTON REDSKINS (Immediate Availability)
Leap straight to the top. Amaze yourself. Join a small, elite fraternity of only 31 other NFL head coaches. Earn more than you have ever imagined in your wildest dreams.
The Washington Redskins. One of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. A rich tradition of winning. An ownership group which spares no expense in the relentless pursuit of excellence. A front office at the vanguard of scouting, player personnel, and salary cap management. A rabid, loyal fan base which blindly supports the team through thick and thin and would never boo the home team at FedEx Field.
As Head Coach, you will report directly to the majority owner of the franchise, Daniel M. Snyder. Do you have what it takes to lead the Redskins to victory under the watchful eye and guiding hand of Mr. Snyder?
Be able to recite the correct team colors in public.
Provide leadership and development of the coaching staff, many members of which, to include the Offensive and Defensive Coordinators, may already be hired by Mr. Snyder.
Provide leadership and instruction on the athletic and personal development of NFL football players of questionable skill levels. Tailor coaching philosophy and game plans to the strengths of existing players on the roster.
Effectively integrate newly-signed, overpaid free-agent football players on the downside of their careers with the remaining team members not yet eligible for free-agency.
Be able to recite the correct team colors in public.
Meet with Mr. Snyder on a regular and frequent basis to provide updates on the team’s progress and preparation for the upcoming game, to include a full briefing on the game plan. Contribute to the football education of Mr. Snyder by explaining football terminology and strategies as needed.
Effectively respond to questions from media members, including cantankerous former Hall of Fame players on the flagship radio broadcast team.
Interact with the only two or three favored former players who are allowed around Redskins Park to build on the legacy of this great winning organization.
Be able to recite the correct team colors in public.
2 years experience as an offensive or defensive coordinator for an NFL team with a winning record.
Consistently mentioned as potential head coach material by nationally-recognized football analysts and commentators. Minimum qualification requirements may be waived if the candidate has received significant buzz as a hot head coaching prospect.
Able to obtain the approval of the majority of posters on fan message boards.
Suitable candidates identified by Mr. Snyder and the front office will be contacted for interviews. Before beginning the process, candidates must first sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.
Candidates will be picked up as surreptitiously as possible at the nearest airport to their home by the team’s private jet, Redskins One. Once onboard, the candidate will be served a delicious, nutritious meal consisting of selections from the full Johnny Rockets menu. Due to FAA regulations, the flight attendant will not be allowed to sing and dance to selected musical highlights from the Johnny Rockets playlist. Candidates are encouraged to visit a Johnny Rockets restaurant as many times as possible after their interviews to experience the full Johnny Rockets dining experience.
After landing at Washington Dulles International Airport, the candidate will be whisked to the Potomac, MD home of Mr. Snyder. The candidate will stay overnight in the plush accommodations of the guest house on the grounds of the Snyder family’s estate, which offers sweeping, unrestricted views of the historic C&O Canal and Potomac River. For the candidate’s entertainment and relaxation, the guest house is fully stocked with a complete Blu-Ray DVD collection of movies starring Tom Cruise, one of the most talented and bankable actors in Hollywood history. In the case of a power failure, backup generators will ensure the grounds remain completely lit and powered so that the candidate may continue to enjoy uninterrupted entertainment.
For the candidate’s comfort and as a valuable souvenir, the candidate will be provided with a set of genuine Redskins pajamas. Depending upon availability, the pajamas may come with white tops and burgundy pants, or the ever-popular white tops and white pants. Candidates will also have a choice of pajamas with or without matching burgundy booties. Candidates are welcome to take the pajamas home with them. All towels and linens, however, must remain at the guest house.
Throughout the night, the candidate will be interviewed at the guest house by Mr. Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, the Executive Vice President of Football Operations. Candidates are reminded to always refer to the owner as “Mr. Snyder.” Messrs. Snyder and Cerrato will probe in-depth the candidate’s football background, knowledge and philosophy guided by the 30-page questionnaire for which the candidate is expected to have answers prepared in advance.
The following day, the candidate will be given a tour of the team headquarters and practice facility at Redskins Park in Ashburn, VA. The tour may include a game of racquetball with Mr. Cerrato, subject to the EVP of Football Operations’ broadcast radio commitments.
