Dan Snyder doesn’t really want to win. He would rather be the controlling figure in a poisonous, culture-of-fear organization than a marginal figure in a successful and happy one. In the nearly two decades that Snyder has owned Washington’s football team, there has been just one constant — him. Apparently he much prefers firing people to winning with them.
Scot McCloughan is just the latest fly to have his wings pulled off and be pinned to Snyder’s bug collection. The cowardly smearing assertions that the general manager was fired for his drinking, the rumors about Bruce Allen’s back-hall jealousy of McCloughan’s popularity, are just sidelights and could have been quelled by the owner in an instant. Obviously, he preferred that it get ugly.
All of Snyder’s hires and fires are really just human shields for the owner’s behavior, they are there to absorb the public blame for his childish impulsivity and unpleasant little manipulations. He’s like the baby who keeps throwing his bottle on the floor, just so he can watch others pick it up. At this point, you begin to think the real game to Snyder is not football, it’s making other people feel his petty power, fostering tension and disorder for his personal entertainment.
The most telling number in Snyder’s tenure isn’t the won-loss record. It’s the hired-fired record. Colleague Rick Maese once uncovered this fascinating statistic: Between 2008 and 2013, 120 of its 143 employees in non-football operations left the club for various reasons. “I never worked in such a nervous building,” one said.
There have been eight head coaches, 16 starting quarterbacks and seven various people awarded supposed “roster control” in Washington since Snyder bought the club in 1999. Stability in the franchise is two years without a decapitation. At least under McCloughan there were a couple of winning seasons, and the hint of real architecture, with a terrific talent scout and solid roster-builder in the house, along with an interesting and still-improving coach in Jay Gruden, and a better-than-good quarterback in Kirk Cousins. But Snyder wasn’t happy with the way things were going. He’s the Dr. No of owners. He prefers radioactive chaos and dropping his employees through trap doors into bloodbaths.
Scroll back over the past few years, and the pattern is distinct: No sooner is someone hired than the sabotaging and hatchet games begin. He gave Marty Schottenheimer roster control and then whacked him after one season, because, as one employee told the The Washington Post, Snyder “wasn’t having any fun.”
Oh, every now and then Snyder makes a show of ceding control to an adult professional. But it never lasts long, and he always keeps an enabler by his side, a henchman or spy who reports to the owner’s box and sows internal mischief. He and Vinny Cerrato conspired to undermine every coach with “roster control” who came through the building, while making a series of laughably amateur decisions. Remember drafting Devin Thomas while passing on Jordy Nelson? Bringing in Donovan McNabb to play quarterback for Mike Shanahan?
Three ex-coaches have described to me how Snyder works: He claims publicly to cede authority to the professionals and pretends to be hands off, to avoid the heat and put it on others. But behind the scenes, he names a draft pick, or a high-priced free agent, and asks the coach whether they should go get him. Do you want Albert Haynesworth? We can get Haynesworth. Let’s go to get Haynesworth. Do you want McNabb? We can get McNabb. Let’s go get McNabb. Why wouldn’t you want McNabb?
So now the coach starts sweating. What if he refuses the owner, and doesn’t go after Haynesworth? What if Haynesworth winds up on another team and makes a big play against Washington? Now he’s the guy who passed on Haynesworth. So the coach goes and gets him, and tries to make it work. And that’s how it starts. Then, when it turns out it was a bad choice in the first place and it throws off the locker room and the scheme and the salary structure, the coach starts sweating again. Because now it looks like his fault. Pretty soon the locker room starts to question his judgment and authority, and wonder who’s really the shot-caller around here, anyway?
You know what happens next because you’ve seen it 70 zillion times. Pretty soon there are divisions in the building, and then comes the pattern of harassment to try to force a resignation. The small public humiliations. The weird managerial duplications and alignments: “Advisers” are brought in to be over-the-shoulder watchers. Then come the explosive shouts behind closed doors, and reports that the owner has berated someone.
Of course, even the enablers get it in the end when their human-shield usefulness wears out and Snyder decides to blame-shift. Or becomes bored, or wants fresh playthings. Cerrato got fired because, as the owner had the nerve to tell author Gary Myers, “The general manager needs to prevent the owner from hiring someone who’s not qualified. And that’s why Vinny is no longer here, to be truthful. He’s not here because his job was to prevent the owner from hiring a not-qualified coach.”
It’s obvious that Gruden and Allen will eventually get dropped into the acid pool like all the others. They’ll be lucky if they’re just offed — as opposed to slurred and slimed and damaged, like McCloughan. And a whole new cast will come in, and the cycle will start all over again. But with each go-round, everyone becomes a little wiser to the pattern, and fewer good people and great players want to come to, or stay, in Washington. The franchise has become exactly what the owner has treated it as: a garbage can for his disposables.