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.