By Mike Wise
Thursday, August 11, 2005
In public gatherings, the coach and the owner usually introduce Vinny Cerrato the same way. Joe Gibbs and Daniel Snyder point to Cerrato, the team's vice president of football operations, and say, "He's responsible for the losses."
The room always breaks up laughing, whether it's at the owners' meetings in Hawaii or among smaller groups. "Yep, 'He's responsible for the losses.' They both say it all the time now," Cerrato said, half-smiling, chuckling to himself.
In jest, the fall guy. Always in jest.
Vinny knows what you are wondering. How did he become a tenured teacher in a win-or-be-terminated league? How can an NFL franchise go 18-30 since Marty Schottenheimer fired Cerrato in 2001 and Dan Snyder hired him back a year later, and Cerrato is still working? How special is his relationship with Dan Snyder? You think by cronyism, boot-licking or worse, Cerrato is somehow still employed.
"People say I do nothing, that I only keep my job because I'm the owner's friend," Cerrato said. "I do have a national championship ring and a Super Bowl ring, you know." (Cerrato was director of college scouting for the 49ers in 1994, the season San Francisco last won a Super Bowl. He was also recruiting coordinator under Lou Holtz in 1988 during Notre Dame's national championship season.)
"They say, 'Look at him, he's a lapdog to Dan.' I do have a role. I do have a job to do."
In spite of the perception that he only indulges Snyder, Vinny does work. He has thick, color-coded binders competing for space and time in his office at the team's Ashburn training facility. He shows you Carlos Rogers, whom the team took with its ninth pick in the April draft, was No. 1 on the Redskins' defensive draft wish list. Cerrato said he wrote 300 "Redskin reports" that were used to form the team's final offensive, defensive and overall rankings for the draft. "Look, I've got binders in here, calendars," he said, pointing to his files.
On days leading up to the April draft, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Cerrato siphoned every granule of information he could from scouts and videotape. He shows you next year's draft calendar, how his days and hours are already committed.
Next year might be presumptuous for some team employees, but don't worry: It's Cerrato. Sure as tomorrow, he'll be back.
Death. Taxes. Vinny.
He's calamity-proof, able to survive Snyder's impetuousness much better than coaches and players. Cerrato has outlasted Norv Turner, Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Deion Sanders and every other high-priced free agent Cerrato brought to Washington in 2000. Schottenheimer did not want any filters to Snyder, so he promptly got rid of Cerrato in January 2001. "He told me at first, 'We gotta live together. We gotta hang out together.' A week later, he said, 'I'm going to terminate you,' " Cerrato said.
Cerrato's unofficial return to the Redskins came on Christmas Eve 2001. He was working for ESPN as a college analyst and had just finished filming a show when Snyder called.
"He said, 'I've talked to other owners in the league and they said everybody needs someone to yell at in their box. Can you come back?' "
Vinny was back, just like that. Snyder's trust in Cerrato should be underscored. Schottenheimer would not be fired for another few weeks, and there was no way Cerrato was coming back to work under him. Essentially, Cerrato knew Schottenheimer was gone before Schottenheimer.
Because of a strained right knee, he can no longer play racquetball with Snyder, but they still spend time together away from the business. Their sons, both 2 1/2 years old, are playmates. The masses can poke fun at their back-slapping relationship all they want, but Cerrato was almost as torn up as Snyder when the owner's father, Gerald, died in 2003.
"It was very emotional," Cerrato said. "I got along great with his dad. It was a tough deal. He was at practice all the time. Losin' your dad. I mean, that was his best friend." Snyder's parents were so fond of Cerrato they actually attended his wedding soon after Schottenheimer fired him. He has a picture of Snyder's parents on his desk in a gold-plated frame.
"People don't really know me," Cerrato said. "Any coach I've worked with I had a good relationship with and I still got a good relationship with." Cerrato lists taking LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels as the second and third overall picks, respectively, in the 2000 draft as his best moves in Washington. He throws Sean Taylor in the mix, too. His worst?
"Biggest regret? Probably in 2000, signing all those older guys," Cerrato said. "I learned you can't put a lot of signing bonuses on veteran players 'cause they're not going to play out those years. That was a mistake I made and learned from. Bruce Smith, Deion and Mark Carrier were the big ones.
"Now, we try to avoid dead money, money that counts against your cap and doesn't go to anybody."
(The Redskins are among NFL leaders with $16 million of their 2005 salary cap devoted to players no longer on the roster).
Cerrato had just finished working out and was icing his sore right knee. He does not feel he has to apologize for any of the club's recent moves. "We solidified some of our needs with [David] Patten, Casey Rabach and Santana Moss," he said. "We were the worst in the league in plays over 20 yards and Moss has got an 18-yard-per-catch average."
"When you're losing, no one wants to talk about getting Shawn Springs, or Cornelius Griffin or Marcus Washington. When you're losing, it becomes 'why did you take Mike Barrow or Mark Brunell?'
"I don't think I get any respect for doin' the job I do."
Cerrato said the Redskins' chain of command is a top-down affair, beginning with Joe Gibbs ("I can't imagine working for a better guy," he said). "We all have a say, but he has the final say. We usually come to a decision and he and I take the decision to Dan and talk to him about it.
"There's a huge misconception about Dan out there," Cerrato added, playing down Snyder's role as a meddlesome owner. "He doesn't sit in on the free agent meetings or the film. He lets his people do their jobs and waits for us to tell him what we're doing."
Wanting to be a sensitive sort of journalist who gives Cerrato the benefit of the doubt instead of calling for his job, I asked the man, flat-out:
"Do you have any damaging videotape of Dan Snyder?"
"Nope," Cerrato said. "None at all."
Good answer. That should buy him another six years.