As Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and his wife, Tanya, prepared to be photographed with President Bush and first lady Laura Bush during a late-afternoon cocktail party at the White House last Sunday, the president asked Snyder: "How are we looking next year?"
At that moment Snyder was awaiting word on the completion of the final two free agent acquisitions of one of the most dizzying weekends in team history. His cell phone had been put away and set on vibrate mode so the owner could get the news without disturbing the White House function.
"I'm working at it," Snyder told the president. "I'm working hard."
The Redskins had already added seven players in about 65 hours since the NFL player-acquisition market had opened at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 28. As the Snyders drove from the White House to Ford's Theater later that evening for another engagement, the cell phone brought the news that place kicker John Hall had become the eighth acquisition. The thumbs-up on the signing of quarterback Rob Johnson came soon thereafter.
The Redskins won't know until the fall if their nine-player shopping spree last weekend will result in a dramatic improvement over last season's disappointing 7-9 record. Questions have been raised about whether the Redskins sacrificed a defense ranked fifth in the NFL in the their zeal to improve their offense. But agents, Redskins officials and the players involved in the transactions all agreed that the Redskins were successful in one aspect: They drew up a list of players they wanted, decided to try to get them quickly -- and got many of them.
It all started in the aftermath of Steve Spurrier's troubling first season as an NFL coach. The weaknesses exposed in those 16 games included two huge holes at guard, lack of speed at wide receiver, lack of depth at quarterback, poor safety play and an inconsistent kicking game. The Redskins first evaluated their own players, and drew up a list of every NFL player eligible for free agency. A young front-office member compiled a list of players who might be released in salary cap-related moves. The club's pro scouts evaluated every free agent and possible free agent. Those who didn't qualify as an upgrade were tossed out immediately, even before the team's coaches were brought into the process.
Each coach then was given 15 to 25 players from other clubs to evaluate. They began with defensive players, and worked from 7:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. for three days in mid-February. They watched each player in two to three games. Four days were devoted to offense and half a day to special teams, bringing the total workload to about 100 hours. Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' director of player personnel, told the group to rate the players on ability and not worry about what they thought the players might cost. Snyder would worry about that. The work was completed about 21/2 weeks before free agency started, and the result was a binder containing about 2,000 pages that would guide everything the Redskins were about to do.
The Redskins had the New York Jets' Randy Thomas rated as their top available guard, with the Jacksonville Jaguars' Zach Wiegert, Dave Fiore of the San Francisco 49ers and the Tennessee Titans' Zach Piller also in the top four. The Philadelphia Eagles' Hugh Douglas, the Green Bay Packers' Vonnie Holliday and the Oakland Raiders' Regan Upshaw were the top three defensive ends. The Thomas section in the Redskins' book has four scouting reports, each with a letter grade, plus a biography page.
Snyder said entering the offseason that he would continue to share the Redskins' decision-making responsibilities with Cerrato and Joe Mendes, the negotiator and salary cap numbers cruncher who serves as the team's vice president of football operations. Spurrier immediately made good on his vow to be more involved in shaping the roster by participating in the wearying player-evaluation meetings. Cerrato pushed for the Redskins to move prudently but quickly. Those teams that worry about overspending early in free agency risk being shut out of the top talent, he argued. To do that, the club would need someone to close deals swiftly and decisively. That person, armed with the huge binder, would be Snyder.
When Redskins officials went to the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis the week before free agency opened, Snyder dined with some of the sport's most prominent agents. He knew all of them, but he wanted to make sure the lines of communication were wide open. It's common for NFL teams and agents to line up deals -- in violation of the league's tampering rules -- before the start of free agency. Jimmy Sexton, the Memphis-based agent who represents Thomas, said last week that he had dinner with Snyder in Indianapolis but no improper negotiations took place.
"I have key players on their [salary] cap," said Sexton, who also represents quarterback Patrick Ramsey, left tackle Chris Samuels and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. "I'll probably be having dinner with Dan five or six times a year."
Off and Flying
On Feb. 27, as free agency approached, Snyder met with Cerrato, Redskins Vice President Pepper Rodgers and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson until 2 a.m. in the conference room that adjoins Snyder's corner office at Redskins Park. Mendes was working the phones in a nearby office. The salary cap cuts by other teams had begun to come in. Those in Snyder's office read on the 49ers' Web site that Fiore would be released.
That day, Snyder sent his private jet, nicknamed Redskins One, to Dallas to pick up Raghib Ismail. Cerrato and Jackson rode on the jet with the speedy wide receiver, who had been released by the Dallas Cowboys and wasn't subject to the Feb. 28 deadline. Snyder, Cerrato and Jackson took Ismail to a late-night dinner at a Reston steakhouse. Cerrato, who had once successfully recruited Ismail to Notre Dame, tried to sell him on coming to another NFC East team by telling him: "You get to face Dallas twice a year."
