Daniel Snyder waited in the locker room at FedEx Field on Oct. 17 minutes after the Washington Redskins were defeated by the Baltimore Ravens, 17-10, the team's fourth consecutive loss.
Players trudged to their stalls before Gibbs, with a grim expression, walked into the locker room for a postgame address. When the Redskins' owner approached Gibbs, the coach apologized for the loss. Snyder responded with a brief pep talk, then departed moments before the media arrived for postgame interviews.
"I was so depressed in the locker room," Gibbs recalled Wednesday at Redskins Park. "And he walked right up to me and he said, 'Hey look, I just want to encourage you. It takes a while. Maybe you can't see it; you're too close to it. We have improvement. We're on the right track.'
"He has been a rock," Gibbs said about Snyder, who lured the Hall of Fame coach from an 11-year retirement from the NFL in January and asked him to revive his long-dormant franchise. "I appreciate that because when you hit adversity, that's a tough deal. That's kind of a real measure of somebody in a tough time, a bad time."
Despite Washington's lackluster record, Snyder, 39, has remained in the background, according to several people in the organization, belying his reputation as a hands-on -- at times meddlesome -- owner. Since signing Gibbs, 63, to a five-year, $28.5 million contract to become coach and team president, Snyder has kept his distance from the team perhaps more than any time in the five years he has owned the Redskins. The team's direction, according to these accounts, is emanating solely from Gibbs.
Snyder, who is on his fifth coach since buying the team in 1999, has noticeably reduced his appearances at Redskins Park and his daily interactions with players and coaches. Although Snyder attends every game, the decreased visibility has been striking to those who have been with the Redskins in recent years.
"Everything that I've seen and the sense that I get is he's really dedicated to letting this play out and not getting too involved in it -- just being a supportive force," said linebacker LaVar Arrington, the first player drafted under Snyder, the second pick overall in 2000. "I could be wrong, but that's what it seems like. You don't see him too much. Maybe it's conscious, maybe it's not. I don't know what it is, but he ain't around like he used to be."
Cornerback Fred Smoot said he believes Snyder is making a concerted effort to keep his distance. "Just his actions -- there haven't been any actions," said Smoot, who is in talks with the team about a contract extension. "He's just letting Coach Gibbs handle things. He hardly comes over here [Redskins Park] anymore.
"I think he's been through it enough times to know, 'I've got my coach; I've got my players. Now, I need to give them time to mesh.' When you've got a coach like that, you know it's going to come sooner or later."
Snyder declined to comment through team spokesman Karl Swanson, citing his policy of not granting interviews during the regular season. But in an interview with HBO's "Inside the NFL" before the regular season, Snyder acknowledged he has changed. "Joe has final say on everything. Period," Snyder said. "I've taken my lumps. I've come a long way. I think I've got incredible patience and understand things now that I didn't have when I first came into the league. I've learned a whole bunch."
Reverence for Gibbs
Several NFL officials inside and outside the club said they believe Snyder is deferring to his coach more than ever this season largely because of his reverence for Gibbs, who led the franchise to four Super Bowl appearances, winning three, in the 1980s and 1990s. A few NFL officials familiar with Snyder said they believe that Snyder fears a public backlash if Gibbs isn't given an opportunity to turn around the team.
"He doesn't have a choice. He's not going to bug Joe Gibbs," said one NFL general manager who requested anonymity so that his dealings with the Redskins aren't affected. "He's gotten beaten up so much [in the media], he's taken his face out of the public eye. He's not doing anything different than a lot of owners. Can you imagine the backlash if it comes out that Snyder is messing with Gibbs? So Snyder is doing the smart thing by staying out of it."
One AFC team official agreed. "In Dan's mind, when he wrote that check for Joe Gibbs and opened up the coffers, he essentially said: 'I can't do anything right with this. My hands are washed because I've been known as a meddler.' Right now, he has to bite his tongue and keep his mouth shut. He has to stay out of it."
The Redskins use a collaborative approach for personnel decisions. Vice President Vinny Cerrato and Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, have significant input. Snyder officially holds the tiebreaker in disagreements between the coaching staff and Cerrato. However, Gibbs has the final say, essentially giving him the most clout.
