It seems like a lifetime ago, but only months have passed since Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and team owner Daniel Snyder spent time together with Hollywood stars, sharing high-dollar dinners and developing an unlikely friendship — at least by most standards.
A 23-year-old superstar and 48-year-old billionaire, together so often during the 2013 offseason, smiling in photographs and mingling with other celebrities.
And now this: Griffin stood on a stage last Sunday, his shoulders slouched and his eyes blank after another Redskins loss, facing questions about whether his friendship with Snyder had contributed to the unraveling of the season and a schism between Snyder and Coach Mike Shanahan.
“It’s not relevant to the football game. It’s not relevant to my life, which is my answer to that,” Griffin said, shaking his head. “It’s ridiculous.”
Griffin’s bond with Snyder was the focus of an ESPN report last Sunday, indicating Shanahan considered quitting after the 2012 season because of the friendship and preferential treatment afforded to Griffin. Although two team employees this past week said Snyder and Griffin actually haven’t spent time together during the season — one said it has been months since they’ve spoken at length — the story reignited questions about whether Snyder grows too close to some of his star players and whether the resulting perks undermine his coaches’ authority and fuel locker room resentment.
“It’s just like your kids,” said Marty Schottenheimer, a former Redskins coach who also became close with Snyder during his time in Washington. “You’ve got four kids. They all need to feel like their mother and father — irrespective of if you’re correcting them for something or applauding them — they’ve got to believe that I’m as important to my parents as my three siblings.”
Other NFL owners take a hands-on approach with players, some more than others. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, along with former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, have been friendly with their top players. Since buying the Redskins in 1999, however, Snyder, who was not made available for this story, has developed a distinct reputation for being particularly focused on stars — first by signing them to lucrative contracts and then by befriending them.
Schottenheimer, who coached the Redskins in 2001, said he vacationed in Italy and France with Snyder. Schottenheimer’s successor, Steve Spurrier, said he and the owner visited the Bahamas and spent downtime together during his two seasons in Washington.
Snyder’s infatuation with players, though, has garnered the most attention — and criticism. He became close to Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Stephen Davis during the early years of his ownership and later with Clinton Portis. Former players Fred Smoot and Albert Haynesworth also described cozy relationships with the owner.
“He was a fan,” said Pepper Rodgers, whom Snyder hired as director of football operations in late 2000. “Because he was also the owner, he had a better chance to have a fan relationship with some of the star players than the average fan. I think that was pretty obvious.”
LaVar Arrington, who in 2000 was Snyder’s first draft pick as a National Football League team owner, recalled playing chess with Snyder and spending team flights beside the Redskins owner, not his teammates.
“I mean, me and Dan were tight,” said Arrington, who is a contract employee for The Washington Post and panelist on its weekly webcast, “Post Sports Live.” “He was my guy.”
Rodgers, in an interview last week, said he believed Snyder had curbed his habit of forming close bonds with famous players in recent years. Indeed, when Shanahan became head coach in 2010, he received total control of the team’s football operations, a position that allowed him to establish more of a boundary between Snyder and the players in the locker room.
Haynesworth, whom Snyder signed to a seven-year, $100 million contract in 2009, said there was a noticeable change when Shanahan took over the team.
“I used to talk to Dan and tell him how I’m playing or what I’m trying to do or whatever. Not that he went down to the coaches or whatever and said anything; just kind of like a friend I’m having a conversation with,” Haynesworth said in a Tennessee Sports Radio interview last week. “And once Shanahan got there, I could never even talk to [Snyder] again. He was never in his office, or he was always busy.”
Haynesworth and Shanahan clashed over the defensive tackle’s role, and Shanahan traded him away in 2011.
Whatever boundaries Shanahan set up, they appeared to grow less clear over the past two years when it came to Griffin.
