| The owner, who has been unabashedly hands-on since buying the team in 1999, frequently holds court with Sonny, Pepper and Vinny. This time, the difference was that Snyder marveled at the speed and dash of relatively unglamorous players such as Laveranues Coles, his new wide receiver; Chad Morton, his new kick returner; and Trung Canidate, his new running back. |
Snyder's tenure has been marked by splurging and instability. And his latest moves change almost one-third of the roster (bringing 16 new players). However, the 38-year-old owner has taken an uncharacteristic approach this offseason: signing youngsters who seemingly haven't peaked, instead of stars in the twilights of their careers; and tailoring them to Coach Steve Spurrier's offense, based on speed.
"I've always been involved from the day I bought the team. But I've learned," said Snyder, whose team has been merely 33-31 since he paid an NFL-record $800 million for the franchise.
He says he's learned that spending big doesn't mean big success, that hiring superstars doesn't always mean victories, and with training camp kicking off today, Snyder is at a crossroads -- his latest, detractors might add.
Snyder paid record signing bonuses to acquire Coles ($13 million) and guard Randy Thomas ($7 million) in the most active offseason in the franchise's 70-year history. Snyder's shopping spree-induced optimism is no different from past seasons. But NFL team executives, league officials and NFL media analysts contrast Snyder's moves to the ignominious 2000 season, which occurred after Snyder spent exorbitant sums for safety Mark Carrier, quarterback Jeff George, cornerback Deion Sanders and defensive end Bruce Smith.
"In , when he went and got Deion and Bruce and Jeff George, Dan was a fan with a lot of money," said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, an ESPN analyst who has criticized Snyder in the past. "He wanted every big-name free agent he could get.
"The way he's grown is that he now knows what it takes to be a winner in the National Football League. It isn't just big-name players."
Instead of buying gaudy, designer labels that don't fit, Snyder signed players who fill needs, particularly at offensive line, wide receiver and special teams. The Redskins have started 14 guards over the past three seasons. Thomas was the top guard in free agency before signing a seven-year, $28 million contract. With the offense ranked 20th in the NFL, Snyder signed Coles -- one of the NFL's better wide receivers -- to a seven-year, $35 million deal. The Redskins have had 11 kickers since 1998. The club signed John Hall -- a solid, if unspectacular kicker -- to a five-year deal worth about $7 million. And to bolster the special teams, which were anything but, Snyder signed Morton, one of the AFC's top kick returners, to a three-year, $8 million deal.
(The average age of the Redskins' projected starters on offense is 25.5, with left guard Dave Fiore being the oldest at 28. The average age of the expected defensive starters is 26.6, with linebacker Jessie Armstead tops at 32.)
"The thing that has been positive is they had a game plan. They didn't just sign anybody," said Floyd Reese, general manager of the Tennessee Titans, echoing NFL personnel officials. "They sat down and decided on a direction. Their plan has been aggressive. There will probably be a few people in the league that say, 'Well, why be that aggressive?' But I respect" Snyder's approach.
However, another disappointing season awaits if key players regress or suffer major injuries -- contingencies for every team. The Redskins have no proven running back to replace Stephen Davis, who signed with the Carolina Panthers after being released. And Spurrier hasn't proven that his pass-oriented offense can be successful in the NFC East, where cold weather forces teams to rush.
Snyder's biggest risk, however, is relying on second-year player Patrick Ramsey -- with only nine NFL games -- to guide Spurrier's quarterback-driven system.
Snyder is placing a high-stakes gamble that Ramsey will halt the franchise's spell of 14 starting quarterbacks over the past 10 seasons. When it comes to quarterbacks, Spurrier can be Snyderesque, having switched quarterbacks five times last season.
Even if Ramsey revitalizes the offense in his second season, those gains may be offset with a diminished defense. Last year, the unit finished ranked fifth in the NFL under defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who was hired as the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach. The defensive line appears to have been downgraded with the departure of tackle Daryl Gardener, the Redskins' most valuable player last season. And concerns remain at safety.
