By Jason Reid and Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"Vinny is a very, very talented executive," said Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers' former owner. "He's a talented personnel man, he knows personnel, and he's a go-to guy, too. He demands respect of the people around him and I think he's gotten that, obviously, from Dan Snyder. He's very important to Dan Snyder and I can see why. . . . He has gotten himself to the point where he's ready to take on anything they want him to do in Washington."
Cerrato and Snyder came together in Washington by happenstance. After Jack Kent Cooke died and the team was put up for sale, a prospective ownership group led by Howard Milstein needed a consultant on football matters. Cerrato, who had lost his job with the 49ers when the team's fortunes soured, took the position in March 1999. After Milstein failed to land the team, Cerrato joined Snyder's successful bid. Cerrato then was hired to the Redskins' front office in July 1999 after Snyder ousted Charley Casserly as general manager.
In 2001, then-new coach Marty Schottenheimer fired Cerrato, who joined ESPN only to get rehired a year later by Snyder, who fired Schottenheimer. Cerrato was supposed to work under Bobby Beathard, whom Snyder wanted to lure out of retirement to be general manager for incoming coach Steve Spurrier. Associates of Beathard said at the time that he had agreed to work with Cerrato, but the deal unraveled over financial issues with Snyder.
Cerrato then shared front-office duties with salary cap expert and contract negotiator Joe Mendes, but Mendes failed in his attempt to rein in the team's spending and left in June 2003 to pursue other jobs.
Snyder and Cerrato have been together since. In January, the owner decided to give Cerrato, who had served as the Redskins' director of player personnel and vice president of football operations, control of the team after Gibbs unexpectedly quit.
The Redskins had just completed an emotionally trying season, having endured the November killing of young star safety Sean Taylor in an apparent bungled burglary at his Miami home. After Taylor's death, the team won its last four regular season games to reach the playoffs.
Cerrato's first job was to oversee the hiring of Gibbs's replacement as coach. Players and coaches openly campaigned for the job to go to Williams, the team's assistant head coach-defense, because they felt he was the best choice to maintain continuity and stability at Redskins Park in the aftermath of Taylor's death and Gibbs's departure. Williams was also the clear favorite of fans.
Snyder and Cerrato put candidates through a lengthy interview process that included spending the night at Snyder's home. They began to retool the coaching staff themselves, hiring Zorn as offensive coordinator Jan. 25 before hiring a head coach.
For 11 days after his last interview, Williams heard nothing about his status, people close to Williams said. One night late in the process, ESPN, Cerrato's former employer, and other national media outlets reported that Williams was out as a candidate because he had been disrespectful to Gibbs. They cited team sources for the reports, prompting Williams's agent, Marvin Demoff, to comment that his client was the target of a "smear" campaign by the Redskins.
Cerrato denied being the source for the reports, which also included information about his supposedly chilly relationship with Williams. Cerrato said the reports were "very upsetting to me."
"I got along with Gregg and I don't know where all that stuff came from," he said. "I know we had nothing to do with it. We were just totally focused on the coaching search, focused on trying to find the right coach, and that's it. I like Gregg, but it just wouldn't have been" a good fit.
Williams, who left to run the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense, has said little publicly about the coaching search, but did thank Cerrato for attending his son's football games and taking an interest in his family.
"Every year that Vinny has been there, Dan Snyder has given him more and more to do," Williams said, "and now it's his time to step up there and take the reins and show the Redskins fans that he's able to handle every aspect of the organization."
The leadership Gibbs exhibited after Taylor's death, and throughout his return to coaching, strengthened Cerrato's belief that Gibbs's replacement needed to possess a similar quality. In the days after hiring Zorn as offensive coordinator, Cerrato and Snyder came to believe that Zorn was the best candidate. So on Feb. 9, they passed over former Giants coach Jim Fassel and promoted Zorn, 55, who had never been a head coach or offensive coordinator in the NFL before the Redskins gave him that job. Cerrato said he was confident in the hire, saying he knew that Redskins fans would see in Zorn the same qualities that he and Snyder saw in him.
Cerrato's changes extended all over Redskins Park. Some team physicians were replaced, the public relations staff was overhauled and the director of security was fired. Cerrato promoted Scott Campbell, formerly director of college scouting, to director of player personnel, ousted director of pro personnel Louis Riddick and hired Chicago Bears official Morocco Brown as the new director of pro personnel.
