At the press conference in Ashburn, Virginia back in January announcing Joe Gibbs’ second retirement from the Redskins, a positive tone was to be expected from those standing at the podium. The men spoke into a solitary microphone with a Redskins logo, as if to hammer home the fact that there would only be one version of the truth at this practice facility. Just in front of the podium, two well-behaved 20-something’s sat silent next to a nearly identical 16-year old. Joe Gibbs’ grandbabies? Not hardly. The three Lombardi trophies from Gibbs 1.0 served as a reminder of what once was.
Yes, there was a lot to be proud of during the adversity-filled 2007 season, particularly the way the team played at the end of the year. Gibbs’ second tenure included two playoff runs and the team was often more competitive than teams fielded by some of his recent predecessors. But the way he and owner Daniel Snyder talked on that winter day, one might have thought the Redskins were a bounce or two away from a dynastic run at three more trophies. As the offseason wore on, the spin got out of control, and much of the truth was swept under the rug or outright hidden, at least publicly.
At the retirement presser, the HOF coach stated that the team had “a lot of pieces in place.” He talked about future championships as if they were right around the corner and let on that “I personally want to be a part of that. I want to see it finished. … Our fans deserve championships. I want to be a part of seeing that come to fruition.” The man who brought Gibbs out of retirement with $28.5 million in compensation for five years as head coach & team president thanked Coach Joe for “putting us in great position for the future” and doing a “great job of stabilizing a situation that became unstable before, quite frankly.”
Just two weeks later, Snyder promoted his right-hand man and racquetball partner Vinny Cerrato to the role of Executive VP of Football Operations, explaining in a press release that the appointment formalized “the structure the team has operated under in recent years, and is recognition of the valuable role Vinny has played this season.” In the same release, Gibbs said “today’s Washington Redskins roster is a testament to Vinny and the personnel department being an integral part of our team structure in identifying players, whether acquired in free agency, the draft or on sometimes very short notice as we made our way through the season.” Snyder continued the lovefest, insisting “the team’s executive ranks are solid with Vinny at the head of the football operation.”
Next came the debacle of a coaching search, in which the dynamic duo first overspent on the OC position to lure away a position coach who initially turned them down while trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a guaranteed promotion through the Holmgren-to-Mora transition in Seattle. Jim Zorn was of course later promoted to HC, after what Snyder called “a full search” that yielded “the right guy.” That search also included favoring re-tread & former divisional rival Jim Fassel – only to go in a different direction after negative fan reaction – and again overspending at the DC spot to bring Greg Blache out of what looked to be sure retirement. For more insight into the details, check out a great blog entry by the Post’s Jason LaConfora from back in February.
While many were questioning the hire, others around the team were talking about the shift in philosophy that was supposedly taking place at Redskin Park. Had Snyder harkened back to the Cooke/Bethard hire of Gibbs 1.0 in 1981 in his gamble on the unproven Zorn? Had he learned from the big names that failed and/or were run out of town between Gibbs 1.0 and 2.0? Espn.com columnist Pat Yasinskas suggested “maybe it’s best to have an unknown coach who gets along with the owner and the guy who runs the front office than a big-name coach who doesn’t” and “for the first time in Snyder’s tenure, it seems like the Redskins have a brain trust that’s firmly on the same page.” Maybe, just maybe, “Snyder has learned from his past mistakes.” Then again, this columnist also went on to call the defense “already good” and tout “lots of talent” that resides on the offensive side of the ball. Maybe that last name (Yasinskas) is a clever rearranging of “SAY A SKINS” and really a pseudonym for The Danny?
As the draft approached, the team’s nine picks and relative inactivity in free agency over the past two offseasons were making national headlines. Clearly the braintrust had given up on the rotisserie/Yankees approach and were taking a page from Scott Peoli’s book, right? In March, Cerrato insisted that entering this offseason the Redskins “weren’t in a position where we were in dire need, like we have been in the past, when we needed a starter.” AP beat man Joe White wrote in late April that “after four Joe Gibbs years in which the draft was a mere postscript to an aggressive period of free agency, the Redskins will have a flock of Saturday and Sunday selections for the first time since 2002. The team that couldn’t wait to empty its pockets and traded draft picks like cards is conducting this offseason the old-fashioned way, emphasizing the talent in the college pool instead of high-risk acquisitions.” Just two days after the draft, well-respected football insider and on-again, off-again male model John Clayton wrote in his blog that “after years of trying to build their team through free agency and trade, the Redskins seem to have switched their philosophy.”
Consider the two quotes below… If the names are removed, they might seem appropriate coming from the front office in Foxboro, Indianapolis, or perhaps even Dallas, San Diego, or East Rutherford. Instead, they were attributed to a third-place 9-7 squad, by the men in charge of running it.
Vinny, mid-April: “We like our team… We have good players, and they’re good people, so we feel like we’re in good shape.”
Danny, in the pre-draft presser: “We didn’t have a big free agent list to go after this year. We felt that when you grade [free agents] you also grade against your own players. We felt that as a club we were stronger than many of them.”
After the draft, a casual observer seeing & hearing the Ashburn spin machine might have thought the Redskins “won” the two-day affair by outperforming the other 31 teams thanks to a genius strategy. Cerrato explained that the drafting of pass-catchers with the three top picks was a result of his ‘best player available’ modus operandi. Some might have found the three selections in sum surprising, given the money invested and purported talent already in place at WR and TE, but according to Cerrato that is really irrelevant. “We’ve always said we’re always going to take the best player when that pick comes around. Everybody says that. We mean it when we say it. We’re going to take the best player on the board.” The analysis on the team site sounded as if Cerrato was being nominated for enshrinement into Canton based on the two-day haul. “Reporter” Gary Fitzgerald was already projecting big impacts next year. The two new receivers “solidifies the Redskins’ wide receiver corps in the short and long term” and the new tight end “adds another blocker for Clinton Portis and the Redskins’ ground game” while also helping to “spread out defenses, opening up routes for wide receivers downfield.” Even Charlie Casserly – the team’s former GM and one of Snyder’s first oustings upon purchasing the team – had a positive spin, saying “they did a nice job of trading back. They stuck with the board. Congratulations to the Redskins.”
To be continued…