The Washington Redskins have an 8-6 record and today are on the threshold of clinching the NFC East Division title, which would put them into the NFL playoffs for the first time in seven years, likely saving Coach Norv Turner's job. Three players--running back Stephen Davis, quarterback Brad Johnson and guard Tre Johnson--were just selected to the Pro Bowl.
Yet the most talked-about member of the Redskins organization is none of those people. It is the precocious, controversial 35-year-old majority owner of the team, Daniel M. Snyder.
Since taking control of the Redskins in July after heading an investment group that bought the team, its stadium and its training facility from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke for $800 million, Snyder has surpassed even the likes of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for TV exposure, newspaper headlines and controversies generated.
If Redskin Park was tranquil during the two years of John Kent Cooke's stewardship, the training facility in Ashburn, where Snyder maintains a large office and often attends practice, now needs a radar to track the weekly hurricane that howls through the building.
A week rarely goes by during which Snyder isn't in the middle of something affecting the players, Turner or his coaching staff.
Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann will broadcast tonight's Redskins-San Francisco 49ers game for ESPN. While prefacing his remarks by saying he believes Snyder is "going to be one of the special owners in the league. I love his energy and his enthusiasm," Theismann offers this take on Snyder: "Right now, he is not serving [the Redskins] well.
"When he bought the team and said everyone had to be accountable for their actions, I thought that was fantastic. I think most people welcomed it," Theismann continued. "But his reactions since that time have been those of a fan. The meetings with Norv, the private meetings with the players, I just don't think it's something he should be doing. I would say it's meddlesome. He's said to Norv, 'If you don't get to the playoffs, you're gone.' That's fine. But now, let the man do his job. If you don't like the job he's doing, then fire him. But don't make it difficult for him and his coaches."
While others in the media and football community share Theismann's view, Snyder also has supporters. Almost everyone has an opinion about the man who, among other things, has:
Bought out one of his two minority partners--close friend, and real estate and publishing magnate Mortimer Zuckerman.
Increased team revenues and upped cash flow by $15 million to more than $60 million (one of the NFL's highest) as a result of a number of new sales and marketing initiatives, including selling the 3,000 or so remaining premium seats and selling the naming rights to the stadium to Federal Express for $205 million over 27 years.
Helped improve the parking and traffic flow to the stadium in the wake of intense criticism after the first home game of the 1999 regular season.
Begun considering selling his Bethesda-based marketing company, Snyder Communications, to give him more time to run the Redskins.
Seen the team ascend from its bottom-of-the-pack status last season.
While the business measures generally have drawn favorable reviews, his hands-on approach with the team, including telling Turner before the season that the team has to make the playoffs for Turner to keep his job and keeping that pressure on him, has drawn criticism.
A much-publicized Oct. 24 postgame meeting with Turner after a one-sided loss to the Cowboys at Texas Stadium raised a number of eyebrows, as did his individual meetings with five veteran players the Thursday before the Redskins played, and defeated, the Arizona Cardinals, 28-3, on Dec. 12. In the latter meetings, Snyder said he told the players--Brad Johnson, Tre Johnson, wide receiver Irving Fryar, defensive end Marco Coleman and defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield--to play "for themselves and not worry about me, the coaches, fans or media."
From afar, many wonder how a young man so new to the sport, less than a year removed from being just another diehard Redskins fan, can take such a hands-on approach to his team.
"I think Mr. Snyder's presence has been a positive for our football team," Turner said this week. "If he's at practice and shows he has a strong interest and the players are aware he's there, it's a positive in terms of the way we practice. It's good."
Turner, who has a six-year record of 40-53-1, has been on the hot seat all season, despite an approximately $1 million-a-year contract that runs through 2001.
Snyder has said Turner will be back next year if the team makes the playoffs, but several newspaper reports, including a front-page story in the Washington Times last Tuesday, stated Turner might resign regardless, because of interference from Snyder.
On Wednesday, Turner said he has "no intention" of resigning, and he said Thursday: "A number of things that happened have been blown out of proportion. I certainly don't think those things have kept us from being able to get done what we can get done."
Of the postgame meeting with Turner after the loss in Dallas, Snyder said on Thursday: "I meet with Norv after every game, win or lose. I think that's appropriate. We met for 20 minutes, but he was supposed to go to his press conference after 10. I did not know that. It was reported that I chewed out the players and Norv--none of which was true."
