The Washington Redskins are back where they always are every few years, with the ugly and bitter end of one coaching regime not quite expired, with a quarterback controversy -- whether real or contrived -- swirling, and dysfunction beset upon Redskins Park.
You can change the names, but the story remains the same.
There's another struggle for power and money and control, driven by ego, and the nasty end games that are so common for this franchise are taking it to new lows. The public stare-down between coach Mike Shanahan and owner Dan Snyder is, even by Redskins' standards, bizarre theater, and now the shrapnel is ripping throughout the locker room, with once-sterling franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III the most obvious casualty, and Skins fans again left to parse the half-truths within the lies and leaks that litter the collapse of an organization.
But as much as the various parties will try to, anonymously, convey a narrative of a good guy and a bad guy -- of a coach unfairly oppressed and undermined from above; of an owner who is simply misunderstood -- the fact is there is ample blame to go around with all three of the central figures: Snyder, Shanahan and Griffin. All made missteps and, in their own way, hastened this freefall to the point where there is almost nothing left to salvage from these four seasons with Griffin deemed inactive for the rest of the season, and Kirk Cousins the starter in Shanahan's most overt attempt to goad Snyder into firing him and paying him the nearly $9 million owed to him and his son, Kyle, the offensive coordinator, for 2014.
And while fans and the media try to sort out the blame game, with the team's infrastructure frayed and exposed, keep this in mind: No matter how he tries to spin it, Mike Shanahan had total control of this franchise. He demanded as much, and he has final say over everything remotely related to football operations this team has done since he arrived in 2010 (and, frankly, even before then, with Snyder's lust to hire Shanahan well known in NFL circles while Jim Zorn was still coaching the team, and the 2009 in-season arrival of "general manager" Bruce Allen all part of that master plan). Allen carries the title, nominally, but Shanahan has authority over the 53-man roster and the game-day roster and any move the team makes. Allen works for him.
Shanahan got it all his way
Shanahan got his $35 million and he got total control and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Everyone in that building knows that Mike has total control," said one former member of the organization. "That was never in doubt. That's never been in doubt. Mike is in charge. He runs that building. He has final say on everything. Dan Snyder isn't sitting in on personnel meetings. Mike tells Dan what he wants to tell Dan. Dan's not picking the quarterback. Mike got it all. He put together the staff, he got all the money, he set his son up."
Shanahan got the keys to the franchise, and if he happened to bounce it off Albert Haynesworth's belly and right through Donovan McNabb's aging lungs (lacking in cardio-vascular endurance, if you recall) and over Griffin's surgically repaired knee and plow it into a 24-37 ditch, spotted with dubious trades and busted draft picks and a roster still full of holes, make no mistake, he was at the wheel the entire time, with Kyle riding shotgun.
So with the franchise now flipped over on the side of the road with the tires spinning wildly in the air and glass shattered everywhere, he and his son are scampering off into the woods, unscathed, as if there is nothing to see here from a joyride gone adrift; they'd have you believe it was those pesky kids making a racket in the backseat -- Snyder and his pet RG3 -- who were primarily responsible for this wreck.
Sorry folks, it's hardly that simple. It never is.
Shanahan is a calculated, Machiavellian, micromanaging, demanding, autocratic football demagogue who came to Washington to make his case for enshrinement in Canton and establish his son as a future NFL head coach. This isn't some football rube who got to Washington and was shocked to suddenly find out that Snyder can be a difficult boss who gets too cozy with players. That Shanahan was somehow the one guy who didn't realize that Redskins Park tends to get tainted by a star culture is impossible to believe. He had to know what he was getting into. The reality is, Shanahan has had Snyder at arm's length far more than any of his predecessors. By Snyder's historical standards, this is as good as it gets.
"He knew what he was getting in to," said one NFL executive who has dealt with the Snyder/Shanahan regime with some frequency. "When you make $35 million, that's part of the hazard pay. If anything, it sounds like now, with it over, Shanahan is using Snyder's reputation against him, but we never got the sense he was dealing with a meddling, overbearing owner."
Remember, when Shanahan swooped in to save the team, Snyder was at a nadir. After being turned down repeatedly by coaching candidates to the point where he ended up hiring Zorn, he was now trying to run him off and needed of a big name to sell to his fan base and lure them back to FedEx Field and one of the worst game-day experiences in the NFL. Snyder was figuratively, if not literally, on his knees, and having already been spurned by other top coaches in the past, Shanahan had all the leverage. He would get whatever he wanted, and so he did.
