In the Washington area, nothing contains the elements of melodrama, Greek tragedy, and (above all) farce as a Redskins team in disarray. As such, it is appropriate at the occasion of the termination of Mike Shanahan's duties (four years into a five-year contract) as Redskins Head Coach and Vice President of Football Operations to recount what became the Shanahan Saga as it unfolded, first by what led to team owner Daniel Snyder to cede control of personnel decision-making.
Dan Snyder’s tenure prior to Shanahan’s arrival was notable for his “hands-on” ownership, an approach in direct contrast to his predecessor Jack Kent Cooke. Snyder’s display of the three Lombardi Trophies won under the Squire’s leadership upon every significant trade, signing, of coach hiring grew to be an ironic symbol to Redskins fans of how Snyder’s approach had failed to produce remotely similar results.
Part of Snyder’s hands-on approach prior to 2010 was the absence of a general manager independently empowered to do the Redskins’ personnel and coaching hiring and firing. Instead, Snyder upon becoming team majority owner in 1999 named former 49ers player personnel director Vinny Cerrato the Redskins’ Vice President of Football Operations. Except for the one season that Marty Schottenheimer was authorized to call the personnel shots, Cerrato worked as Snyder’s right-hand man, implementing the owner’s top-down plans.
Regrettably for Redskins fans, the Snyderatto combination never seemed to have the right formula for team-building. Big misses with free agent signings and trades of draft picks – often due to personnel selections that were at odds with the coach at the time – created a lack of roster continuity as well as salary cap restrictions. Of course, those cap and roster cohesion issues would deepen as each coaching regime came and went (Turner, Schottenheimer, Spurrier, Gibbs II, Zorn), while Snyderatto stayed in place season after season.
Fast forwarding to 2008, the Redskins were rapidly on the precipice of drama mode rather than playoff mode. When Joe Gibbs retired after leading his team to another playoff appearance, Snyderatto shopped unsuccessfully for someone of note willing to be the head coach and deal with the Snyderatto way of team-building. Seahawks QB coach Jim Zorn was interviewed and hired to be the Skins’ offensive coordinator – without a head coach in place, mind you – but soon decided to add head coach to his list of responsibilities. The Zorn Era started with promise as the Redskins started 6-2. As the league adjusted to Zorn’s play calling, the team’s record, point totals, and offensive creativity diminished. Consequently, the "Maroon and Black" finished out of the playoff picture at 8-8.
Whereas 2008 had been disappointing, 2009 was downright disastrous. Snyderatto brought in big-ticket free agent defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to fill the hole Snyderatto created by neglecting the defensive line, having never spent a draft pick above the first five rounds on the D-line prior to that. While the signing made sense in terms of a talent upgrade, it required that the defensive staff be on the same page as management, which it clearly wasn’t. The defensive coordinator du jour, Greg Blache, had begun implementing a 3-4 defense in which Haynesworth’s forte of operating from a 4-3 DT slot would not be maximized. That combined with Blache’s expressed “sacks are overrated” philosophy in contrast to Haynesworth's desire to rush the quarterback on passing plays rather than concentrate on containment made the situation a disaster waiting to happen, one that was precisely attributable to the Snyderatto way that discounted such real world considerations.
With the defensive side of ball enveloped in fresh drama, the offensive side quickly followed suit, churning out mind-numbingly awful numbers. The offense became such an embarrassment of confusion, mistakes, and futility that Snyderatto stripped their hand-picked coaching selection of his play calling duties after Week 6 of the season. Those duties were assumed and handed them to former Packers offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis, who left retirement and actually cancelled his senior center bingo-calling duties in an effort to rescue what became a 4-12 campaign.
Quarterback Jason Campbell, who had struggled under yet another offensive system and new coordinator (this one espousing the West Coast offense), had been benched mid-contest by Zorn in Week 6. Rather than sign veteran QB Jeff Garcia (who was available and had run the West Coast offense successfully) or start backup Todd Collins, Zorn started Campbell the following week against the Eagles. The following excerpt from an article I posted after that game explains a development with eerie similarities to late 2013, in which Coach Zorn appeared to slip into check-collecting and time-biding mode:
“The [Snyderatto power] move was thought by many to be designed to prompt Zorn to quit. If so, it didn’t work, but did initiate a “soul search” by Zorn preceding his decision to accept the move. The results of the soul search unfolded when Zorn used one of his remaining areas of authority to name Campbell as starter against the Eagles. Monday night, Campbell rapidly returned to his old ways in a first half marred by bad reads, an interception, a fumble, and sacks caused by seeming indecision. Many in my section grew more and more incredulous that Campbell remained in the game as the offense and special teams dug a hole for the team that wasted the defense’s semi-respectable effort.
“Speaking with as little passion as I’ve ever witnessed someone exhibit at a presser (which is still marginally better than D-coordinator Greg Blache, who now ducks interviews entirely), Zorn had the gall to say that “the fans can be proud of the effort given on the field. Zorn casually remarked towards the end of the presser that ‘[Campbell] got a sprained ankle early in the first quarter.’ That’s right; Zorn refused to sit a struggling quarterback who was performing even more poorly than in the previous week when he got benched, even when that QB suffered an ankle sprain at a point in the game where a replacement QB could have jumpstarted the offense. Zorn even used the injury to specifically excuse Campbell’s fumble: ‘He was going for Moss, but he was going so slow he got hit from behind. I’d like him to make a different decision there.’ I can’t imagine a coach truly committed to winning could be that blasé and accepting of this situation as the status quo.”
As 2009’s fiasco drew to a close, ten years of Snyderatto had taken its toll. As I summarized at the time: “That Zorn isn’t displaying the leadership and play-calling needed out of the position is hardly surprising for someone not practiced in those skills at the NFL level. Therefore, the shortcomings are squarely the responsibility of the braintrust (sic) that hired Zorn. Already flying in the face of the model that’s brought the most success in the league -- a strong general manager heading a staff of other “football people” without undue meddling from ownership, the Snyderatto combo has helmed the team to its current sorry state and has engendered distrust and disgust from one of the largest and most loyal fan bases in sports.
“It’s even worse for Skins fans to contemplate starting over from scratch yet again with one of the usual coaching suspects that Snyderatto goes for -- Cowher and Shanahan (!) -- who will come in for a king’s ransom, shake up the roster despite the cap hits it causes, and then likely leave town before the contract is up and before the Skins have gone far in the playoffs. Any move that brings the Redskins a true general manager and dilutes the influence of Snyderrato over player personnel decisions will be a step in the right direction.” With ticket sales at risk and the franchise reaching new lows a decade into Dan Snyder's ownership, the stage was finally set for the end of Snyderatto and the start of a new power dynamic in the Redskins front office and coaching staff.