Snyder added: "I'm working very hard at trying to get this right. In no way have I undercut the coaching staff. I'm trying to get everyone to perform at their very best, including myself."
Wave of the Future?
In interviews last week with several NFL owners, team and league executives, coaches and with past and present Redskins players, Snyder received high marks for his aggressive business and marketing practices.
A number of NFL owners and league officials say he's a team player in league matters. They say he keeps a low profile during league meetings, but that he is a person whose business acumen has caught the eye of many of his colleagues who are eager to pick his brain on issues involving advertising, selling club and luxury suites and the potential for wider use of the Internet.
But some also have reacted with more than the occasional raised eyebrow to what they perceive as his being too involved with the mechanics and politics of the team and its coaches.
But Snyder is not the first owner to have interest in every aspect of the team. Chicago Bears owner and founder, the late George Halas, was his own coach. In Dallas, Jerry Jones serves as the Cowboys' general manager and often stalks the sideline. In Oakland, Al Davis has been the Raiders' guiding force for 40 years, with major involvement in all personnel decisions, as well as on-field strategy.
Jones and Davis "know the game," Theismann said. "But Jerry Jones never messed with Jimmy Johnson. He had too much respect for his ability as a coach, and when Jimmy was there, Jerry let his football people run his football operation. This is not the world Dan Snyder is familiar with. This is football, and it's entirely different than anything else out there."
"I don't want to coach this football team," Snyder said Thursday. "I want to own and run the team. I don't have tapes of football games in my office; I have cigars.
"This is my first year. I hope to learn and get better as an owner. If I made mistakes, I hope not to repeat them."
Sonny Jurgensen, who played for the Redskins with Theismann under George Allen in the 1970s, disagreed with Theismann's assessment. Jurgensen has become one of Snyder's closest confidantes and supports Snyder's approach.
"What he wants more than anything else is for this team to be successful, and that's all he's interested in," Jurgensen said. "Everything he has done has been to make it better and try to improve it: The organization, the football team, the coaching staff. To bring in [Bill] Arnsparger as a [defensive] consultant was something he felt needed to be done, and I'm sure Norv agreed with him, and I'm sure [defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan did. He wants this thing to work. He doesn't want it to continue to struggle. And in talking with the players, I don't see anything he's done that has hurt this football team. He's only made it better."
Jim Irsay, the 40-year-old owner of the Indianapolis Colts, said he was impressed with Snyder last spring, when Snyder spoke at an owner's meeting in Arizona. At the time, Snyder was still a minority partner in Howard Milstein's unsuccessful bid to buy the team.
Irsay believes Snyder might well be the prototype of the kind of 21st-century owner the league will continue to attract--young, aggressive, self-made businessmen with deep pockets who made their fortunes in other businesses and think the same principles and practices can also be applied to pro football.
"Initially, when you're a young, aggressive, successful person, especially in another field, I think it's easy to get all excited and fired up and get into that ready-fire-aim mentality," said Irsay, who has been around an NFL team once owned by his late father since he was an 11-year-old ballboy.
"When you do that," Irsay added, "you make mistakes. There's not an owner in this league who hasn't made them. I think what you're seeing now in Washington is a guy learning the business. What I learned over 30 years is that you hire the best people, give them great support and stay out of their way, especially on the football side. Right now, that may be hard for a guy like Dan to do, but in this league, it's the only way."
Michael Huyghue, the Jacksonville Jaguars' senior vice president for football operations, said his club's owner, shoe magnate Wayne Weaver, recognized his football limitations and spent his first year as team owner in the background, learning as much as he could.
"He evaluated, he watched, his studied," Huyghue said. "The bottom line is these men own the team and they can do whatever they want, especially when you spend the kind of money it takes to own a team. But sometimes, the best attribute in ownership is nonaction instead of action.
"On the football side, you have to step back and observe before you do anything. Football is not an intuitive business. Players are different than regular employees in the real world. There's a code of conduct, a way of doing things. There's no book that tells you how to be an NFL owner. Things that appear innocuous in the business world resonate quite differently in football, with all the scrutiny and the public eye always on you. In football there are no secrets."
