Meet the New Boss
Thursday, September 4, 2008
He has spent almost all of his career in the safety of the shadows cast by much more powerful and accomplished football men: Lou Holtz, George Seifert, Joe Gibbs. Even when briefly out of the game, working for ESPN, he was hidden away on the lowest rung of the network's enormous cast of NFL observers.
But now Vinny Cerrato is front and center, no longer dismissed as merely a racquetball partner for Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. Not after Gibbs left, Snyder gave Cerrato the fanciful title of executive vice president of football operations, Gregg Williams was sent packing and Jim Zorn was hired. Not after Cerrato oversaw a stunningly quiet free agency period and then pounced to grab defensive end Jason Taylor from the Miami Dolphins in August.
Cerrato is running the Redskins. And as much as the story line of the season, which begins tonight against the New York Giants, will be about how Zorn fares in his rookie year as head coach and the continued development of quarterback Jason Campbell, it will also be about Cerrato and a franchise virtually remade under his watch.
"This is the first time you can really put everything on Vinny, beginning right now," said one longtime NFL executive who asked that his name not be used because he must deal with Cerrato in the future. "It's evident to every football man in the National Football League that the Vinny Cerrato era has begun. Whether it works or not -- and a lot of people are wondering if it can work -- right now you can honestly say he's in charge. In the past, he's always been under the radar, and he could blame Dan or blame a coach, but he can no longer do that. It's his team now."
There remain skeptics around the league who maintain Snyder, despite his protestations to the contrary, still makes every major decision and that Cerrato is more of a caretaker. But direct evidence of that is hard to find. Cerrato is so accustomed to criticism over his relationship with Snyder that he has developed almost a pat rebuttal to such thinking.
"I know what people say: 'He only has a job because he's the owner's friend,' but if you look at the whole history, there's been success," Cerrato said in one of a series of interviews that began last spring. "Does it still bother me? Sure, it bothers me . . . but the people that I've worked with respect the work that I've done. It's more important to me that Dan Snyder thinks I deserve [the promotion] because of the work I've done."
That work has not produced a successful record. The Redskins are 50-62 in seasons in which Cerrato has had a major say in obtaining personnel. That includes the last four seasons in which Gibbs ran the organization as coach and team president but does not include the 1999 season, for which the roster was all but set by the time Cerrato was hired.
Since 2000, including an 8-8 season when Cerrato was not with the team, the Redskins are 23rd in the NFL in victories with 58. They have made two playoff appearances, winning one game. Their streak of not reaching a conference championship game or the Super Bowl has reached 16 seasons.
Cerrato, emphasizing the draft over free agency in his first eight months as executive vice president, remains confident. He has learned from his mistakes and now has the correct formula for building a winner, he says.
"If we can get the right guys, win games and get Dan Snyder a Super Bowl ring, get a Super Bowl for the Redskins' fans, then that's what it's all about," Cerrato said. "Dan Snyder put me in this job, and not letting down Dan and the Redskins' fans, continuing on what we've done the last few years, that's what matters most."
The New Sheriff
In his office at Redskins Park, Cerrato keeps copies of the San Francisco 49ers' draft selections from 1991 to '98, his years with the organization, first as director of college scouting and then director of player personnel. Cerrato is quick to point out that those drafts produced 16 Pro Bowlers and two rookies of the year. And there were 10 Pro Bowlers and one defensive MVP among the free agents Cerrato took part in signing for San Francisco from 1993 to '98.
Cerrato received a Super Bowl ring for his efforts in the 49ers' front office in 1994, the season San Francisco last won a Super Bowl. And he was Lou Holtz's recruiting coordinator in 1988, Notre Dame's last national championship season.