By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; D01
Before we get to Bruce Allen, and the fact that the son of the late, great George Allen has accepted the challenge of rebuilding the franchise his father once led to a Super Bowl, let's pause for a moment of reflection:
He did it! He . . . actually . . . did . . . it!
The move no one saw coming, the bold stroke no one believed Daniel Snyder was willing to make -- the severing of the strange bond between the Washington Redskins owner and his right-hand man Vinny Cerrato -- became reality Thursday morning.
Ding-dong, Vinny's gone?
Stunner, absolute stunner.
The news that Cerrato is out and Allen is in with three games left in this dismal 4-9 season is nothing if not surreal -- easily the most shocking development to rock the organization since a quarterbacks coach from Seattle was hired to replace Joe Gibbs two years ago.
Think about it: The idea that Cerrato, the executive vice president of football operations, would resign his position before Zorn did -- the mere notion of the Z-man outlasting the V-man -- sounds like fiction as I'm typing this column. And that's after Bruce Allen's introductory news conference, after fielding a deluge of callers with one clarifying word of consensus:
Okay, the idea of gloating over someone losing his job in these lean economic times seems a little warped. But pardon many frustrated legions today for feeling exactly that way. For all the blame sent Snyder's way over his less-than-mediocre decade of stewardship, the owner was always deemed immovable.
Cerrato, hence, became the embodiment of a vapid brain trust, one responsible for just three playoff appearances in 10 seasons. The team architect, like the owner, seemed to be more interested in reloading each season for a pipe dream of a playoff run than in genuinely rebuilding the roster to compete for several years, and at no time did this become more evident than 2009.
So consumed with worry about the progression of the young players he drafted -- especially a 2008 trio of second-round receivers that until the past two months had not shown signs of promise -- Cerrato neglected to bring in the depth the team needed at offensive line to protect quarterback Jason Campbell and kick-start Zorn's West Coast offense.
His infatuation with the skill player over the building-block lineman mirrored Snyder's, which led to the perception Cerrato was merely doing the owner's bidding when it came to high-priced free agents and first- and second-round draft picks.
As much as this reeks of Snyder finally cutting his codependent ties to his longtime friend and confidant, the owner's decision Thursday could have come out of a Mario Puzo screenplay.
Nothing personal. Just business.
Bottom line: Cerrato was pushed aside to make way for a personnel man with a better pedigree and a Super Bowl appearance from this decade, a guy who has already negotiated around a hands-on owner while in Oakland. In Bruce Allen, Snyder also brings George Allen's progeny back to town -- the pride of McLean -- providing the same kind of nostalgia Gibbs's name did in 2004.
As far as Cerrato's interestingly timed exit, many around Redskins Park milling about after the news conference Thursday weren't surprised. Remember when Greg Blache had signed on to be the defensive coordinator the night before Gregg Williams knew he was fired? Who do you think besides Snyder was instrumental in that whacking? Thursday morning, Vinny merely got his.
Now the real speculation begins: When is the reaper going to visit Zorn and members of his staff? They already know they're out, based on one assistant I spoke to Thursday in Ashburn.
Does Allen run up to the "Monday Night Football" booth at halftime with a burlap sack of cash to try to steal Jon Gruden for the second half against the Giants at FedEx Field? No, but he probably wants to.
Mike Holmgren's probably not even a remote possibility at this point; there is much more upside to being courted by a Cleveland franchise that doesn't expect much out of the gate. But he's already got a play-caller he knows (Sherm Lewis) and a coach he used to work with in Seattle (Zorn), just in case.
The odds-on pick is Mike Shanahan, everybody's favorite coach-in-waiting, to emerge as the winner of the "Rescue the Redskins Sweepstakes." Although I would have no problem with John Fox, who's also going to be looking for work soon.
Whatever happens in the early days of the Son of George Era, Snyder's unexpected removal of Cerrato may bring him more goodwill than signing any big free agent this offseason. He could refund every disenchanted fan walking from the FedEx Field gray lot their money, and it would not amount to the cacophony of good wishes he earned by not letting friendship get in the way of progress.
Cerrato's fierce loyalty to Snyder, doing almost anything the owner asked, kept him employed for many more years than anyone believed possible given the franchise's 64-70 record during his employment. He outlasted six coaches, including the return of Gibbs, a decade of mediocrity, his own firing in 2001 by Marty Schottenheimer and the constant pleas by fans and many members of the Washington media to terminate his services.
He was tagged with the unenviable reputation of being Snyder's "yes man," catering to the whims of an immediate-gratification, need-it-now owner. It's unclear how much ultimate say he had in the team's most expensive acquisitions.
He could trot out the free agent class of 2004 featuring Marcus Washington, Shawn Springs and Cornelius Griffin on his behalf and feel good about draft picks such as Chris Horton in the seventh round last year and Brian Orakpo at the 13th pick this year.
And indeed he tried to tout his young bucks until the end, catching me as he exited the locker room in Oakland on Sunday after the Redskins' resounding 34-13 victory over the Raiders. "Young receivers looked pretty good today, huh?" he said, using Fred Davis, Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly as his last line of defense for his job.
That may have been part of his demise, too. One assistant coach, on the condition of anonymity, said he knew Cerrato's insecurities were beginning to show when he began puffing his chest out around Ashburn after he had stripped Zorn of his play-calling duties and handed them to Lewis two months ago. In an I-told-you-so manner, Cerrato began touting his own controversial move as the offense began to score and produce big yardage -- even though the Redskins had won just two of six games with Lewis in the mix.
My most vivid anecdote between Snyder and Cerrato came from the first day of training camp this season. After exchanging pleasantries, Snyder, Cerrato and Karl Swanson were about to pile into a golf cart heading for the practice field for their 10th season together.
As hundreds of fans lined up behind a makeshift fence, the seating arrangement in the golf cart wasn't clear. Until Snyder asked Cerrato, like he had so many times before, to do something for him.
"Vinny," the owner began, "you sit up front and take the bullets for me."
If he did nothing else, Vinny Cerrato surely did that for Daniel Snyder.