Daniel Snyder, Washington Redskins owner, still struggles to find formula for success

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Every year or once in a blue moon? See which teams are nearly always in the playoffs these days and which rarely get there.
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Every year or once in a blue moon? See which teams are nearly always in the playoffs these days and which rarely get there.

The sentiment as sobering as the annual disappointments.

“I think I’ve got incredible patience and understand things now that I didn’t have when I first came into the league,” the Washington Redskins owner told a television reporter in 2004. “I’ve learned a whole bunch.”

The results as reliable as the revolving door in front of the head coach’s office.

“I feel like I’m finally coming into my own,” he told the Associated Press in 2009.

Fifteen seasons after securing the keys to one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, Snyder, 49, is still trying to get it right, embarking on yet another search for a head coach he hopes might change the Redskins’ fortunes.

The Redskins have reached the playoffs just four times in Snyder’s 15 seasons as owner and have churned through seven head coaches in that period. Only the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins among the NFL’s 32 franchises have seen more. Of the owners who’ve been in the league for at least 10 years, Snyder has a worse winning percentage (.433) since 1999 than all but four: Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson (.413), Houston’s Robert McNair (.411), Arizona’s Bill Bidwill (.400) and Detroit’s William Clay Ford (.321).

The margin between winning and losing in the NFL is thin, often determined by factors outside an owner’s control. But the consistency with which the Redskins have lost under Snyder’s stewardship raises the question: Why?

This story is based in part on interviews with 19 former employees, including those who worked on the Redskins coaching staff, in the front office and at Snyder Communications, the wildly successful marketing company that built Snyder’s wealth. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because they either weren’t authorized to discuss Snyder or they were concerned speaking publicly could damage future employment prospects.

The Redskins turned down requests to make Snyder or his top advisers available to be interviewed for this story.

Nearly all former employees described Snyder as a man whose passion for the team is both an asset and a flaw and whose personality and leadership style touch every corner of the Redskins organization. While some suggest he receives unfair blame for some of the team’s missteps, many say his strong personality has fostered a culture within the organization that makes it hard for any employee to thrive. Even Snyder’s defenders note that the franchise’s perennial struggles feature the owner’s fingerprints and say the organization is very much a product of his design.

Those inside the organization laud Snyder’s marketing instincts and ability to identify new revenue streams — the franchise has more than tripled in value since he bought it. But from the outside, Snyder’s tenure as owner has been marked by big splashes and bigger flops, impulsive decisions that didn’t pan out and a bit of bad luck. People who’ve worked in every facet of his operation say Snyder runs his billion-dollar business in a unique way, promoting competition within the building, maintaining few close advisers and allowing his own passion and personal interests to get in the way.

Charley Casserly, the Redskins’ former general manager, notes that Snyder has tried a variety of approaches, and the team received widespread praise for its coaching hires of Steve Spurrier, Marty Schottenheimer, Joe Gibbs for his second stint with the team and Mike Shanahan, who was fired last Monday. They were moves that appeared to boost the credibility of the franchise, even though none fully panned out.

“What’s happened is this guy gets beaten up because people want to beat him up,” said Casserly, who was fired by Snyder in 1999. “He’s done what people have told him to do, and people are still taking shots at him and not looking at the thing objectively.”

Snyder by many accounts has taken several steps in recent years to remove himself from the day-to-day operation of the team, and critics and supporters alike say if he truly remains in the background the team could turn the corner under a new coaching staff.

Others caution, however, that despite his regular pronouncements of personal growth and professional change, the same mistakes continue to hamper the Redskins.

‘Wants to be involved in it all’

Each NFL owner operates his team differently. In Dallas, Jerry Jones serves as the Cowboys’ general manager and speaks publicly about his team once a week. In Seattle, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has talked publicly about his Seahawks franchise only a handful of times since buying it in 1997. And up the road in Baltimore, Steve Bisciotti is a visible owner but largely trusts his top lieutenants to make football decisions for the Ravens.

Snyder’s organization has been structured a variety of ways and featured several deputies over the years. Those familiar with the team’s inner workings say there’s not necessarily a problem with the structure, but rather that those tapped to do their jobs frequently are not allowed to do them.

A former member of the Redskins’ personnel department said Snyder’s involvement with the football operation typically outmatches his football expertise.“He can’t ever get it right because he wants to be involved in it all,” he said. “He wants to have input in everything.”

Several employees said that while Snyder likes to ask questions, he does not always seem receptive to advice. Many relationships with other NFL teams are strained, they say, and he has insulated himself from pushback and dissenting opinions.

“I think there’s a fundamental flaw with who he surrounds himself with,” said one former coach. “Dan’s not very open to receiving negative feedback.”

While the cast has changed over the years, Snyder himself has suggested his trusted advisers haven’t done enough to rein in the owner. Snyder has given few interviews in recent years in which he has reflected on his football decisions. He sat down with journalist Gary Myers in 2010 for the book “Coaching Confidential” to discuss some of his missteps, shifting the blame for the team’s decision to hire inexperienced Jim Zorn as head coach after Gibbs’s retirement to Vinny Cerrato, the team’s de facto general manager at the time.

