The Washington Redskins open the 1999 NFL season today against the Dallas Cowboys at newly renamed Redskins Stadium, with a new owner in Daniel M. Snyder, a new quarterback, Brad Johnson, and a more confident team after winning three of four preseason games. Only Coach Norv Turner stands as the last significant link between the Redskins and the Cooke dynasty that ruled the team for nearly a quarter century.
But Turner stands on precarious ground entering his sixth season, answering now to the 34-year-old Bethesda entrepreneur who paid a record $800 million for the team and who has swiftly put his stamp on the club.
In the two months since Snyder bought the Redskins he has jettisoned the name of the late owner, Jack Kent Cooke, from the stadium and fired Cooke's handpicked general manager, Charley Casserly, along with two dozen other front-office staffers; revamped the marketing department; and promised fans he'd work on improving access to and from the stadium and an "enhanced game-day" experience once there.
All but several hundred of the 15,000 premium club seats have been sold and Snyder hopes the more than 81,000 seats at the stadium will be occupied, which was not the case during the first two seasons on the patch of land once named Raljon.
While Snyder has been supportive of Turner during the successful preseason, he has offered no long-term endorsement. What Snyder has done is spell out his expectations with clarity: Make the playoffs or find another job.
Turner's fate largely will be foreshadowed today against the Cowboys. A victory would go a long way toward staking Turner's claim to the job Cooke guaranteed him through 2001 by extending his contract shortly before his death in April 1997.
With a loss, however, the Redskins would face the prospect of an 0-3 start, given the tough, back-to-back road games that follow against the New York Giants and Jets. And Snyder has said he won't hesitate to fire Turner mid-season if he's unhappy with the results.
Snyder's tack stands in sharp contrast to that of Cooke, who praised Turner as the most "talented coach and motivator of men" he had known in extending his contract. "He will be the coach of the Redskins as long as I own the team," Cooke vowed that day, then died of heart failure less than five weeks later.
In an interview last month, Snyder failed to extend Turner so much as a 16-game guarantee, saying simply: "There are no guarantees in life." On Friday, Snyder added with great optimism: "We look forward to a great season."
Turner acknowledged his boss's expectations as he prepared for Dallas this week, but said they mirror his own. "Obviously he's been very frank about where he thinks we need to go," Turner said. "In terms of me personally, you have a certain standard you set for yourself in terms of work ethic, in terms of preparation, in terms of the way you approach things. I don't think I'll ever let that slip or change. So those expectations have been there since Day One."
New and Improved
Turner believes this team is his best yet, more talented than the squad that narrowly missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 1996. The defense is tougher and more assertive, headlined by first-round draft pick Champ Bailey, a lightning-fast cornerback from the University of Georgia.
Turner finally has an experienced quarterback in Johnson, acquired in a February trade with Minnesota. And he has a radically retooled roster (16 of 22 starters are new or at new positions) that emphasizes youth, speed and aggression.
It's not the Redskins' first overhaul since Turner's arrival in 1994. He was that year's hottest coaching prospect, basking in the reflected glory of the Cowboys' back-to-back Super Bowl championships. As the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, Turner struck a mother-lode of talent in quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin and running back Emmitt Smith. But the credit is deserved, said Cowboys special teams coach Joe Avezzano.
"Norv was a major factor in the development of Troy," Avezzano said. "Troy wasn't always the Pro Bowl quarterback. At one point he was the youngster who was trying to become an outstanding football player. He started to become that when Norv got here. There's no question there's a correlation."
Handed the reins of an aging Redskins roster, Turner ordered sweeping changes. Cooke and Casserly delivered the players he wanted, and Turner steadily improved, winning three, six and nine games respectively his first three seasons.
But after the contract extension, Turner's victories tapered off, the low point being the 0-7 start in 1998.
His 32-47-1 record after five seasons is mediocre, at best. In games decided by three or fewer points, Turner's teams are 4-16-1. He has had two winning seasons and no playoff appearances. Only two NFL teams have gone longer than Washington without making the playoffs: Seattle (since 1988) and Cincinnati (since 1990).
Since leaving Dallas, Turner has had few players considered standouts at their position, apart from punter Matt Turk and cornerback Darrell Green. Of the 22 Redskins who started on opening day a year ago, four are unemployed, three are backups elsewhere and one has retired.
A Frank Individual
Instability at quarterback has proven costly, particularly the drafting of Heath Shuler with a first-round pick in 1994. Shuler, Turner's choice as the team's quarterback of the future, never panned out.
