Now that the Redskins have met the owner's mandate and made the playoffs, let's look at how this happened.
Certainly, there was luck involved. The Redskins were remarkably healthy this year; Stephen Davis's injury was the most potentially damaging one they've had all season, and it didn't occur until the 14th game. It was also the Redskins' good fortune that instant replay was brought back. Replay-driven calls rescued them in the Jets game, the Carolina game and with Irving Fryar's critical fourth-quarter catch in Sunday night's game against the 49ers.
The Redskins also got breakthrough seasons from Tre Johnson, who has rarely been healthy, and from Michael Westbrook, who had never been healthy--and continued playing with a broken bone in his wrist. And wonderfully, Davis became a world class running back overnight.
But above everyone and everything else are three people:
Brad Johnson, Norv Turner and Daniel Snyder.
Let's start with Johnson, who came in a trade roundly and repeatedly criticized by my dear friend Michael Wilbon--a trade that now looks like the best one the Redskins have made since getting Jim Lachey for Jay Schroeder.
The day Charley Casserly made the trade, Wilbon rapped it, saying the Redskins gave up far too much (a No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 pick over two drafts) for a brittle veteran, who wouldn't last half the season. I wrote you had to make the trade, because it handed Turner, whose expertise was offense, a player who could breathe life into Turner's offensive sketchbook--if Johnson could stay upright.
I asked Wilbon what it would take to make him eat his words, and he said nothing less than Johnson playing 12 games, and the Redskins getting to the playoffs. Well, Johnson has played all 15 games. (Sunday night he threw for 471 yards!) He has been picked for the Pro Bowl, and the Redskins won the NFC East. So bon appetit, Mike.
Turner is well liked among the media, but nobody in the history of sportswriting could have raised a stink had Washington not made the playoffs this year, and Turner was fired as a consequence. It would have been Turner's sixth straight season without the playoffs--that's two more than anybody else I can remember ever got.
So that was the deal from the new owner: Make the playoffs, or else.
And Turner did.
Over the years the criticism of Turner has been that he couldn't bring his team up in the big game--he couldn't win games he had to win. But here the Redskins are, champions of their division. Surely this year Turner won some of those big games.
By now we see that Turner isn't an inspirational figure. He would not lead you up San Juan Hill. (Which is good, because they're not in the league, even with all this expansion.) Turner is a restless technocrat. He seems more like Steve Spurrier than Bobby Bowden, preferring to tinker with X's and O's than with the souls of his players. But you would have to say with all the pressure on him this season, that Turner stood up well.
The pressure came directly from Snyder, who has been accused of overstepping his bounds by the likes of Joe Theismann and Bill Polian--as reported by Lenny Shapiro and Liz Clarke in a story in Sunday's Post. The essence of their criticism is that football is unknowable by someone like Danny Snyder. That Snyder is merely a fan and he ought to leave football to the experts, and stay in the background somewhere, signing checks.
Oh, yeah? If football is so esoteric and difficult, how come Mike Ditka won a Super Bowl? (And since when is being a fan a bad thing? The one thing you know about Snyder is he feels a loss every bit as deeply as you do.)
Snyder has been lambasted for meddling with the team, for usurping Turner's authority, for blustering.
Last year at this time the Redskins were 6-9. This year they are 9-6.
The quarterback is better. The coach is better.
The single biggest difference, though, is at owner.
Snyder brought an urgency to this team and this coach that wasn't there under the Cookes. The last three years of his life Jack Kent Cooke was preoccupied with building a new stadium; he didn't bother Norv or Charley. After Jack died, his gentle and civil son, John, took over. John was preoccupied with saving the team and his father's legacy. John left coaching to the coaches and playing to the players--and they lost.
Enter Snyder, yapping. He announced that anyone who didn't want to be a Redskin should get out now before he booted them to the curb. He warned fat guys to lose weight. He gave Turner a public kick in the pants. Not only did he do it at the beginning of the season, but late in the season--before the Arizona game--Snyder went over his coach's head and met privately with a few players, and gave them a pep talk.
Nobody would like his boss to do that. Everybody would feel undercut. They might even want to leave.
And only a fool would say it didn't work.
You can only play these cards once--not once a year. You probably shouldn't have private meetings with small groups of players, because they tend to cause anxiety for all the other players. But Snyder says he's learning, and he won't make the same mistakes again. The biggest difference between running a corporation and running a sports franchise is the public glare. Snyder may not have been prepared for each strategy to be deconstructed so thoroughly.
But for all the smoke, Snyder didn't fire anyone. (Norv says he fired Joe Patton.) Not Mike Nolan. Not LeCharls McDaniel. Snyder threatened, but he let Norv talk him out of it. That, of course, put even more pressure on Norv. And maybe that was Snyder's design.
Again, do the math: 6-9 and 9-6.
The silliest criticism of Snyder was offered by Mark May, who said coaches and free agent players wouldn't come to Washington because Snyder was too hands-on.
They said that of George Steinbrenner. Now everyone wants to play for the Yankees. Because when you're winning there's no such thing as too hands-on. When you're winning, you have your hands on the money.
The trick is to keep winning.
CAPTION: When the Washington Redskins score winning touchdown against 49ers in overtime, Brad Johnson, Tre Johnson, Keith Sims and Cory Raymer, from left, launch celebration of NFC East title.
CAPTION: Kurt Gouveia (56), Champ Bailey (24) and others on Redskins' sideline realize they are in the running for Super Bowl championship, thanks largely to efforts of team's quarterback, coach and owner.