On game day, the owner’s box at FedEx Field contains an omelet station, trays of lamb chops, Hebrew National hot dogs with buns imprinted with the Washington Redskins logo and, in the back, an office Daniel Snyder’s guests jokingly call The Hurt Locker. It is where Snyder and his closest companions retreat when the game perturbs him, when his intensity boils over. The Redskins’ majority owner can get so nervous for games, one person close to him said, that he rarely eats during them.
On Oct. 25, Snyder and minority owners Dwight Schar and Robert Rothman rose from their seats in front of the suite and skulked to The Hurt Locker late in the second quarter. Snyder’s guests assume the owner and his partners want privacy for venting and discretion for cigar smoking. The Redskins trailed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-0 and faced the likely prospect of a 2-5 record and another lost season.
As Snyder stewed, the Redskins mounted a season-turning comeback behind quarterback Kirk Cousins, whom Coach Jay Gruden had chosen in the preseason over Robert Griffin III, a star Snyder cherished. The victory sparked a surprising run to a division title and the fifth playoff appearance of Snyder’s 17 seasons of ownership. As the Redskins surged, something funny happened. Snyder stopped making trips to The Hurt Locker.
“There’s definitely been a different vibe in the owner’s box during games this year,” said Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, a guest in Snyder’s box for 10 years. “There’s just a quiet confidence, almost a serenity about it, which is a little surprising to say when you’re talking about Dan Snyder. There’s been a sense the football people are in charge, there’s a plan, and Dan likes the plan.”
On Sunday, a procession of Redskins legends — Joe Gibbs, Joe Theismann, Joe Jacoby — ambled from a tunnel beneath the FedEx Field stands to joyous ovations before the Redskins’ season-ending playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. When Snyder emerged, the crowd remained silent, as if fans didn’t notice or didn’t want to acknowledge him. Even those desperate for a fourth Super Bowl title still may cringe with the vision of Snyder receiving the trophy.
In the wake of the Redskins’ success this season, it is a question worth asking: What role did Snyder play? In the least charitable reading, he cleared the low bar of not serving as a large enough impediment to prevent the Redskins, aided by an easy schedule and a miserable division, from making the playoffs.
But interviews with more than a dozen of Snyder’s associates, ranging from current players to a rival owner, depicted an owner who has grown from years of gridiron disappointment and felt at ease, perhaps more than ever before, with the management team he assembled. Snyder, with urging from team President Bruce Allen, hired General Manager Scot McCloughan a year ago to assemble his roster and empowered McCloughan and Gruden to run the team with his support but without his interference.
“I think you can see his growth,” said retired Redskins running back Clinton Portis, a friend of Snyder’s who served as a sideline reporter, paid by the team, on preseason broadcasts. “He’s allowing the coaches to coach, the players to play and the front office to run the team.”
Snyder, of course, has pledged to stay out of the way of his football management before, only to interject himself and thwart sustained success. The Redskins have never enjoyed consecutive winning seasons or playoff trips under Snyder. The last time Washington won its division, it followed with a 3-13 sea of dysfunction marked by a public rift between Snyder and Coach Mike Shanahan over the use of Griffin. Snyder’s history, even after one his most triumphant seasons, invites skepticism.
“My own view is they finally got lucky,” said one former team official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of the Redskins’ owner. “I doubt there’s anything Dan’s done differently. Dan’s going on 51 years old. He’s not going to change.”
Snyder still can come off as abrasive and discourteous.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office says Snyder has refused to return her calls regarding a potential new stadium for the team in Washington. Bowser wants the franchise to move back to the District from suburban Maryland, but she refuses to use its controversial nickname — a name Snyder has famously vowed never to change even though many Native American groups and others say they find it offensive.
Still, people close to Snyder say they have noticed a change in the man, sensing he may have gained perspective from years in a cycle of hype, failure and attempts at quick fixes. Even rivals say they have seen Snyder grow in his dealings with Washington’s football operation.
“They couldn’t have in my mind a better, more qualified man making decisions other than Dan,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a telephone conversation. “Everybody says, ‘That’s not how we read it.’ A big part of how he’s different today than 15 years ago is he’s been kicked around hard — really been kicked around hard, more than most in the NFL. It’s made him more resolved. It’s made him understand the life he’s chosen.”
The 2015 season began for Snyder on the edge of crisis. Washington had gone 4-12 under Gruden, a first-year head coach, in 2014 after having won only three games under Shanahan the year before. Fan approval and support waned. Last spring, the team removed thousands of seats from FedEx Field for the third time in five seasons, further decreasing the capacity of what was once the National Football League’s largest stadium.