“The general manager needs to prevent the owner from hiring someone who’s not qualified. And that’s why Vinny is no longer here, to be truthful with you,” Snyder said. “He’s not here because his job was to prevent the owner from hiring a not-qualified coach.”

After firing Cerrato, in late 2009 Snyder brought in Bruce Allen, son of the team’s legendary former coach, George Allen. Snyder had been interested in Allen for several years, and by most accounts no one has been closer to the owner these past few years when it comes to football matters.

“Dan looks at Bruce as a contemporary, as somebody who loves the Redskins as much as he does,” one former team official said. “He’s respected him for a long time.”

Shanahan was given full control of the football operations when he was hired in January 2010, and Snyder agreed to take a step back. The organization formerly operated as a pyramid with a handful of executive vice presidents reporting directly to Snyder. Since Allen was hired, they all report to Allen, who solely reports to Snyder.

While most agree Snyder stayed in the background for most of Shanahan’s tenure as head coach, many credit Allen for serving as a buffer. “Bruce is the most important person there,” one former employee said. “Dan needed someone like that.”

Snyder’s inner circle has shrunk over the years. Being a confidante is a taxing job, former employees say, requiring both friendship and business interest and entails phone calls at all hours, late-night meetings and long meals. Gone are people like Cerrato; Karl Swanson, a communications specialist; and attorneys David Donovan and Norm Chirite. Allen is the principal now, and he’s often the one who represents the owner in league matters. As Snyder described it, he needs a general manager who not only helps advise but who also stops the owner from making bad decisions.

“A lot of it is talking through problems and solving them before they reach the head coach. That’s a big part of that job,” Casserly said. “One of Bruce’s great strengths is the ability to be patient and communicate with people and deal with different personalities.”

With Shanahan’s ouster, Allen is expected to assume more power within the organization, serving as a more traditional general manager. Morocco Brown will be in charge of pro player personnel; Scott Campbell, who joined the team in 2001, will oversee college scouting; and Eric Schaffer, the team’s general counsel, will help Allen manage the salary cap. Senior executives on the business side of the operation are said to be not as close to Snyder as some of their predecessors.

People in and around the NFL say it’s too early to know how successful the organization will be now that Allen wields more power. Allen is leading the search for a new head coach, though most suspect Snyder will have a say in the final decision, like any NFL owner.

“It’s tough for me to discuss what he did before I came here because I wasn’t here,” Allen said last week. “He’s been very supportive of everything we’ve wanted to do. . . . He’s given us the support and the resources to do what we think is necessary to help us win.”

Big splashes, little results

Publicly, Snyder has pledged to allow his football people to make football decisions. “To me, it’s really about what Mike wants to do, what Bruce wants to do, and me supporting them and helping them move forward,” Snyder said in 2010 when asked about his role with Shanahan and Allen.

While Shanahan thanked the owner in his farewell news conference last week, those close to the situation said the coaching staff felt there were times Snyder’s interest in bringing in high-profile players, and the marketing value they bring, impacted the product Shanahan was able to put on the field. The biggest example was the acquisition of quarterback Donovan McNabb in 2010.

Shanahan hoped to acquire Marc Bulger, then the St. Louis Rams quarterback, according to two people familiar with the situation, but Snyder pushed hard for the higher profile and more marketable McNabb. The owner cut short a family vacation in the Turks and Caicos Islands to meet his new quarterback.

One constant theme of Snyder’s ownership from the beginning has been complaints from staff about the owner’s involvement with players and the relationships he cultivates with them. Even as he ceded a significant amount of authority to Shanahan these past four years, Snyder, like many NFL owners, will never be entirely absent from big decisions, others warn.

“New coaches come in excited because they think they have the support of an owner who wants to win. But they soon find out Snyder is all about making a big splash,” one former assistant coach said.

Two of his more celebrated coaching hires were Shanahan and Schottenheimer. Both were given control of team personnel, something Snyder is said to have regretted in the case of Schottenheimer, who was fired after just one season.

“At the end of the year, Dan told me he wasn’t having any fun. He wanted control back,” one former employee said. “That, I think, was at the heart of the thing. It’s like working for a plumbing company and always looking over your shoulder and hearing, ‘Don’t do that with the elbow joint.’ Unless you’re a plumber, don’t tell the plumber how to do his job.”

The owner’s influence has stretched at times into the locker room, perhaps most notably with former running back Clinton Portis. The two still chat often, and Portis said Snyder even sent him a text message last Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. wishing his former star player a happy new year.

“I think so many people are intimidated by Mr. Snyder and think he’s a jerk. In reality, he’s actually a fun guy,” Portis said. “Half the world hates you, half the world loves you. Your players love you. You don’t find that ironic that players never speak bad about Mr. Snyder and everyone else can’t stand him?”