Cerrato said he will keep what he described as the team's communal approach to decision-making.
"No matter what anyone from the outside thinks, everybody has always had input in the decisions," he said. "Everybody has always had a say, and that's not changing. Before, it was Joe and I walking down the hall to talk to Dan about what our game plan was. Now, it'll be Jim and I walking down the hall to talk to Dan about the game plan."
Cerrato said he is concentrating on giving Zorn the support he will need in adapting to a much more prominent role. As a former quarterbacks coach, Zorn previously only had responsibility over a few players. Now he has to watch over the entire team.
"The biggest thing now is making the life of the coach easier," Cerrato said. "Let Jim handle just his first year of coaching. Let him worry about the quarterback, the offense and the team. Let him worry about that and take the load off of him with all the other stuff. Before, Joe did everything."
Zorn said he likes the structure Snyder has put in place. Zorn wants to concentrate on coaching and welcomes Cerrato's guidance, he said. "The thing that I've really liked about Vinny is how active he is," Zorn said. "He's very proactive in calling people and making sure he knows where guys are [in their thinking]. He's been very upfront."
The Redskins were not a major player in free agency this offseason. Cerrato, Zorn and their staffs decided the roster was in good shape, and Cerrato was not impressed with many of the available free agents. Cerrato limited himself to re-signing some of Washington's free agents.
The Redskins toyed with one monster move that would have given the Cerrato era a signature stamp. Starting wide receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El are small at 5 feet 10 and the Redskins wanted a taller target for Jason Campbell, so they offered their 2008 and 2009 first-round picks to the Cincinnati Bengals for wide receiver Chad Johnson, according to league sources. They also held preliminary talks with the Arizona Cardinals about acquiring wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Talks on both deals went nowhere.
In the draft, Cerrato traded the first-round pick, No. 21 overall, to the Atlanta Falcons for an extra second-round pick. The Falcons took offensive tackle Sam Baker from Southern California, who has won the starting left tackle job on an admittedly weak line. The Redskins' starting tackles, Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels, meanwhile, struggled in preseason, with Jansen being benched.
Cerrato used his top three picks to address the size issue in the receiving corps, drafting wide receivers Devin Thomas of Michigan State and Malcolm Kelly of Oklahoma and pass-catching tight end Fred Davis of Southern California. In later rounds, the Redskins moved to address concerns at other positions, drafting Northern Iowa tackle-guard Chad Rinehart and Arizona State cornerback-kick returner Justin Tryon with their highest second-day picks.A Philosophical Shift
Adding so many players via the draft was most unusual for a front office legendary for luring established stars to Washington with big-money contracts.
"We've all learned a lot from mistakes of the past that we've made," Cerrato said. "We have a good feel for what fits the Redskins, what does well for the Redskins, and what helps us win games. The type of people we need, and the type of things we need to do, we have a pretty good understanding of that. The biggest thing you need is good people. What we have found is that good people win."
"Good people, in tough times, bring you out of tough times. They don't allow the tough times to continue. When you're in crisis situations, or when you're in three- or four-game losing streaks, good people bring you out of that. Joe kind of got us going in the right direction, he got us stabilized and settled, and I want us to keep going in the right direction."
To understand how much money Snyder and Cerrato have spent on players, the best figures come from the NFL Management Council, which tracks "committed cash," the amount franchises pay players each season. Unlike salary cap figures, committed cash includes all bonuses and incentives. The figures are distributed to teams and the NFL Players Association. They were obtained through league sources.
After their annual restructuring of cap-heavy contracts last spring, the Redskins were No. 1 in the league in spending, in terms of committed cash, at $747 million since 2000, which includes the season under Schottenheimer. The Indianapolis Colts were second at $710 million and the Baltimore Ravens ($708 million), Dallas Cowboys ($700 million) and New England Patriots ($694 million) completed the top five. Indianapolis, Baltimore and New England each have won at least one Super Bowl during that span.
In dead salary cap space, the term for money still allocated to players no longer on the team, the Redskins were first since 2000 at $83 million, according to the records. Washington was followed by the 49ers and Denver Broncos ($80 million), Tennessee Titans ($78 million) and Oakland Raiders ($75 million).
