By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; D01
The replacement of Washington Redskins vice president Vinny Cerrato is the best news for the team in more than a decade. Proof is the way Cerrato went out, with the same signature flourish with which he ran the team, by in-fighting and dividing it against itself. The first job of the team's new hands-on leader, Bruce Allen, will be to heal the franchise and put everyone on the same side again.
The timing of Cerrato's decision to step down before the season is over suggests that owner Daniel Snyder was fed up with internal strife and had his eye not only on a new hire for the position of executive vice president of football operations, but also a new head coach, perhaps Allen's former colleague Jon Gruden or former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.
If what Snyder has in mind is a management team that will act coherently -- starting with a proven, competent personnel man who will have the back of the head coach, who can build a staff that operates in concert, and who cultivates chemistry instead of finger-pointing and second-guessing -- it will be a welcome experiment. It's something they haven't really tried before.
It isn't hard to read the tea leaves. Cerrato made sure in his exit statement to praise everyone but Coach Jim Zorn. It was a singularly graceless gesture -- and one that violated every traditional courtesy of the NFL, a league in which most people understand that no single individual is ever wholly to blame. It suggested the depth of the tension that has existed in Redskins Park. Cerrato singled out defensive coordinator Greg Blache, and offensive adviser Sherman Lewis, the man he brought in when he stripped Zorn of his play-calling duties in early October. He praised Snyder, and the minority partners, and he praised himself, saying, "I strongly believe that with outstanding picks and encouraging performance by our younger players, we have laid a strong foundation for the franchise."
But he was specifically, glaringly, echoingly silent on Zorn, a man he had obviously turned on with breathtaking speed. "I've had the pleasure of working with some great coaches such as Joe Gibbs, Greg Blache and Sherman Lewis, great people on the Redskins staff, and most especially, some of the best professional football players in the world," Cerrato said.
Two years ago, Cerrato lobbied Snyder to take a chance on Zorn, despite the fact that Zorn had never called a play or been an offensive coordinator, much less a head coach. Yet it took only a year for Cerrato to sour on him.
Cerrato was plainly of the opinion that Zorn was making his roster decisions and draft choices look bad. Whatever the Redskins are at this point, they are as much Cerrato's creation as anyone's: He has been the owner's man and right hand, made most of their draft choices and executed some of their most significant free agent signings, even in Joe Gibbs's second tenure, and his influence was made explicit when Snyder handed him the title of executive vice president of a football operations on Jan. 22, 2008, following the resignation of Gibbs. Asked on Oct. 27 if he thought he had given the Redskins a playoff roster, Cerrato replied, "Yes."
That told you that, as far as Cerrato was concerned, it had become a case of "him or me."
And that's a toxic ethic for a team. Zorn has many flaws as a head coach; he was probably unprepared for the job, and is still learning his way. But he has been a good steward under difficult circumstances, held his undermanned squads together and built cohesion in the face of mounting injuries and terrible losses, and coaxed some of their best performances of the season when all was lost. If nothing else he has coached the heck out of quarterback Jason Campbell, transforming him into a real asset.
Who was more responsible for the Redskins' lousy season is an open question. But whether Cerrato fatally compromised the team by failing to provide an adequate offensive line, or whether Zorn will ever become a winning head coach, is not really relevant. The real problem is that the Redskins' management style, their chronic lack of managerial teamwork and loyalty to the coaching staff, made it incalculably more difficult to discern problems and find solutions.
A case in point was the way Cerrato muddied the waters and undermined Zorn's authority openly when he brought in Lewis to call plays. Such a triangular, dysfunctional play-calling arrangement was a hallmark. How was anyone supposed to know what coaches or players to keep under these circumstances, or what the team's real identity is, when Lewis called passes, Sherman Smith called running plays and Zorn directed the hurry-up offense?
Allen's job now is to sort all that out, to build a new organization and forge a new identity. But whatever structure he builds, the first solid foundation block will have to be loyalty.