Prior to Shanahan, Snyder played a much more active role in the draft process, even traveling at times with his personnel officials to scout college players. In 2007, he had his heart set on drafting quarterback Brady Quinn out of Notre Dame. “It took a week or so to convince him that we shouldn’t do that,” one former staffer said. “Then he wanted Teddy Ginn,” an Ohio State wide receiver. Quinn has played for five teams in seven seasons, while Ginn has started just five games in the past four years.

The next season, still in need of a wide receiver, the team targeted Oklahoma’s Malcolm Kelly in the second round, though the medical staff had major health concerns. When they took Michigan State wideout Devin Thomas 34th overall before nabbing Kelly 17 picks later, they passed on Jordy Nelson, whom several others in the football operation preferred, according to someone who was with the team at the time. Hobbled by knee problems for two seasons, Kelly was released in 2011 after posting just 28 receptions. In six seasons with the Green Bay Packers since going 36th overall in the draft, Nelson has 302 catches for 4,590 yards and 36 touchdowns. This season, Nelson had career highs with 85 receptions for 1,314 yards.

“It’s hard to say that anyone can restrain him when he wants to do something,” said one former Snyder employee, who’d worked at Snyder Communications, of the Redskins owner. “You cannot stop impulsive people from doing what they want to do.”

‘He was just openly hostile’

Around Redskins Park, the team’s headquarters in Ashburn, turnover is not limited to the team’s coaching staff, particularly in recent years. The team’s media guide in 2008 listed 143 team employees not related to football operations. Five years later, fewer than 20 remain.

There are myriad reasons. While the Redskins have never been shy to pay millions to football players, former employees who’ve also worked elsewhere in the NFL say salaries for the rest of the operation lag behind many teams. Ex-staffers reported cutbacks during the recent recession — multiple employees reported receiving bags of apples one year in lieu of holiday bonuses — but Tony Wyllie, the Redskins’ senior vice president of communications, noted that a lot of companies tightened their belts during the recession.

“The Washington Redskins at that point as well as now have one of the largest staffs in all of sports,” Wyllie said.

Several former employees said job security was a constant fear. “I never worked in such a nervous building before,” one former employee said. “You never saw anyone who came in and was like, ‘Wow, great to be here today.’ It was grim faces all the time. It was a dozen Bob Cratchits.”

Employees describe Snyder as “moody,” “mercurial,” and “unpredictable,” and former coaches say Snyder’s mood is particularly volatile when the team struggles. They described getting berated in the facility’s workout area and approached in the locker room in the minutes following games.

“He was just openly hostile,” one said. “He had to blame somebody, and if a player didn’t play well, that position coach or coordinator might hear about it.”

Those who know Snyder well say while he can be gruff, tactless and prone to yelling, many of his better qualities don’t receive near the attention as his flaws. How he’s offered his jet to employees to travel across the country to attend funerals. How he has made unpublicized hospital visits to see others. How his charitable foundation and his wife’s work to fight breast cancer have raised millions of dollars.

“It’s been overlooked absolutely,” Snyder told the AP in 2009. “Because it’s not a great sound bite.”

Explained one close associate: “His whole exterior gets in the way of what’s inside. When you peel the exterior away, there’s really a pretty frail interior there.”

Some suggest he lacks the interpersonal skills to effectively communicate with those below him. One oft-told story around Redskins Park dates from Snyder’s early days as an owner.

Snyder had tired of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s bland play-calling. “Too vanilla,” he called it, and to illustrate the point, he left a gallon of ice cream on Nolan’s desk. Nolan chuckled, but later that season, the owner still wasn’t pleased and sent more ice cream, three five-gallon drums this time, with the note: “I wasn’t joking. I do not like vanilla.”

“What you find is there’s a culture of fear,” one former employee said. “That seems to be his approach. I wouldn’t say he has the ability to inspire, not much in the way of leadership skills. . . . People are afraid to step out of the box. Do his executives go out of the way to challenge him? I don’t think so. You heard a lot of, ‘This is what the corner office wants.’ ”

Phillip Daniels, a former player who spent the 2012 season employed as the team’s director of player development, said Snyder still largely suffers from a perception problem.

“If anybody points the finger at him, they’re wrong because he does everything he can,” Daniels said. “He’s given every head coach the golden opportunity.”

Said Portis: “I think in D.C., they choose their own villain. Once you become the villain, it’s hard to get out. When you look at Mr. Snyder, he’s going to figure this out. . . . He’s not gonna be satisfied until he returns a championship or two back to that city.”

Defenders also point out that in recent years the team has made significant upgrades to Redskins Park, brokered a deal to hold training camp in Richmond and granted a number of other requests made by Shanahan.

“If anyone thinks Dan Snyder is sitting in the owners box and counting his money and not worried about the product on the field, he’s delusional,” said one long-time associate. “He wants to win like nobody I’ve ever known.

“He’s just still learning how to do it.”

Jason Reid, Mike Jones, Mike Wise, Sally Jenkins and Kent Babb contributed to this report.

 
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