Cerrato told Ismail he wanted him to mentor the club's younger wide receivers the way that Irving Fryar had done for the Redskins a few years ago. Cerrato later had Fryar call Ismail on the Redskins' behalf. Ismail never mentioned during his visit that he was contemplating retirement. He even looked at houses with the wife of Redskins administrator Bubba Tyer, who works in real estate.
While Ismail was eating, Snyder's plane was bringing Fiore from San Jose to Dulles. He landed around 1 a.m., and was whisked to a Reston hotel by Jackson. The Redskins kept all their "recruits" in suites. Cerrato arranged to have each player greeted in his room by a note from the team, a huge fruit basket and a Redskins jersey with his name and number stitched on the back.
That night, as the free agency period opened, Snyder stayed on the phone until 3 a.m. He called Sexton and arranged to have the plane pick up Thomas in Atlanta that morning at 7. Offensive line coach Kim Helton had stayed at the hotel that night. The snow was blocking the driveway at his house, and he was scheduled to be on the plane with Thomas. Wheels-up at Dulles was scheduled for 4:45 a.m.
Snyder also called Upshaw's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, in the hopes of getting Upshaw to Washington on Feb. 28 as well. But Upshaw was in Morocco, finishing a two-week vacation. Snyder arranged to have the jet pick up defensive tackle Brandon Noble in Dallas and make a stop in Chicago to bring along his agent, Rick Smith.
At 8 a.m., Snyder phoned St. Louis Rams President John Shaw. The Redskins had called the Rams just before the trading deadline last season to try to pry away Trung Canidate, a lightning-quick young running back whom Coach Mike Martz disliked. Martz had said he wouldn't part with Canidate because Pro Bowl tailback Marshall Faulk was hurt, but gave the Redskins every reason to believe that Canidate could be had in the offseason. Snyder and the Redskins quickly completed the deal by sending guard David Loverne and a fourth-round draft pick to St. Louis.
The Redskins got Thomas, Noble and Smith to town with no problem. Upshaw was another matter. The plane was dispatched to meet him at JFK when he got off his flight from Casablanca. But Rosenhaus would not let Upshaw get on the jet until Snyder agreed on the parameters of a contract. So with his jet on the ground in New York, Snyder hammered out the basics of a five-year, $7.5 million deal over the phone with Rosenhaus, and Upshaw soon was en route to Dulles to become the Redskins' new starting right defensive end. Only a bad visit could scuttle the deal.
A Numbers Game
Snyder usually has two crews for his Challenger plane, but added a third for the weekend. The jet was part of the Redskins' strategy. As Cerrato told reporters during one break in the action, "When you pick them up in a private plane, they feel special."
The Redskins believed they would have little problem signing Noble, who was eager to play close to his home town of Virginia Beach. Thomas was another matter. Sexton told Snyder he had six serious bidders. Thomas's old offensive line coach with the Jets, Bill Muir, wanted him in Tampa. His old Jets head coach, Bill Parcells, wanted him in Dallas. The Jets wanted to re-sign him and the Titans were in the chase. Snyder had to ante up if he wanted Thomas to sign before leaving town.
Snyder and Sexton began negotiations with a phone call around 10 a.m. What Snyder didn't know is that Thomas had called Sexton a little while earlier and said: "I really want to be here."
Sexton said to his client: "What about your other visits?"
Replied Thomas: "If they'll do the deal, I won't take them."
Even Sexton, a veteran agent, was surprised. "I thought he would definitely take more visits," he said late last week. "Dan was smart. He put enough of a bonus up front for the kid that he could say, 'You might be able to match this somewhere. But can you beat it?' By the time we started negotiating around 10, they'd already done a lot of recruiting. Kim Helton was on the plane with him and worked on him the whole way."
Snyder opened negotiations by asking Sexton what it would take to sign Thomas right away, and Sexton asked for a signing bonus of $6 million to $8 million and an average annual contract value of $4 million. Snyder quickly agreed, and the talks became more about the structure of the contract than the value.
Sexton had a difficult set of negotiations with the Redskins last summer when the club nearly traded Ramsey to the Chicago Bears before signing the first-round draft choice to end his holdout from training camp. The relationship between Sexton and Snyder emerged intact, however. "When you've got a good relationship with somebody, it doesn't take you too long to do a deal if you both want to do a deal," Sexton said.
Snyder called Sexton around 11:30 a.m. with a proposed contract structure, and Sexton called Snyder about an hour later with a few questions. In between negotiating Thomas's deal, the two reworked the contracts of Samuels and Trotter, clearing about $3.5 million in additional salary cap room for the Redskins while guaranteeing about $6 million in previously non-guaranteed income for Sexton's two clients. Snyder also was talking to Rosenhaus about Piller in case he lost Thomas. But Thomas was the prized catch, and he and Sexton kept getting closer.
