Whether it ends today or Dec. 28, the Mike Shanahan era is over. Watching another football lifer, a winner of two Lombardi Trophies and Washington’s first division title in 13 years, defanged Monday at his weekly news conference — uncomfortably deflecting every “Are you done?” inquiry — was further proof. It’s all a formality now, a standoff over ego and money.
The debate over when it should end is misspent time and energy. There is only one era that needs to be over today: the Daniel Snyder era, which 14 years later has yet to begin in earnest.
Really, when will all those maddening falls and winters at FedEx Field manifest themselves in something other than brilliant marketing and windfall profits? Unless the Super Bowl was never the goal, when does this franchise experience lasting success on the field again?
The story of the past 48 hours has conveniently become Mike’s Exit Strategy, further obscuring the story going on far too long: Snyder’s Inability to Get Out Of His Own Way.
This isn’t about the current coach, who is a mere 24-37 since 2010. Snyder is 101-133 since 1999, with seven seasons of six or fewer wins and just two playoff victories.
It has never been about the coach. Snyder doesn’t hire coaches or general managers; he just gets new human shields every two years to protect him — from 11 playoff-less seasons, from dead-quiet December games, none more silent and vacant than Kansas City’s demolition Sunday.
For 19 of his 23 years as majority owner, Jack Kent Cooke employed two coaches. Snyder, who purchased the team from the Cooke family foundation in 1999, will soon be on his eighth coach in just 15 years.
Between the emotional outbursts, between the way he’s divided and conquered staffs, players and season-ticket holders, Snyder has always been his own biggest impediment.
He might have matured from the days of big-shotism, when he was chasing red wine with Crown Royal and foot-long cigars, commandeering his personal jet to “go get Mike Shanahan” in the middle of a September night in 2009, yet another attempt to find the “right” person to lead the team while undermining the one currently doing it.
That’s why Shanahan demanded (and supposedly got) total control of personnel. Still, the perception was that Snyder pushed to trade for Donovan McNabb, even though the offensive coordinator, Shanahan’s son, didn’t want him.
Either way, Mike takes the rap.
We thought Snyder might have learned that an owner’s leadership is compromised when he attempts to befriend his star players, confusing employees for friends — from Bruce Smith to LaVar Arrington and Clinton Portis. But then we hear about Robert Griffin III’s car being parked in the bowels of FedEx Field during the game for a painless exit afterward and a longtime employee calling another to say, “The kid’s got a parking space during the game? No one got that.”
I put none of that on Griffin or his father. The worst indictment of Snyder’s role in the failure of the Shanahan era is the perception that Griffin’s opinion of his coach was the key to his return.
Double standards don’t just cripple team chemistry; they destroy chains of command, circumvent authority.
“You can’t treat people the way you treat people and expect to get a positive product,” Arrington said by telephone Monday afternoon. “Bottom line, the product on field is merely a by-product of how the culture is.”
The culture is exotic outside candidates always get paid more than the people in-house who carry water. The quick fix (and big splash) of an Albert Haynesworth is always more seductive than the workmanlike responsibility of a Kedric Golston.
The culture is selling hope, not procuring championships. It’s siphoning every last dollar out of a great name such as Bacarri Rambo, whose NFL-licensed jersey sells for $180, and then watching a clueless kid struggle to bring down a ball carrier two inches in front of him.
The culture is plotting the next move to sell 2014 club seats, to trumpet the millions available to spend this offseason in free agency as opposed to the millions lost the past two seasons to salary-cap hubris.
Snyder has tried everything: the taskmaster (Marty Schottenheimer), the hotshot college coach (Spurrier), the most beloved icon in team history (Joe Gibbs), the diamond in the rough (Zorn) and now the proven winner and offensive mastermind (Shanahan).
When Shanahan is either paid off, bought out or resigns, not one coach will have completed his original contract (though Gibbs left on good terms for personal reasons).
They end their tenures with worse coaching reputations than when they signed their contracts. They leave looking weathered and battered, with professional stains on their résumés, like Samuel L. Jackson after his agent talked him into doing “Snakes on a Plane” for the money.
Norv Turner, the one coach Snyder didn’t personally hire, was the only one who left with a winning record.
Shanahan’s vacant stare the past 48 hours is virtually identical to the look of all the men whose large egos once told them they could change the culture, only to realize in their undertaking that a greater force was impossible to overcome.
Unlike many of the jaded and cynical, I believe Snyder wants to win. And he has tried his best in the only way he knows how: spend and spend more.
But now he has only one available route to please the fan base, only one way to bring long-term prosperity to the franchise he cheered as a boy. For all his foibles and flaws, Snyder has a passion for this team the fans have never appreciated or grasped, but throwing additional billions at it won’t convince them. Only one act will truly make them universally happy, and it has nothing to do with a Lombardi Trophy.
Keeping the name will hold on to some. Firing Shanahan will cement the belief of others. But to garner the entire fan base’s everlasting gratitude for these oh-so-trying years, Snyder has just one option:
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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