Bill Polian, president of the Colts and a strong candidate for executive of the year this season, criticized Snyder for moving former general manager Charley Casserly into a consultant's role last summer. Polian said during a recent interview he was amazed when Snyder deposed Casserly for former San Francisco personnel chief Vinny Cerrato.
"Charley put that team in contention this year and for years to come," Polian said the week before his team beat the Redskins, 24-21, to clinch the AFC East title. "Not only did he get a hell of a quarterback [Brad Johnson] when most people were afraid to pull the trigger, then he leaves them with three No. 1 picks in the draft. That ain't luck. That's expertise."
Among Snyder's sharpest critics are Theismann and other former Redskins players whom, by Snyder's own admission, he once idolized from afar--cornerstones in Super Bowl championship seasons when Snyder was a teenager growing up in Montgomery County in the early 1980s.
Mark May, a CBS Sports analyst and one of the original Hogs under Joe Gibbs, said Snyder's hands-on ways also might have a negative effect on the team's ability to attract top talent, not to mention a high-caliber coach, if Turner is not retained, or top-flight assistants if Turner stays and his staff is revamped.
"You ask free agents around the league about playing in Washington," May said, "and guys will say 'I really don't know if I want to play for an owner like that. I'd rather go to a place where the owner is not looking over your shoulder all the time.'
"If you're making millions, why would you want to step into that situation? Do you go to a place where you don't know who to listen to--the coach, the GM, the owner? You want to know who's in control. Here, you just don't know. And coaches talk all the time, too. If you're a head coach or an assistant, would you walk into this situation? Hell no."
Snyder, however, believes the team's reputation is solid. "What matters most in our world is what the players think, what they say," Snyder said. "And we come out okay in this regard."
Another former Hog, Joe Jacoby, said: "I think [Snyder] has put too much pressure on his head coach. Let the guy do what he's hired to do. If he needs to talk to him, that's why they have offices. Don't do it in front of the team. It demoralizes them, and it undercuts the coach's credibility."
Still, some current Redskins players said they have no problems with Snyder.
"I won't say he has undercut Norv," Marco Coleman said. "Norv works for him just like we do. He's not stepping over anybody's head. Ultimately the person that's in charge is the owner of this football team. And if he decides to do whatever, who's to say he's right or wrong. Like with everything that has been done a certain way, people feel like you're wrong if you want to do it another way.
"From his initial conversation when he met with us in the spring, he told us what he wanted, how he wanted things done. He's a young guy, too. There's guys in the league--even players that are older than him--that are all stuck into a certain way of doing things. Who's to say he might not go back into having a little bit more of hands-off approach after he gets to a certain age? But right now, he's young, he's made a lot of money, he's got the energy to be involved. Maybe some of those older guys just don't have the same energy."
Tre Johnson said he felt that Snyder's conversations with the players before the recent game against the Cardinals, and the subsequent players-only meeting that was called by Johnson and Coleman, was constructive.
Johnson said the players filed into Snyder's office at Redskin Park one at a time. He followed Brad Johnson, who gave Tre Johnson a thumbs-up sign as he exited, as if to say, "He's cool."
"Automatically you think, 'What does he want to see me about? What did I do wrong?' " Tre Johnson said. "But everything was positive, upbeat. He had concerns. He asked where I thought we were. He wanted my individual opinion. And he said only positive things. He said, 'We're going to do some good things, and you just got to believe.'
"The dude is cool. He gave the impression that if we win, he's going to make it great for us. I want to be there when it happens. I've always been on second-rate teams. I've never seen these bright, shiny things, and I want to see those things. A lot of negative stuff was blown up about it. But it was all good."
Not necessarily, May said. "Why meet with the players in the first place?" he asked. "Why choose specific players and make it look to the other guys like 'Now I've got my chosen few'? That's not what you want in your locker room."
To which Snyder replied: "It was Norv's idea. I asked him the Monday night prior to the Arizona game what I could do to help. He said, 'If you want to talk to any of the players, it might help.' "
Said Theismann: "To me, Norv Turner has my vote as coach of the year for putting up with all this garbage. Dan has had all these meetings, done all these other things. He's done everything to usurp his coach's power. But you know what, despite everything that's happened, if they can get as hot in January as they were in the first month, they can beat anyone and get to the Super Bowl. After all this, wouldn't that be something?"
Staff writer George Solomon contributed to this report.