Snyder wanted Thomas's salary next season to be the minimum of $530,000 to limit the impact on the salary cap. The two agreed that Thomas's salary would jump to $1 million in the second season. Sexton agreed to allow the signing bonus to be paid in three installments instead of one. Around 2 p.m., he called Snyder and agreed to slice a little bit off the average annual value of the contract in exchange for the signing bonus being increased a bit. Sexton told Snyder that if the Redskins would add $100,000 to the second season, $450,000 to the third and $250,000 to the fourth and make the final two years of the contract voidable, they would have a deal.
The agreement was in place around 3 p.m., and both sides got what they wanted. Sexton and Thomas got a $7 million signing bonus and a deal worth, on paper, $3.947 million per season, making it one of the two or three heftiest contracts ever for a guard. The Redskins got a deal that is worth about $3.7 million per season once the two voidable years at the end are lopped off. And they got the player they had coveted the most. Thomas came to Snyder's office and called some of his friends, yelling into the phone: "I'm a Redskin!"
He had Snyder come to the phone to talk to his mother, who told the owner: "God bless the Redskins!" Snyder handed out cigars to Thomas and Helton. Helton doesn't smoke, but puffed on his anyway. Thomas lit his but didn't smoke it. He headed off with Redskins scout Louis Riddick to buy a suit for the news conference the team planned for Saturday. He had money to spend.
Pen, Pad and Phone
The Redskins signed Fiore and announced that move, along with the Canidate trade, on Feb. 28. Nothing happened to mess up the Upshaw deal and Noble's contract fell into line. Smith, the agent, said later: "It made a difference dealing with Dan Snyder. He can make a decision quickly. He's made an effort to reach out and establish a relationship with some of us, and it's working."
A celebration was in order. A dinner party of 14 people headed to a Tysons Corner restaurant. Thomas, Noble and Upshaw were there. The restaurant was given a standing order to bring three trays of food every five minutes, and the group feasted on endless appetizers of oysters, clams and calamari before moving on to the main course of lobster. Thomas called his new partner on the right side of the Redskins' offensive line, tackle Jon Jansen, but had trouble talking as he stuffed lobster into his mouth.
As the night ended, the last three people left at the table were Snyder, Cerrato and Jackson. Snyder led a toast, saying: "To the start of a great offseason."
The plane was back in action March 1. First it went to Tampa and brought back Spurrier. He was on hand for the news conference that evening at which the Redskins announced the signings of Thomas, Upshaw and Noble. Spurrier stood near the team's three Super Bowl trophies and said: "Our personnel department has done a super job hustling these deals."
Afterward, Cerrato held court with reporters outside the auditorium at the team's training facility and praised Snyder, saying: "Mr. Snyder has been on the phone nonstop. I told his wife all he does is walk around with a pen, a pad of paper, a calculator and his cell phone. He was on his phone with an agent during the press conference."
Here's the Kicker
The plane also made a March 1 trip to Fort Myers, Fla., to pick up Hall. The Redskins didn't want to be undone by kicking calamities like they were in the 2000 season, the last time that Snyder, Cerrato and Mendes combined on a series of splashy offseason acquisitions.
When Snyder woke up last Sunday morning, his wife said to him: "Go to Redskins Park and don't come home until the kicker signs. I can't take any more without a kicker." Then Tanya Snyder called Rodgers and said: "Get to the office. I need a kicker."
Hall had been scheduled to leave town last Sunday, but the Redskins were determined not to let him go without a deal. They got him to skip his flight while Snyder negotiated by phone with agent Jim Steiner. While Snyder was at the White House, Spurrier and special teams coach Mike Stock took Hall to dinner. Hall didn't leave town until after the Monday news conference announcing his signing.
The Johnson deal was wrapped up later Sunday evening. Jackson had been doing the recruiting, since the two knew one another. The Cowboys and Buccaneers were in the race until the end. But when Snyder agreed to move his signing bonus up into the neighborhood of the other teams' offers -- to $250,000 -- he and agent David Dunn completed a deal. And Snyder could enjoy the rest of his night at Ford's Theater.
There was more to come. On Tuesday, Ismail informed the Redskins that he would retire. That day, the plane was dispatched, with Cerrato and Jackson, to Nashville to pick up wide receiver Kevin Dyson. The Redskins signed two restricted free agents, safety Matt Bowen and kickoff returner Chad Morton, to offer sheets. But the tone had been set with one wild weekend that was, as far as anyone in the league could remember, unprecedented in its intensity.
"You have to go play," Spurrier said when the initial flurry of moves was completed. "It's all potential right now. But all of these guys have done it in the NFL. Last year we brought in some guys that maybe didn't work out. These are guys who should really strengthen our team . . . . It gives us hope."