"This stuff right here, these numbers, this is the NFL's version of 'Moneyball,' " said a high-ranking official after reviewing the spreadsheets from the management council, referring to the school of thought popular in baseball that the careful cultivation of cheaper, undervalued players rather than high-priced veterans is the best and most cost-effective route to success. "This is how you grade the managers. This is how you evaluate the guys paid to do the evaluating. The numbers don't lie."
Cerrato and other Redskins officials acknowledge the team erred in signing so many older free agents in 2000 -- Mark Carrier, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith -- and there are more recent moves they regret. Adam Archuleta was one of the biggest free agent busts in league history in the 2006 season after signing the largest contract for a safety. He was traded after the season to the Bears for a late-round draft pick. In February, the Redskins released wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, for whom they traded two draft picks to the 49ers to acquire before the 2006 season and gave $10 million guaranteed.
There are conflicting views about whether Gibbs attempted to adjust the front-office structure after the team went 5-11 in the 2006 season. Gibbs said last night that he "had a great working relationship with Cerrato," and said that he never considered replacing him. But two NFL sources said the team made preliminary overtures to at least one executive with another team to work with or above Cerrato.
"At different times, we talked about things to strengthen that department, and at times we made moves to strengthen that department, but it was always Vinny's" position, Gibbs said. "All I ever was was a part of the process . . . of trying to strengthen the whole football program. I would not get off into, 'We went looking for some person to come in here.' That's just not the case."
Thus far, Cerrato's first solo draft has not provided much benefit. Thomas and Kelly are off to shaky starts, and angered Zorn for their poor conditioning at the beginning of training camp. They fell behind while recovering from injuries and are not expected to contribute early in the season. Kelly's lingering knee problem was such a concern that Zorn considered putting him on injured reserve, which would have ended his season.
All 10 of the draft picks this spring made the 53-man roster, though veteran punter Derrick Frost said he was cut so that sixth-round pick Durant Brooks could make the team because "when you've got a draft that isn't starting to look so good, you're going to do whatever you can to make it look as good as possible."
Cerrato declined to respond to the allegation through a team spokesman.
Cerrato was still able to make a signature move. On the first day of training camp, he traded two draft picks, including a second-rounder, to the Miami Dolphins for Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor after the Redskins lost starting end Phillip Daniels to a season-ending injury.
It is common for NFL team officials to use subterfuge with reporters to keep them from reporting a possible trade, but Cerrato went to extraordinary lengths. He lied repeatedly on and off camera to local reporters, denying having any contact with the Dolphins. The next day he went on ESPN, his former employer, and contradicted in great detail his own public statements from a day earlier. Cerrato then did not appear with Zorn and Taylor at the lineman's introductory news conference in Washington.Looking Ahead
Through the ups and downs, Cerrato, 48, and Snyder, 43, have remained close, Cerrato said. "We have the type of relationship where he calls me two or three times a day anyhow to just say, 'What's going on?' "
The Cerrato-Snyder partnership had its best season with Gibbs in charge in 2007. Several of the free agents Cerrato brought in -- middle linebacker London Fletcher, cornerback Fred Smoot and offensive linemen Todd Wade and Jason Fabini -- were productive and helped the Redskins overcome an inordinate number of injuries. Although Williams was the driving force behind signing Fletcher, who had previously played under Williams when he was the head coach in Buffalo, and offensive line coach Joe Bugel has significant input in decisions along the line, Cerrato took their requests and made them reality.
"I'm accountable, but nobody's perfect," Cerrato said. "I take responsibility . . . that's my job. But [critics] just want to talk about what didn't work. What about what did work?"
Clearly, Cerrato's best recommendation was the drafting of Chris Cooley, who was plucked out of Utah State with a third-round pick in 2004 and has emerged as one of the league's dynamic young tight ends.
The franchise's most critical personnel decision of the past five years remains a work in progress. The team has entrusted the quarterback position to Campbell, and his performance this season will go a long way toward determining if that was the right move.
But that was a decision Cerrato shared with Gibbs. Now Cerrato is alone, facing the most intense scrutiny he has ever encountered. For the first time, a team's performance will reflect directly on him. He said he is ready.
"How we play, I really think it's on everybody, but I'll get criticized if we don't do well, which is probably the way should be," Cerrato said. "But the bottom line is that if you win you're smart, if you don't win you're not. Basically, you can break it down pretty simply: Winning takes care of all."