Shanahan had a plan
Shanahan sat out an entire 2009 season to study the league and do his homework and decided where he wanted to re-launch his career after being sacked by Denver. Though his personnel record was beyond checkered, he would run football operations. And while his forays on the defensive side of the ball have been ill-advised, he mandated the team transition to a 3-4 defense. In his own way, he was beyond prepared.
If somehow, he didn't already know or happen to stumble upon the fact that Snyder can't help falling hard for certain players (Bruce Smith, Jeff George, LaVar Arrington, Clinton Portis, who Shanahan himself traded to Washington), causing for complicated locker room dynamics and awkward conversations with coaches, he'd have to be a fool. And Shanahan got ironclad language in his deal giving him control over the roster, so even if Snyder wanted to placate his new favorite player, he was essentially blocked. After all, the offensive coordinator was the coach's son.
And if Snyder was indeed meddling -- and violating Shanahan's contract by trying to force him to make trades and start certain players -- you can bet it would have taken well before Shanahan's 60th game at the helm before it starting trickling out from his buddies in the media. He would have been on the phone with his lawyer and collected his money and bolted out of town carrying the loot long ago.
If he didn't want McNabb, upon arriving in 2010, the trade would not have happened. Period.
Do you think it was Snyder, stopwatch around his neck, a binder full of stats in one hand and a cattle prod in the other, in a backroom at Redskins Park demanding that Shanahan say he'd stake "his reputation" on the clearly-flawed duo of quarterbacks John Beck and Rex Grossman in 2011? Please. This is an offensive guru we're talking about. He's calling the shots, everywhere, and especially at quarterback. (And revisit his past with Jake Plummer if you want to see another cautionary tale of Shanahan and a quarterback who might actually dare to have a voice in an offense).
And, likewise, if Shanahan wasn't comfortable with trading two future first-round picks and a second-round pick to move up a few spots to take RG3, you think it would have happened? Sure, it is exactly the kind of wild gamble Snyder has always been attracted to -- with it usually blowing up in his face of course. But it does not happen without Shanahan being on board. As the events of the past week have shown, if Shanahan wanted to force a showdown with his owner and try to force his firing over that franchise-altering decision, he knows how to do it.
Do you think it was Snyder who urged Shanahan to make his son the offensive coordinator and suggested he only surround him by unproven or unqualified assistants on what has been one of the weakest staffs in the NFL throughout Shanahan's tenure? Do you think Snyder thought it was a great idea to bring in longtime Shanahan sidekick Bob Slowick on defense and then bring his son in too, barely out of college? Because we all know Shanahan has total control of that staff, and his fingerprints and, frankly, DNA, is all over it.
"Snyder has been out of the way, TOTALLY," as one member of the organization put it to me, emphatically.
Do you think Snyder was behind all the draft picks on offensive linemen who never even see the field, while the unit on the field has barely been serviceable during Shanahan's tenure? The salary-cap penalties Shanahan has cried about as a reason for his failures? Those restructurings happened on his watch. Do you think while RG3 was getting concussed and battered and thrown around a field not fit for a high school team last season, during Washington's miracle run to a division title, Snyder was on the sidelines, making every call in game, running the kid into the ground? Or was it Shanahan?
When the team was 3-6 in 2012 -- before anyone figured RG3 was about to lift them to the postseason and, in the process, save Shanahan's job and end up getting two-year extensions for his assistants -- was it Snyder at the postgame press conference who said: "You lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come. I'll get a chance to evaluate players and see where we're at."
And while Shanahan tried to put that genie back in the bottle the next day, his words stunned his assistants and others in the organization, then, as it still does now, and sounded an awful lot like a guy waving the white flag on Nov. 4. And, in the context of Shanahan repeatedly refusing to refute a story claiming he nearly quit last December, it certainly bears mulling anew.
And it's funny, but this time last year, I didn't hear anyone complaining about Snyder's love of all things RG3. That didn't seem to be a problem. Then suddenly, with Shanahan's job security back in question and pressure again growing to replace his son as offensive coordinator and with Griffin struggling and the team still unable to protect him, then we get the stories of how the owner and his prized asset are bringing down the franchise, Shanahan included. RG3 can't be coached, apparently now. He's too much of a diva. And so we get yet another he-said/he-said between Shanahan and a prominent quarterback.
RG3 had a reputation
Here's the thing: Griffin has always been a diva. He was going to bring some unusual family baggage. It was well known in scouting circles at the combine before his draft, chatter about his father being a "tennis dad" and tales of Griffin's mom staying at the team hotel for bowl games and being in meetings. Regardless of how much of it is true, or just the pre-draft fiction that gets concocted every winter, it was all out there, swirling. So if you thought this kid -- already a media darling as a Heisman winner -- was going to be low-maintenance at the next level, you're beyond naive.