The interview may also include a visit to FedEx Field, but only if the media has not yet discovered that the candidate is in town for interviews. The candidate will be flown to FedEx Field on the team’s helicopter, avoiding the inconvenience of the gridlock traffic which fans have to endure on a typical game day. Thus, the candidate will be able to focus his full attention on seeing firsthand how Mr. Snyder has extracted every possible penny of revenue from the stadium via expanded seating, concessions, and ticket and parking fees.
At the conclusion of the interview, the candidate will be flown home on Redskins One, with a farewell Johnny Rockets meal served in-flight.
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.
My business school finance professor, Dean R. Charles Moyer, once began a class by proclaiming, “Give a manager too much cash and he will do something stupid with it.” This bold statement instantly captured the attention of a classroom of MBA students, and several lessons emerged over the next hour or so of Socratic discourse.
I recently recalled Charlie’s statement as I followed the turmoil swirling around the Washington Redskins just two games into the 2009-2010 season, several days before a must-win game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, September 27. The Lions surely have reasons to believe that the team will finally break a 19-game losing streak by beating Washington this weekend at Ford Field.
Daniel M. Snyder, the majority owner of the Redskins, enters his 11th year at the helm of the franchise. Over that time period, Snyder has hired six coaches, all of whom have achieved a cumulative record slightly under .500, which when viewed under the harsh light of numbers stands as a testament to mediocrity. To his credit, Snyder has admitted that he made some mistakes early in his tenure, and that he has matured and evolved as an owner. From a business standpoint, Snyder has done an admirable job for himself and his partners, building the franchise into one of the most valuable sports properties in the world.
Local sportscasters and sports talk radio hosts insist the fans are too harsh on Snyder, that the fans should rejoice over an owner who yearns to win and is willing to spend whatever it takes to achieve that goal, such as rewarding the most prized free agent of the last offseason, Albert Haynesworth, with a $100 million contract.
But thinking about Snyder’s proclivity to use cash as a hammer in search of a nail brought me back fifteen years ago to Charlie’s classroom as I once again ponder his lessons. Has Snyder just foolishly spent money on a quixotic quest for the Vince Lombardi Trophy? Is he simply operating with the bedrock conviction of a successful businessman who has built and sold a billion-dollar empire? Or is Snyder acting more like a driver jumping behind the wheel of a rental car with his friends egging him on to “drive it like you stole it”?
As a fan, Snyder’s free-spending methods have certainly resulted in some unintended consequences. This brings to mind another teacher, my old computer science professor Dr. Hanan Samet, who used to repeatedly declare in class, with a smile, “There’s no free lunch!”
All that cash Snyder has spent to lure free-agents and coaches to the team had to come from somewhere.
Well, long-suffering Redskins fans who have pored over the lunch bill with a pencil and calculator have found skyrocketing ticket and concession prices, stiff parking fees, and traffic gridlock at FedEx Field. Add to those appetizers entrees such as filing lawsuits against defaulting season ticket holders, and you get fans who find themselves pushing away from the lunch table with more than a mild case of indigestion.
Some teams have built a culture of winning and stability, like the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. Other teams have earned a reputation for frugality and mediocrity. The Redskins under Snyder have developed a culture of money that would have made Gordon Gekko beam. Players and coaches eagerly join the Redskins to secure a huge payday, not to win. During the internet dot-com boom of the late 1990’s, the goal of every internet technology startup company was to make it to a successful IPO where billions awaited in a frothing stock market. After the bubble burst and web businesses evolved into version 2.0, the goals of startup technology companies shifted to the similarly lucrative goal of getting on Google’s radar screen in the hopes that the cash-flush giant would swoop in and buy them up.
Snyder has become the Google of the NFL.
Every NFL player dreams of playing well enough to appear on Snyder’s radar screen and ultimately earning the reward of a rich free-agent contract to play for the burgundy and gold. Only with the Redskins could a player, Robert Henson, respond to boos from fans by tweeting, “…I still made more than you in a year…” This attitude starts with the man at the top.
I have moved beyond wishing that Snyder would relinquish control of the Redskins. That scenario seems about as plausible as a Super Bowl victory at this moment in time. Snyder is a young man, and fans should expect him to occupy the driver’s seat for the foreseeable future. For sure, winning would quickly erase many of the fans’ complaints, and Snyder could yet still find himself – if not adored – at least not continuously blamed for all that is wrong with the Redskins.
No one knows where this journey will end, we can only confidently predict that it will be an interesting ride. Let’s just hope Snyder doesn’t wrap the jalopy around a tree or two along the way.