In November 2012, after the Redskins’ win against the Dallas Cowboys, Griffin and Snyder — along with Griffin’s then-fiancée and members of his family — remained in Dallas and shared Thanksgiving dinner. When Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, suffered his knee injury last January, he traveled on Snyder’s private jet — with Snyder and several other team officials — to Pensacola, Fla., where he would undergo reconstructive surgery. Shanahan wasn’t among those aboard Redskins One.
Throughout the following months, Snyder and Griffin frequently were seen together: at the premiere of a Tom Cruise movie, dining at a Georgetown restaurant and attending an after-party following the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Snyder attended Griffin’s wedding in July, and the quarterback wouldn’t let the team owner sit out dances.
“Every time I’d sit down, he’d get everybody dancing,” Snyder said during an interview with ESPN 980 in August. “He’s just a lot of fun to be with.”
More than a decade ago, Arrington developed a similar relationship with Snyder. Arrington, a former Penn State standout, said on team flights he left his seat and approached the owner; they would speak for a few minutes before Snyder offered Arrington a seat.
It became routine for Arrington to sit with Snyder on team flights, Arrington said, and soon he was visiting Snyder’s office at Redskins Park for long conversations about their backgrounds and hopes. Arrington said he told Snyder about difficult times in college, when he occasionally clashed with former coach Joe Paterno, and Snyder shared his past — about how a Maryland kid who once idolized Redskins players had built a self-made fortune and powerful media company, making him into the kind of man who could buy the team in 1999 for $750 million.
Smoot, a cornerback who spent seven seasons in Washington, also developed a bond with Snyder, who spent a night in a Dallas hospital at Smoot’s bedside when the player suffered a bruised kidney. Smoot said that, other than having the owner’s ear, he received no preferential treatment, rather using his closeness with Snyder to represent the needs and wants of the locker room.
“He just was one of those people I could talk to about anything,” said Smoot, adding that he has no problem with Snyder’s reputation of growing close to select players.
Arrington, whose friendship with Snyder soured after a public contract dispute, said it’s more complicated than that. “When he’s close to somebody like Robert Griffin III,” the former linebacker said, “I think in a way he feels as though it validates what he has always represented and what he wants to represent — which is power, which is popularity, which is status.”
Other than losses, this Redskins season has been marred by tension among Griffin, Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the head coach’s son. The young quarterback was thought to be unhappy with how he was used in 2012, leading to a serious knee injury, and his willingness to speak out about his reservations and hopes for changes in his second season sounded familiar to Arrington.
“You don’t come back and talk against your team. You don’t talk against your coach. You just don’t do that,” Arrington said. “But he was able to continue doing that, and that says to me that this guy has the comfort and is content with what his situation is.”
Smoot said it’s no surprise Snyder has grown close with Griffin; Smoot said most football players learn early that quarterbacks are afforded luxuries not offered to those playing other positions. Barry Cofield, a Redskins nose tackle and a defensive captain, conveyed a similar attitude toward the perception that Griffin — one of the NFL’s most well-known players — received special treatment because of his relationship with Snyder.
The ESPN report last week said Snyder sends his personal security team with Griffin when the quarterback goes out in Washington.
“Robert is a vastly more popular person that could possibly cause a commotion going in public and things like that,” Cofield said. “So I really think it’s feasible that he would need security depending on the setting that he’s in. Little behind-the-scenes stuff like that, obviously, that’s nothing that anybody else would know about.
“But as far as what goes on in our locker room and our meeting rooms and all the things that really matter to a football team, I don’t see any of that.”
At least in recent years, Snyder has spent only casual time with players and only at community events, according to one team official familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity. No player sits with Snyder on the team plane, the official said.
Schottenheimer, offering a former coach’s perspective, said he wouldn’t have been comfortable with a player spending as much time with the team owner as Griffin did earlier this year. Offered a list of the known adventures Griffin and Snyder shared — the Georgetown dinner, the wedding, the after-party at the French ambassador’s residence, the movie premiere — Schottenheimer responded simply: “Wow.”
“That’s a tempest in a teapot, if you will,” Schottenheimer said, “because that could blow up.”
Mike Jones and Liz Clarke contributed to this report.
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