By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; A01
Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder began a swift and dramatic overhaul of the way his team operates Thursday, naming Bruce Allen, the son of legendary Redskins coach George Allen, as the team's first general manager in 10 years and setting the stage for a possible new head coach and a much different management structure atop the franchise.
Snyder accepted the resignation of executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato, a longtime confidante who was a controversial figure blamed by fans for many of the team's struggles but who Snyder referred to as a friend.
The transition in perhaps the franchise's most important position -- Allen will take the responsibility for shaping both the team's roster and the coaching staff -- took nearly everyone at the club's training facility in Ashburn by surprise, and involved only Snyder and a few of his closest advisers. Snyder said it was made for one reason: The Redskins are in the midst of another disappointing season, and he believed Cerrato was no longer fit for the job. Hiring Allen, a successful executive with the Oakland Raiders and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, brings "a proven winner," Snyder said at an afternoon news conference.
"Obviously, this has been a very difficult season, one that has disappointed everyone -- fans, ourselves," Snyder said. "It's been difficult. And when it gets to the point where we say, 'What do we need to do for the future?', you look at change, and that's what I decided to do."
Next up could be a coaching change. Cerrato strongly argued for the hiring of Jim Zorn, the current head coach whose tenure has been marred by poor offensive production and a 12-17 record, including 15 losses in the last 21 games. Although Snyder and Allen would not address the head coaching position Thursday -- "Jim Zorn is our coach," Allen said -- there are a number of marquee coaches available, including Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls in Denver, and Jon Gruden, who won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and worked with Allen both with the Buccaneers and the Raiders.
Many in the Redskins organization said they believed Shanahan would be the most likely choice if a coaching change is made. Gruden recently signed a multiyear contract to continue as an analyst on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," and an ESPN executive said Thursday he expected Gruden would remain with the network.
The shakeup comes during a season in which the Redskins sit at 4-9, will miss the playoffs for the eighth time in 10 years, and have endured unprecedented fan unrest. The team was booed off FedEx Field following a narrow September victory over lowly St. Louis, and fans began angrily questioning the direction of the franchise on sports talk radio, Internet message boards and with signs and T-shirts -- many of them calling for Cerrato's dismissal -- at home games.
Though Allen said no more drastic changes would come before the final game of the season -- Jan. 3 at San Diego -- coaches privately worried about their job status in both the short- and long-term.
"What I'm going to do is work as hard as I possibly can -- not to try to save my job, but to continue to work the way we're working to bring a winner to this program," Zorn said after practice in preparation for Monday's game against the New York Giants. "That's really what I set out to do right from the beginning. And then I hope Bruce will observe."
Allen met with Zorn on Thursday morning, shortly after Zorn told his coaching staff that Cerrato was gone and that Allen was in.
Allen's record in Oakland and Tampa Bay was mixed. He won 10 division titles in the two stops, but he had a spotty record in the draft and with free agent signings. Still, he is simultaneously able to offer a link to the Redskins' more successful past and provide a new direction for the future. He spoke about the memories of his father, who led the Redskins to their first Super Bowl in 1973, and beamed about the franchise's traditions.
Allen said he had been talking to Snyder for "several weeks," though not all the conversations centered on the role for which he was hired; his title will be executive vice president/general manager. The hiring process was performed in almost complete secrecy, involving only the highest levels of the Redskins organization -- a group that includes Snyder, chief operating officer David Donovan and Karl Swanson, Snyder's chief public relations strategist.
Cerrato's resignation was reported first on ESPN 980, the sports talk radio station which Snyder owns. Employees of the station involved in breaking the news were told Wednesday night to arrive early for work because there would be major news, though they were given no indication what the news might be. Even as the information was being released to the public -- first with an announcement about Cerrato's resignation around 7:30 a.m. followed by an announcement of Allen's hiring at 10:30 -- Redskins coaches and players had not been formally informed of the change.
Allen said only that the offer for his new job came this week, and that he flew to Washington on Thursday morning. He had been out of work since he was dismissed by the Buccaneers following a late-season collapse by the team in 2008. The 2002 NFL Executive of the Year beamed as he addressed reporters and Redskins personnel about taking charge of the team his father coached from 1971-77. He spoke, too, about his father, and what he learned from him.
"The greatest thing is the passion," Allen said. "Love what you're doing. . . . Whatever you're doing, have a passion for it. And the players you accumulate and the staff that he had here, it was a special bond of people all fighting for one common goal. Other than the great friendships that remain -- still see all the guys and talk to all the guys in the offseason -- it's all those bonds with the people."
Under Allen, the Redskins will likely be run in a fundamentally different manner than they had been under Cerrato, who held several positions with the club since 1999 and was placed in charge of the roster, scouting and the coaching staff early in 2008, after the retirement of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. In a text message with a reporter, Cerrato did not offer a comment on his resignation. Earlier, he issued a statement through the team.
"Of course, I am disappointed with this year's results, but I strongly believe that with outstanding draft picks and encouraging performance by our younger players, we have laid a strong foundation for the franchise," Cerrato said.
Now, that foundation will be built by Allen, and everyone in the organization -- from coaches to players to staff -- felt the beginning of the shift Thursday.
"Obviously, when you heard about Vinny's resignation, you're uncertain about what's going to happen," said middle linebacker London Fletcher, one of the Redskins' captains. "And obviously, with the hiring of Bruce Allen, you know he has a plan in place, he knows how to build a winner. So I feel like it's a good step in the right direction for us as an organization, for us as a team, and I'm just anxious to see how things unfold."
Staff writers Jason Reid and Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.