Aikman calls Turner the best he has seen at calling plays on offense and knowing how to attack a defense. "I have the utmost respect for what he does in terms of getting an offensive football team ready to go out and play and his ability to put players in a position to have success," Aikman said. "I think he has continued to do that in Washington."
But a great head coach must excel at more than play-calling.
Few can point to factors that predict successful NFL coaches. They are as varied and contradictory as the fury of Bill Parcells, the intellect of Marv Levy and the meticulousness of Joe Gibbs.
Turner is admired for his intelligence and honesty. He is more competitive than his easygoing manner suggests. And despite a nervous demeanor at times, he is extremely confident in his abilities. Turner believes so much in his approach to the game, some say he can be slow to make adjustments to his players' abilities.
But many Redskins like his certitude.
"I don't think that Norv has been one that flimflammed about his decisions," said Green, 39. "You may not like the decisions. But I think what makes him a qualified leader is that at least he makes a decision and stands by it and doesn't second-guess himself."
Linebacker Marvcus Patton, a stalwart member of Turner's defense for four seasons, feels the Redskins under-performed the last two seasons. Now a starter for Kansas City after being released by the Redskins, Patton said he feels Turner shares responsibility for that--in part by not demanding enough from his players.
"A head coach has to know how to get the most out of his players," said Patton, who played in four Super Bowls with Buffalo. "Some, he has to yell at; some, he just has to talk to. I don't think management and Norv knew how to do that: Demand the most of the players. I don't think players played hard enough, worked hard enough or studied hard enough. There were a lot of things we didn't do. Some of us didn't want to win bad enough. I don't think we sacrificed enough."
It is a criticism Turner dismisses as too vague to address.
"When you don't have success, people are going to have opinions about why it didn't work out," Turner said. "When you don't re-sign a player, that opinion isn't going to be a real positive one. So that's part of this business and you just keep moving.
"It's such a vague thing: Are you too nice? Not demanding enough? . . . In the games we do play good, I'm demanding enough. In the ones we don't, I'm too nice."
Running back Brian Mitchell, a Redskin for 10 years, said Turner is every bit the disciplinarian Gibbs was. Mitchell also believes the Redskins have underachieved in recent years, but he faults the players.
"We've made so many mistakes when we get on the football field," Mitchell said. "People can say, 'What's going to make a difference this year?' The attitude is completely different. There's more guys on this team that have that fire and have that want-to and go-out-there-and-do-it attitude."
Turner seems to have hit it off with Snyder. The two typically chat on the sideline before games. They have watched film together, according to associates, with Snyder gaining a new respect for Turner and Turner comfortable with Snyder.
Snyder has given Turner more tools to win, signing veteran wide receiver Irving Fryar and taking runs at such high-profile players as running back Barry Sanders and defensive end Chris Doleman.
With his ouster of Casserly, Snyder gave Turner more control over personnel matters, from draft-day decisions to free agent signings. And in remarks to players, Snyder has consistently underscored Turner's authority over all football matters.
In return, Snyder intends to hold Turner accountable in a way Cooke never did. How Turner responds will write the narrative of the Redskins' season.
With Snyder a frequent visitor at training camp, Turner seemed to step up his intensity. He had less tolerance for mistakes. He barked at players who botched plays and made them repeat them until done right. He once barred TV cameras from filming a walk-through practice, arguing that the footage would create a misleading impression that Johnson, who underwent two off-season knee surgeries, was slow.
Some coaches thrive under pressure; others do not.
Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, who has been through eight head coaches in 39 years in the NFL, said "I don't say, 'Win or else.' Some people do that with some success. There's enough pressure on [Ravens Coach] Brian Billick right now without my putting my two cents in. That's got nothing to do with the Redskins. I'm not critical of them. I can only tell you, playing in this league is pressure enough without being under the gun."
Former Redskins quarterback-turned-broadcaster Sonny Jurgensen, among Snyder's more trusted advisers, said Turner is doing just fine.
"I think he understands that it's good for Norv that Snyder has put the pressure on him," Jurgensen said. "That hasn't been there before. Now that Norv has got a lot more control than he has had in the past and an owner that has high expectations and a team that has high expectations, this year is the year. I think he has to do it this year."
COWBOYS at REDSKINS
When: 1 p.m.
Site: Redskins Stadium.
TV: WTTG-5, WBFF-45.
Radio: WJFK-FM-106.7, WBQB-FM-101.5, WKIK-FM-102.9, WFMD-930.
Line: Redskins by 3.