Redskins need a GM bailout

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We make a mistake when we try to impose rational thought on the Washington Redskins management. An old adage says that you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

When executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato summarily appointed Sherman Lewis the team's play-caller despite the fact that Lewis had been part of the organization for less than two weeks, he and owner Daniel Snyder seemed to have constructed a rationale that their strategy would be working if weren't for the play-calling of Coach Jim Zorn and a couple of injuries.

This exposes them once and for all as the real culprits in the team's collapse. The solution is plain: Snyder must fire Cerrato and hire a competent, detached executive, one who will restore some reason to the organization.

The Redskins have gone 68-82 since 2000, yet Snyder has consistently refused to make a change. Why? Presumably, because he doesn't want to. You wonder if Snyder keeps Cerrato around not because he's a good exec, but precisely because he's a weak one.

"Sometimes those guys get those jobs because the owner realizes he's not that strong," said a longtime NFL general manager who has worked with both good and bad teams. "There are a handful of franchises in the league where the owners think they're football men, and want to make football decisions. And it just doesn't seem to work. It may be a reason why those franchises continue to struggle."

The suspicion here is that Snyder has always been the real GM of the team. So let's ask the question: Why is he such a bad one? One answer is that he lacks the emotional detachment to make good decisions. Snyder clearly cares passionately about the Redskins, and it's hard to make rational, restrained choices about your passion.

The chief thing a strong GM does is tell people, including the owner, no. He mediates egos, settles disputes, provides a buffer between various strong personalities, sorts through the complicated passions that come with winning and losing, and keeps everyone on the same page and working in the same direction. That the Redskins lack anything like a strong GM is evident from the fact that everyone is working at cross-purposes. Coaches, players and the owner are all at odds.

There's something almost coolly mechanistic about good NFL management. The best-run organizations have a fixed policy, and everyone in the building knows when it's tracking, or whether a course correction is needed. Zorn is the sixth coach in 11 years, and offenses have been installed and discarded irrespective of whether they suited the talent. The decision to go to a West Coast scheme, for instance, was made in 2008 before the Redskins had even hired a head coach.

Professional detachment is especially critical when it comes to dealing with highly paid talent. One of the things a strong GM does is enforce payroll integrity, with the understanding that no matter how attractive a player, an outsized contract can ruin the locker room.

"You have to be careful what you pay a guy, because it's going to affect other guys," the executive said.

The reason strong GMs prefer to build through the draft rather than free agency is because it's cheap, and allows teams to take the real measure of players. Free agents aren't just expensive; they're unpredictable -- witness Adam Archuleta. Familiarity with players is a double-edged sword, and the most difficult emotional decision a GM has to make is to let go of an aging player who is deteriorating. One of the reasons coaches and owners tend not to make good GMs is because they become too invested in certain players.

The most visible contribution of a strong GM, of course, is in building a deep roster with promise for the future as well as present. Snyder and Cerrato have failed at this not just because they seem fatally attracted to skill players -- drafting three pass catchers, for instance, when they have pressing needs on the offensive line -- but they seem to have trouble identifying that intangible, competitive character. Malcolm Kelly, Devin Thomas and Fred Davis may yet develop, but all three arrived with poor habits.

How do you divine what's inside a player? Real talent evaluation, according to the veteran GM, is a matter of drudgery, not merely of looking at stats, and tape, which provide just a "snapshot" but of beating the bushes at obscure colleges, watching players in person and cultivating deeper appraisals.

The New York Giants lost their starting wide receivers from the 2007 Super Bowl, Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, yet they haven't missed a beat thanks to Jerry Reese, who drafted Steve Smith, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks in the past two years. The Indianapolis Colts are without their prime targets in Marvin Harrison and the injured Anthony Gonzalez, and yet Peyton Manning looks as good as ever thanks to Bill Polian, who provided him Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon.

Meantime, a draft class in 2008 that didn't pay off, two injuries to the Redskins' offensive line, and the slowing arthritic ankles of Clinton Portis, have left them facing disaster. Under the circumstances, can anyone doubt the worth of a strong GM? It's fascinating, if painful, to look back to the day in 2008 when Snyder elevated Cerrato to the title of executive vice president of football operations. "The appointment formalizes the structure the team has operated under in recent years," Snyder said then.

Outgoing coach Joe Gibbs issued a statement of congratulations. "Today's Washington Redskins roster is a testament to Vinny and the personnel department," Gibbs said.

There you have it.

A strong GM is arguably the real difference-maker in the NFL, potentially bigger than any head coach. Snyder and Cerrato have apparently decided that Zorn is a failure. But a good manager doesn't just summarily replace a failed employee; he asks why did that person fail and sets out to fix the problem in an organized, emotionless way.

The scattered, panicked response at the top of the Redskins franchise is its own condemnation. The team won't have better coaches or players until it has a more dispassionate, empowered executive.

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