No one, not even Shanahan, could have spent that much time researching this massive trade and draft pick selection, and come away thinking that Griffin was going to be a silent, thoughtless, blank slate -- a human joy stick the Shanahans could control from the sidelines. If you somehow allowed yourself to think you were drafting a fully programmable, system guy -- the kind they covet a la Beck and Grossman -- who would just be so thankful to you for allowing them to be in the league and study under your masterful guide that they would hand over mind, body and soul and never raise a complaint, then shame on you. If you didn't know he came with an inner circle that might prove difficult to control, you're a fool.
And saying all that, Griffin too, certainly has a role in all of this.
He needs to learn when to bite his tongue and when to defer more readily and more publicly to his coach, and at some point he needs to reel in his dad and mom and anyone else prone to making statements that could cause friction with the staff. He needs to seem a little more a part of the team construct -- which comes with maturity -- and tone down the marketing campaigns with messages that might run counter to what's in the best interest of him long-term as well. The time for him to have too great a voice in the offense being run, as well, is probably best earned over more than one year at the helm.
He needs to grow up, and, at 23, and a kid caught up in a game of chicken between a multimillionaire and a billionaire, I dare say he's far and away the least at fault here. He doesn't have much of a body of work and his professional experience pales in comparison to the adults pulling the strings above him. And, according to several members of the organization, the level of support and mentorship and guidance he has received from the coaching staff has been starkly lacking. These men describe a fractured relationship between RG3 and the Shanahans, Kyle in particular.
"Robert got the assistant coaches extensions (in 2012) and now that he blew his knee out and quite naturally can't be Superman, they treat and handle him like he's Pat White," one member of the organization said. "Why start a war with a guy who isn't going anywhere and got us from 3-6 to 10-6? They would have been gone last year if not for Robert, but they want all the credit."
Kyle Shanahan, according to numerous team sources, is viewed with scorn from varied members of the staff and organization, has been described as "a spoiled brat," and one staff member put it: "He treats and disrespects Robert like he's a JV QB." It's also worth noting that when the assistants got their extensions after the 2012 season, a team source said Kyle Shanahan received the biggest bumps and is scheduled to earn $1.5M in 2014.
As for Snyder, I've been plenty critical of him over time (I covered the Redskins for the Washington Post during the Gibbs/Snyder era), and for good reason, but this probably was the closest he came yet to setting up a traditional organizational model and staying as far out of the way as possible. He still lacked a GM with any real power, however, which has almost always been the case (for years Snyder could essentially run the team however he wished through beleaguered personnel executive Vinny Cerrato, who was fired to bring in Allen, and then Shanahan).
But Snyder still fell prey in having a coach with far too much power, and one overseeing an area of personnel far beyond his domain (as he did with Joe Gibbs in control). He once again allowed cronyism and nepotism to poison his building (as was the case with Gibbs, putting his band of assistants back together, many well past their prime, and trying to get his son, Coy, established in the NFL). Snyder still can't help wanting to be close to his stars. He still can't hire the right guy. He is to blame when his franchise is worth more than a billion, his wealth is extreme and he let's his field of play deteriorate to the point where it's an open invitation for players to tear their ACLs, Griffin in particular.
He is still paying for all the misdeeds of the past -- he has made himself an easy mark after the fallouts with Marty Schottenheimer and Steve Spurrier -- and that perception will again likely limit the scope of candidates truly drawn to this job for anything other than, well, money and trying to set their kids and buddies up for life.
So maybe this time Snyder will truly try to find the best talent evaluator he can possibly find, start with that, and let that GM build a staff. Not a coach who has control of the roster, but the best GM prospect you can get. In the past, some of those budding stars -- guys like Seattle's rock star GM John Schneider or Ravens lauded GM-in-waiting Eric DeCosta -- were already right in Snyder's building as interns or execs, but were caught up in the constant churn of regime changes and power struggles.
Work with that new talent evaluator to find a coach who shares enough philosophically to coexist, but isn't so chummy as the defeat the purpose of maintaining balance among your decision makers. The GM controls the 53-roster and the coach sets the depth chart and decides who plays, and the style they play and how much they play. It hasn't worked any other way Snyder has tried it, and the Redskins haven't even come close to being a franchise that sustains winning and competes for the playoffs even two years in a row.
For the first time, empower a personnel man to chart the course for the future and a plan for long-term success, and find a tactician to best utilize those assets come Sunday. Start the process there, and perhaps finally it will end with something other the ignoble December press conferences that garner more attention than the games your team actually plays.