The team’s nickname landed Snyder in an uncomfortable trademark lawsuit and continued to divide — if not turn away — fans.
In the preseason, Griffin, the once-incandescent quarterback who formerly stood as the future of the franchise, lost his starting position after a clumsy concussion diagnosis.
“He went into the year much like the fans, with a ton of anxiety and a ton of apprehension as to what the future would be,” said former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, now a radio analyst employed by the team.
Snyder responded to the turmoil with change. He implanted McCloughan as the final decision-maker on football matters and remodeled the team’s Redskins Park training facility in Ashburn. Snyder has not spoken publicly in more than a year and declined to be interviewed for this story.
As the season wore on, the team’s play improved as Snyder seemingly backed away. McCloughan built a roster with unflashy free agents and sound draft picks. Snyder had allowed Gruden to bench Griffin in favor of Cousins. To what degree, if any, Snyder needed coaxing remains unclear. In the end, the final decision was Gruden’s.
When McCloughan interviewed with the Redskins, he outlined specific requirements, including staffing requests and having final say on roster decisions. The Redskins did not make McCloughan available for an interview, but people familiar with his thinking said he has found Snyder an unobtrusive and willing partner.
“Everything that Dan has promised to do, he’s done,” one person close to McCloughan said.
Cooley, a popular ex-player who has become Snyder’s friend, attempted an NFL comeback. Six or seven times this season, Cooley asked Snyder to put him on the team. “Go talk to Bruce,” Snyder would reply. “And go talk to Scot.”
“He didn’t put me on the team,” Cooley said. “Five years ago, he would have. I totally respect that. I think that’s amazing. I think that’s how you do it the right way.”
Snyder has understood for years, many people said, that he needed to cede control to football professionals. At times he has; Gibbs insisted Snyder fully supported him during his second tour as coach between 2004 and 2008. What Snyder didn’t understand was how to find the right people or what was required for them to do their jobs.
In McCloughan, Snyder found a well-regarded eye for talent who had built a championship team elsewhere. McCloughan’s confidence and competence convinced Snyder he had made the right choice, even in the season’s lowest moments, according to multiple people familiar with Snyder’s thinking. These associates believe strongly Snyder would not have fired Gruden or demanded significant changes had the Redskins lost to Tampa Bay back in October.
“I think he’s only felt the need to run things when he felt things were off the rails,” the former team official said.
Snyder may exert his influence in select cases. He is notoriously fond of Griffin, whom he whisked to a Tom Cruise movie preview and socialized with frequently after Griffin’s dazzling rookie season in 2012. This year, the Redskins did not cut ties with the quarterback despite showing no inclination of playing him.
“The only thing I would say in any way shape or form — this is speculation — is that there was a roster spot for RGIII the entire season,” Cooley said. “I don’t know if Scot McCloughan would have let that spot remain. I don’t know if Jay Gruden would have kept three QBs on this team.”
Snyder’s relationship with star players has long been a flashpoint. Shanahan has publicly said he believes Snyder encouraged Griffin to tell Shanahan the plays he wanted to run, which Shanahan believes undermined him and the team in 2013. Snyder remains close with players, several of them said, but they no longer see his penchant for gravitating toward stars. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, perhaps the Redskins’ best player, said he believes Snyder has a similar relationship with players across the locker room.
“It’s nonexistent now,” Cooley said. “No one goes and talks to Dan. No one as a player has an influence on Dan. I don’t think Dan has an influence on what Scot and Jay do.”
After the Redskins clinched the NFC East title in Philadelphia on Dec. 26, Snyder barged into the locker room, head high and chest out. “We’re not done yet!” Snyder shouted. “This isn’t enough!” Players surrounded him in the celebration and urged him to “dab,” a trendy dance move. When he complied, the team erupted.
“I don’t know if he ever ‘dabbed’ before in his life,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. “And I know he was shy. He ain’t the type of guy to do that.”
Locker room dancing aside, other longtime Redskins have seen subtle changes in the team’s owner.
“He’s seemed more mellow the past couple of years,” said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, the second-longest tenured Redskin. “I don’t think it’s particularly this season he’s calmed down. I think it’s been a gradual process over the last couple years. You’ve kind of not heard from him as much. But he’s always around.”
Snyder has few friends, especially friends made outside of business, but those close to him swear by his kindness. When Wallace’s father, the legendary CBS “60 Minutes” anchor Mike Wallace, died in 2012, he said Snyder and his wife, Tanya, were the only couple to mail him flowers and a condolence note.
“I know it doesn’t always go with the image,” Wallace said.
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