Despite those red flags, NFL team officials see hints of something foreign during Snyder's regime: a plan based on continuity. Snyder's vision is tied to Spurrier with Cerrato as the main talent evaluator. Snyder intends to build the Redskins in Spurrier's image while keeping the team relatively intact for three seasons, a comparative eternity during Snyder's regime. "We can be pretty damn stable," Snyder said recently.
It would be a pretty different approach for Snyder. In 2000, Snyder ordered burgundy-and-gold banners declaring, "The Future is Now," hung at Redskins Park. The phrase, borrowed from George Allen, the late Redskins coach, encapsulated Snyder's mentality. Those banners no longer decorate Redskins Park.
Although Snyder's goal is to win the Super Bowl this season -- and every season -- the owner insists that he views things with perspective. And Snyder's approach has been noted in the league office.
The Redskins "have done a lot this past offseason: building on Coach Spurrier's first year, addressing their needs," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who added that it's a plus for the league when storied franchises like the Redskins have success. "And they have a long-term vision now of where they want to take the club."
"Long term" would be an oxymoron when discussing Snyder's Redskins. (Only four players remain on the Redskins' roster from Snyder's first season, 1999. Seven of the NFL's 12 playoff teams last season had at least 20 players on their rosters from 1999.) Despite a frenetic offseason, there are signs of stability. George Edwards, the Redskins' defensive coordinator, will employ the same terminology as his predecessor. It will be a milestone for defensive stalwarts such as LaVar Arrington and Champ Bailey.
More significant, Spurrier should be the first head coach to complete two seasons under Snyder. Spurrier has engendered a confidence and bond in the owner absent from past coaches.
Last season, Lewis described working for the Redskins as no "utopia," apparently alluding to Snyder's hands-on ways. But Spurrier says Snyder has never influenced decisions on the field. Instead, Spurrier encourages Snyder's interaction with the team. Last season, Snyder heeded Spurrier's suggestion to take the team plane for road games, a change from Snyder's policy of traveling separately in his 12-passenger Challenger.
Spurrier's panache and brash manner makes him a kindred spirit to Snyder. The occasional golf partners further click because of Spurrier's desire to focus on coaching. "What Daniel has done over the last four years," Theismann said, "is basically find out the type of person that he wants to coach his football team."
The worst Redskins season during Snyder's tenure hasn't dissuaded him from basing his success on Spurrier. Snyder's gambit is exemplified by the release of Davis -- the third-leading rusher in Redskins history -- and the acquisition of Canidate, a second-string tailback with first-class speed. The Redskins have been purposely transformed into one of the fastest offenses in the NFC, with wideouts and tailbacks who stretch the field to Spurrier's liking. "This team was built," Snyder said, "around Steve Spurrier."
Snyder has also settled on Cerrato in the front office, promoting him to vice president of football operations from director of player personnel. The move led to the departure of Joe Mendes, known for his fiscal conscience.
Throughout his tenure, Snyder has used a potpourri of setups in place of a general manager. Cerrato's detractors deride him as Snyder's racquetball buddy, who serves as an enabler to the owner's extravagant whims. (The 2000 season is used as a prime example.) But Snyder notes Cerrato's promising tenure as the San Francisco 49ers' personnel director from 1995 to 1999, and the Redskins' 2000 draft, which produced Arrington and Chris Samuels. "Put his [Cerrato's] work history on paper," Snyder said, "and you will have a smile on your face."
One local radio personality, known for his sometimes-searing criticism of his former team, liked Cerrato's promotion. "What you have to do first is eliminate all internal conflicts so that everybody is on the same page and you have one heartbeat," said Rick (Doc) Walker, an NFL color analyst for CBS Westwood One radio, who played tight end for the Redskins from 1980 to 1985. "Elevating Cerrato was the positive sign I was waiting on. He's a complete football guy. There's no way in three or four years, [Snyder] can become an expert on the philosophy of football."