The only coach under Snyder who had similar influence to Gibbs's was Marty Schottenheimer, who was given carte blanche on football matters in 2001. Snyder later admitted that the decision to grant Schottenheimer total control stemmed partly from criticism that he was too involved with personnel decisions.
The Redskins started 0-5 that season before finishing 8-8. Although Schottenheimer regularly interacted with Snyder, the head coach kept his owner from any meaningful involvement, according to one former defensive assistant with the team who spoke on condition of anonymity. Following one season, Snyder fired Schottenheimer after he refused to cede any authority. Two people who know Snyder said the dismissal came because the owner was miserable without any involvement.
"Marty had control but not total support from Dan," said an NFL front-office official. "Dan has a special relationship with Joe. I'm sure Joe includes Dan in all the conversations about the team. Dan is very comfortable with Joe. Despite the record, I hear the stability at that place [Redskins Park] is as good as it's ever been."
The only time Gibbs's assistants regularly see Snyder is on the plane ride during road trips. Snyder sits next to Dwight C. Schar, a minority Redskins owner, at the front of first class; Gibbs sits across the aisle next to Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense.
After games, Snyder has a habit of going into the locker room to exchange small talk with players or coaches. Snyder is generally upbeat, players said, but his demeanor is usually based on the game's outcome. Snyder mingles with players and coaches for a few minutes before leaving.
Last year, coach Steve Spurrier met with Snyder in the owner's office at Redskins Park every Tuesday to discuss the team. But by the end of the season, Spurrier stopped attending as the Redskins lost nine of their last 11 games.
Although Snyder and Gibbs have phone conversations a few times each week, the two don't hold any regularly scheduled meetings. A get-together is quickly arranged when a critical football decision is pending. "Anything that's of importance, we get together on," Gibbs said.
Cerrato interacts with Gibbs significantly more than Snyder does, seeing Gibbs daily and occasionally sitting in on late-night meetings by the coaching staff. Because Cerrato talks to Snyder constantly, he sometimes serves as a liaison between the owner and coach. According to people familiar with Snyder, Cerrato -- who did not return a telephone call seeking comment for this article -- bares the brunt of the owner's wrath when things go wrong.
Snyder grew up in Rockville, an avid Redskins fan who worshiped Gibbs and the championship teams he coached. He dreamed of buying the club before eventually becoming rich enough to do so.
"He has the greatest respect for Joe," Bugel said. "I think he [Snyder] has been around a lot of different football coaches. He sees what Joe Gibbs can do. Joe Gibbs is a very hands-on person with the players. He's a locker room type of guy; he visits the weight room. I think Dan Snyder steps back and sees this and says, 'Why should I interfere? Give the man what he needs to win.' "
'He Doesn't Like Losing'
The Redskins underwent one of the most active offseasons in franchise history after Gibbs was hired, changing about one-half of the 53-man roster. Washington's payroll of more than $110 million broke the previous record of $102 million, set by the Denver Broncos in 2001. Snyder allowed Gibbs to go after several high-profile assistants as well, and ended up with the highest assistants payroll in league history with a conservative estimate of more than $4 million.
But the money and the legendary coach have not made a difference on the field thus far.
"I have a sense of how he feels from talking to him," Gibbs said of Snyder. "I think he gets disappointed like we do when we lose. He gets upset the same ways we get upset. I think he has the normal emotions somebody would have. He doesn't like losing. He's very competitive."
Snyder also allowed Gibbs to pick his quarterback, Mark Brunell over Patrick Ramsey, who the owner once considered the franchise quarterback. Brunell has statistically been one of the league's worst quarterbacks through the first seven games. And fans at FedEx Field last Sunday chanted for Ramsey to be inserted into the game. Snyder apparently hasn't chimed in on his preference.
"Never once has he done something that would be trying to get involved like that. Never once," Gibbs said. "And if he ever said anything to me, I'd take it to heart. I'd take it the right way. If he thinks there's something wrong I want him to say it because I think he's got some insight into the team."