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So Far, So Good for Cerrato the Football Boss

By Mike Wise
Friday, August 15, 2008

Knowing Vinny Cerrato, who watches a lot of ESPN, listens to Miserable Suburban Guy radio and pays close attention to what the masses think, it seems only natural to open up with an obvious one:

"So, how does it feel when you hear someone say, 'When are the Redskins going to get a real GM?' "

Cerrato pauses and thinks, reclining in his Ashburn office below a color-coded board of every NFL player's name and status. "I haven't heard it for a while," he finally says.

To be sure, he says he pays more attention to national news than the local yokels. Vinny has gone so far as to warn his mother to avoid certain URLs and Web links after she signs on the Internet in Florida and reads everything to catch up on her son's team.

"I told her which blog not to read," Cerrato said, referring to Jason La Canfora's Redskins Insider on washingtonpost.com, which eviscerates Cerrato like Post TV critic Tom Shales used to eviscerate Kathie Lee Gifford's Christmas specials. "She gets mad when she reads those kinds of things."

It's only preseason, but Mary Cerrato cannot be too angry these days.

After Joe Gibbs left in January, her son was promoted to the job as Washington's top football decision maker. That's right, not director of player personnel. Or V.P. under Joe Gibbs and 10 other coaches. Nope. Mama Cerrato's boy is all growed up -- a real, bona fide GM, the big cheese who oversees all the team's day-to-day football operations.

Which meant that all the things Vinny use to get blamed for -- trades, losses and general organizational malaise and chaos -- well, now it's okay to blame Vinny.

Or praise him.

Of the team's 10 draft picks, cornfed Iowan Chad Rinehart has been a nice find on the offensive line and seventh-round safety Chris Horton has showed promise. Cerrato pried Jason Taylor away from Bill Parcells with little more than a second-round draft pick, acquiring the not-long-for-Miami defensive end on the same the day Phillip Daniels and Alex Buzbee went down and out for the season with injuries.

And all the guff he and owner Daniel Snyder took in the musical-chair coaching search of Jim Zorn nearly melted away the moment Zorn let the playbook breathe. Zorn opened up the offense and his mouth, showing an earnestness that's already won over skeptics of the neophyte head coach.

"People just needed to get to know Jim," Cerrato said. "Once you got to know him like Dan and I knew him, they would see the real Jim instead of criticizing him for not having the experience. Give him a chance to see what he can do, see who he is. And people have."

If Cerrato's true measure of a full-time general manager is to be shown anytime soon, it will have less to do with how he spends Snyder's money and more to do with the draft. This is a copycat league, and the moment the Giants won a Super Bowl with young, almost anonymous players such as Ahmad Bradshaw, Kevin Boss and other inconspicuous rookies, finding that diamond in the rough took on a greater importance in the NFL.

The big question in two years may be, "Did Cerrato draft well?"

For now, there is only his past to go on, specifically eight previous seasons in Washington under Snyder and his nine years with the San Francisco 49ers during the George Seifert and Steve Mariucci eras.

Vinny's best draft pick: "Probably Lee Woodall in the sixth round," he said. (Woodall, an unknown linebacker drafted from West Chester University in 1994, started as a rookie for the 49ers' Super Bowl team and made two Pro Bowls in an eight-year career.) "T.O., too." (The 89th overall pick in 1996, Terrell Owens, Cerrato admits, almost fell into San Francisco's lap. The 49ers were three picks away before Buffalo and another team passed on Owens.) He also named Sean Taylor, saying he would have been the best safety to ever play the game.

Vinny's worst pick: "I would probably say [Jim] Druckenmiller." (The slow-footed and not quite mentally tough quarterback bombed out after the 49ers took him in the first round of the 1997 draft.)

Best free agent signing: "Griff [Cornelius Griffin], London [Fletcher] or Shawn Springs," Cerrato said.

Worst? Adam Archuleta. "He just didn't fit in to what we were doing."

Brandon Lloyd goes down as the worst trade he can remember. Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Mark Carrier never came up, which seems fair. Although Cerrato was involved in those deals, Snyder committed the money and years to other teams' aging stars that eventually crippled the team's salary cap.

From January on, as far as the front office is concerned, it's now solely on Cerrato.

"The hardest part of the new job?" he asked rhetorically. "Making sure everybody stays healthy."

The acquisition of Jason Taylor led to a few awkward moments with reporters for Cerrato, who went before the cameras and microphones to say he had not spoken to Parcells earlier in the day -- and then admitted later on he had in fact had conversations with the Dolphins' president.

Asked if "fibbing" (re: malicious lying) was part of his job, he said: "Absolutely. You have to do what's in the best interest of the organization.

"Take, for instance, when I said I hadn't talked earlier to Bill Parcells the day we got Jason Taylor," he added. "If I go out and say, 'Yeah, we're having serious conversations and I'm going to talk to him again,' the other team is going to read the blog. I'm showing my cards. That's not the best thing to do to try and get Jason Taylor."

Cerrato said he learned much from Gibbs about how to build a franchise, especially in the areas of "types of people that you can win with -- character people," Cerrato said.

"How he handled tough situations, the way he was always steady through everything -- even Sean Taylor's death -- I learned a lot from him," Cerrato said.

Gibbs built up a reservoir of goodwill in the 1980s and early '90s that largely carried him through rough times in his second stint as coach. He wasn't immune to intense and personal criticism, but he always had believers to fall back on.

As Cerrato officially takes over, he has no such legacy. But he does have a supportive wife, Rebecca, an orthopedic surgeon who completed her residency at Georgetown. And he does have two young boys who get to run around on the FedEx Field after games in their Redskins jerseys. So they pretty much combat the blogs and the criticism.

Before exiting Cerrato's office, he of course has one question of his own:

"So, are you gonna rip me?"

Nah. It's preseason. Mary Cerrato is in too good a mood.

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