Still, how much will Snyder let Cerrato do his job? Cerrato has been with Snyder for all but the 2001 season. However, according to one Redskins official who requested anonymity, this offseason Cerrato oversaw the most thorough talent evaluation since Snyder's arrival. The owner -- whose wife once jokingly called a "torpedo" for his hyperactive nature -- didn't interfere. "A lot of the guys [targeted] were young guys people hadn't heard of," said Cerrato, 43, "Dan had no problem with that."
Then Cerrato added with a hearty laugh: "He said, 'You guys better know what you're doing.' "
In a tedious process which took several weeks, coaches and scouts graded draft prospects, free agents and players expected to be released. (Coles received the highest grade.) The coaching staff pointed out the club's greatest needs, and rated players were contrasted to the roster for a road map.
"I am not involved in that work," said Snyder. "The big assumption I'm making is that Vinny is a good judge of talent and can grade well."
The grades were meshed, listing the top players before Snyder made the final decisions. The owner used his private plane, Redskins One, to recruit players, showed them around town and negotiated directly with their agents.
According to several agents, it accelerates the negotiation process since there is no intermediary. "I wish I could deal [directly] with every owner," said Drew Rosenhaus, who represents Redskins linebacker Armstead and defensive linemen Jermaine Haley and Regan Upshaw. Some representatives claim that Snyder can be a tough negotiator despite his reputation for being an agent's best friend.
"Unfortunately, it [Snyder's splurging] didn't happen in my situation," Neil Schwartz -- whose client, Gardener, departed after failed negotiations -- said with a laugh. "Maybe he hates me. But it [Snyder negotiating] is a major plus because the buck stops with the owner, with Dan Snyder."
Snyder's bucks transformed the Redskins' roster using an unconventional tactic: signing restricted free agents (typically third-year players) and forfeiting draft picks. The aggressive strategy, NFL personnel directors said, has brought ramifications around the league. Clubs have insisted that rookie draft choices sign four-year deals, bypassing restricted free agency. It's an expensive method antithetical to salary cap flexibility and Snyder's new motif. Next year the Redskins will return to the conventional approach of building through the draft, Snyder said.
But to fit the new players under the NFL's salary cap of $75.007 million for this season, the Redskins were forced to restructure several deals. It's a financial jigsaw puzzle the Redskins must solve annually to keep the roster relatively intact.
"We've clearly budgeted for three years to say: 'Okay, these guys can hang together and build something special,' " said Snyder, who recently hired Eric Schaffer, formerly of IMG, to assist in salary-cap management. "I think the days of the dynasties -- those days of the non-salary cap [before 1993] -- are probably gone. People try to get a good run, regroup, get another good run, regroup. We're just on the getting the runs part."
But a few NFL team officials are skeptical of the Redskins' ability to keep their best players intact for even one run. An NFC team official, who requested anonymity, said: "If George Bush finds those weapons [of mass destruction] then Dan Snyder will find a way to keep all his [top] players." However, that NFL executive conceded that he was merely surmising.
Snyder's biggest salary cap hurdle will be the contract demands of Bailey, the cornerback who becomes a free agent after this season. Using the franchise tag is an option, but would adversely affect the salary cap. In this instance, the Redskins would be forced to consider ridding themselves of Arrington's unwieldy contract.
Snyder -- who is worth more than $660 million, according to Forbes magazine -- declined to comment on Bailey's situation. But according to a Redskins front-office source, the club intends to make Bailey one of the five highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. Will that be enough for a cornerback selected to the past four Pro Bowls?
"They have not shared their plans for him," said Bailey's agent, Jack Reale, who hinted that Bailey deserved to be paid like the NFL's top cornerback. "We're gonna let the team dictate how talks go."
So the growth in Snyder that some NFL teams officials detect can't be confirmed until next offseason. And the Redskins have one of most daunting schedules in the NFL, with 10 opponents owning at least a .500 record last season.
Will Ramsey flourish or founder? Will the defense regress or repeat its solid play? Have the Redskins peaked again in the offseason despite the new approach?
There is only one certainty about the future: Daniel Snyder will be watching closely.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company