A Talent Finder Is a Keeper

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, January 10, 2008

You knew the moment Joe Gibbs got in his car to drive away from Redskins Park after his news conference Tuesday that Bill Cowher's name would be on the lips of pretty much everybody in metropolitan Washington. After all, the Redskins don't do low-profile coaches, do they?

In Dan Snyder's tenure as owner, he has hired three coaches -- Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs -- all of them mega-celebrities, each one more accomplished than the other. It kind of fits, really. Washington isn't a sports town, it's a star town. The bigger the profile the more we like it. And Snyder, who grew up here, is certainly a product of his environment. So are most of the editors and news directors who, the moment they heard Gibbs was waving goodbye, asked, "Where's Cowher?"

Well, how has that Celebrity Coach thing worked out so far for the Redskins? Let's see: no trips to the Super Bowl, no trips to the conference championship game. The Giants have been to the Super Bowl this decade. The Eagles have been to the Super Bowl this decade. The Cowboys, as the No. 1 seed in the NFC in these playoffs, are favored to go to the Super Bowl this year. That's all of the NFC East . . . except the Redskins. Apparently the Celebrity Coach model ain't what it's cracked up to be.

This isn't going to be a rant, just a restatement of something that ought to be as obvious to every owner in the NFL as it is to me. The Redskins need a football person running the football operation. Okay, some coaches may have more say than others. But this notion that a coach should have most of the say regarding personnel is obviously flawed. When Mike Holmgren works exclusively as head coach, he's gotten to the Super Bowl twice. As head coach and Boss of Everything Football, he was about to be fired until he relinquished his general manager duties and made his second run to the Super Bowl.

Miami, wallowing in the muck for years now, has finally hired Bill Parcells to be Boss of Everything Football and he's wisely hired an assistant who'll help decide whom the Dolphins hire as head coach. If Arthur Blank makes Pete Carroll his coach and Boss of Everything Football in Atlanta, I don't know who will have made the bigger mistake, Blank or Carroll.

And the Boss of Everything Football doesn't need to be famous, just exceedingly good at evaluating players, coaches, scouts, and dealing with the salary cap. Bill Polian was a great executive who then became famous. All he did was hire the people that landed Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis in the Super Bowl. So instead of trying to find the next great coach, find the guy who knows how to find or at least develop great coaches. You and I don't have to know his name, but there are smart people who do this all over the league. The trick is to find one of them.

It could be somebody the Redskins actually already know, such as Bobby DePaul, a Prince George's County kid made real good first as a scout (some of that working for the Redskins) and then as an assistant Boss of Everything Football with the Chicago Bears, who went to the Super Bowl last year. DePaul knows who can play, who can coach, who can scout and who can't. You think Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick don't have some assistant Boss of Everything Football types who know what they're doing up in New England? Maybe the apprenticeship should be over.

Remember former quarterback James Harris, an assistant to Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore? Well, he went to Jacksonville to run that football operation, and how's that working out at the moment? You would want what the Jaguars have? Then hire the guy who helped put it together. You see what Cleveland has done in short order? That's in large part because the Browns hired Phil Savage, another guy who cut his teeth in the Ravens' system. Maybe George Kokinis, the Ravens' director of pro personnel, is a great executive just waiting for a team to hire him. If you think it's in the genes, then maybe it's time to spend some money to lure Chris Polian, the vice president of football operations for the Colts, away from his old man.

These are people with vision greater than just figuring out what Celebrity Coach to hire and they're all over the league, which is how bad teams become better, then good and finally great. They look at personnel (starting, perhaps in the Redskins' case, with the young quarterback) and have at the ready a list of people who would be best suited to cultivate that talent. They know what young, workaholic assistants are innovative and great at teaching and ready to promote. They won't wind up with 20 assistants and three or four guys involved in calling the plays on game days.

Might the best candidate be, say Gregg Williams? Certainly he might be. But I'd want somebody overseeing the whole outfit helping me (the owner) put together the pieces. And please don't tell me this is a shot at Vinny Cerrato because that hasn't been his role, to be the Boss of Everything Football. While people love taking shots at Cerrato, the Redskins would have been much better off in quite a few cases had they listened to his advice.

I've been lucky in my life as a sportswriter to have been around two of the great football coaches in history: Joe Gibbs and Bobby Ross.

It's hard to imagine now, after Gibbs's three Super Bowl championships and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but when Bobby Beathard said he was hiring Gibbs to coach the Redskins, everybody in town thought: "Beathard's hiring who? We never heard of this guy." And when Dick Dull, the director of athletics at the University of Maryland at the time, hired Ross, who'd been at The Citadel and coached special teams for the Kansas City Chiefs, we similarly said: "Who? Wasn't he going to hire Dick Nolan?"

All Ross did was win a share of the national championship at Georgia Tech and get the Chargers to the Super Bowl. And when he got to the news conference in College Park, he had to introduce himself so that people would know who he was. It's been 27 years or so since those two men were first hired to fill high-profile jobs, though they had zero profiles themselves. And it can still work that way. But it involves restraint from chasing the biggest star out there and first finding the football man who realizes a thorough and productive search doesn't mean conducting a star search.

Do I suspect the Redskins will break with a recent path that has produced a lot of interest and drama but not much in the way of postseason success?

Nope . . . not at all.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company