If the Redskins under Dan Snyder are to be a long-term success -- on the field, in the community and in their relations with fans -- the team has to develop a less heavy-handed touch in many areas. Otherwise, it may remain an expensive disappointment.
Running roughshod, or even giving that appearance, wears thin in a hurry. Over time, the Redskins should enhance relationships, not erode them, mend fences, rather than tear down old ones. But that's not what's happening now.
Snyder knows this. Every time he attempts to hire someone for a top-level Redskins position, he presents himself the same way. He admits his past failures, swears he's learned from his mistakes and will grow as an owner. "When he interviewed me, I said to him, 'You are not the man I expected to meet,' " said one candidate for a top Redskins job. "He kept talking about how much he'd messed up and how it wouldn't happen again."
But, so far, good intentions haven't been enough to prevent the Redskins from ending up in the role of heavy on too many occasions. In just the past week, the Redskins have suffered two offseason embarrassments. Not huge ones, but hurtful and part of a pattern.
Last year, new coach Steve Spurrier let quarterbacks practice with the uniform numbers of Sonny Jurgensen (9) and Joe Theismann (7). There was a stink. Jurgensen even asked Snyder what was up. The Redskins backtracked, seeing their mistake. They'd keep those de facto retired numbers off the field.
And they did. Except for Bobby Mitchell's No. 49. His number was given to obscure tight end Leonard Stephens. How could the Redskins overlook Mitchell? He's only in the Hall of Fame, as well as the first African American star to play for the Redskins. Worst of all, Mitchell spent 41 years with the Redskins as player, scout and executive. He wasn't out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Mitchell was in the halls at Redskins Park every day. Yet the Redskins didn't "see" him, just as they never "saw" him as a serious candidate for general manager.
Yesterday, a former Redskins executive who asked not to be identified, recalled the one time he had mentioned Mitchell to then-owner Jack Kent Cooke as a possible future general manager. "There was no response," said the former executive. "So I did not bring up the subject again."
Last week, Mitchell retired and, as he left, said he was "deeply hurt" by the manner in which Cooke passed over him for Charley Casserly. It was the worst hurt of Mitchell's career -- that is, until his number 49 reappeared.
"People just missed it. They weren't thinking. It was an oversight," Mitchell said. "But my family and friends and I, we grieved about it all year. It's really close to what happened with Mr. Cooke, but this one might have been the worst one. It was tough for me to see the pain of my family and my close friends. That shakes you up."
It wasn't about the "49." It was about years of disrespect so casually ingrained as to be undetectable.
In the NFL, you seldom heard a buzz about "why isn't Bobby Mitchell a GM," the way baseball people said with disgust, "How could Joe Morgan not get a managing job?" But Mitchell might still have proved to be a fine GM.
"Until a guy gets a chance, how do you know," ex-Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard said yesterday. "When I was hired, I hadn't done everything that I would have to do as a general manager. Some of it you have to learn on the job."
Yesterday, Snyder showed an appealing side of himself, adding his own apology to Mitchell about the No. 49 flap, even though Spurrier had already said last week that the whole organization was sorry for its mistake.
"Speaking for myself, we all feel apologetic," said Snyder. "I personally didn't notice it. If I had, I'd have pulled the number immediately. I've been a Redskin fan all my life. This is Bobby Mitchell we're talking about, a great Washingtonian and a hero to us all."
Snyder is always sincerely stumped at how he and his franchise manage to end up in public relations disasters. Yet, twice in the last month, in addition to the Mitchell mess, the Redskins have gotten a black eye. And, to a degree, deserved it.
First, they notified some club-seat ticket holders, who'd signed 10-year leases at $1,995 a seat price through 2007, that they had a new option. When their lease expired, they could pay $4,254 a seat (a 113 per cent hike). Or, by signing now, they could pay $2,750 next season, then add 3 percent a year up to $3,588 in 2012.
At first glance, this looked a renegotiation in mid-contract. Actually, the Redskins were offering a choice. Such club-seat prices have skyrocketed in the NFL since 1997. A new buyer would pay as much as $3,400 for a seat like the ones the lease-holders now have for $1,995. Sure, the Redskins were saying "pay me now or pay me later." But they weren't reneging.
The question is: Why set yourself up for such grief?
Last week, the Redskins did it again. They've been paying about $2 million annually in workers' compensation to injured former Redskins. The NFL average is about $500,000. Why the difference? Various state laws differ. In Virginia, you pay more. Several states, including Florida and Texas, have changed their laws, thus helping lower payments by some teams.
So, the Redskins wanted to get that Virginia law changed and save some money. But they made a hash of it in the Virginia legislature. Snyder brought in high-powered legal talent and used savvy strategy for last-minute introduction of the Redskins' bill. But the whole thing got too cute and complicated. The NFL Players Association as well as lobbyists for the AFL-CIO and the Virginia Manufacturers Association testified against the Redskins' bill.
"I am not aware of any other piece of legislation in which nearly half of the original patrons formally withdrew their names," said one of the players' lawyers.
If Snyder and the Redskins hadn't played so many angles, tried to be so smart and, in essence, maximize their chances of winning rather than maximize their chance of simply playing fair, they probably never would have aroused such opposition, thereby resulting in a settlement between the players' union and team.
In coming years, the Redskins need to learn to tread more lightly and be more respectful of others -- whether it is a 41-year employee, a fan who pays $2,000 for a seat or an ex-player, now injured, who wants to claim as much insurance as he legally can.
Missteps like those in the last month merely reinforce the image of the Redskins as a franchise that is sensitive to its own image, and pained by criticism, yet considerably less concerned about the feelings of others.
"We all make mistakes. I've got things to learn," Snyder said yesterday. "But we will get it done."
He means it. He's trying. But he's also said it before. Eventually, actions will have to speak louder than words.