Oct. 15, 2019
Reign Of Error: The Daniel Snyder Era of Washington Redskins Football (1999-2018)
There is one word that best describes the legacy of the Washington Redskins: Complicated. The Redskins are a signature franchise of the National Football League, with a fervent of dedicated fan base that has spanned almost eight decades. Their great players, both for their on field exploits and colorful characters, are sprinkled through NFL lore. And while founder George Preston Marshall was an influential presence in the league's early years, his prejudice against African Americans would mar his legacy after his death in 1968. The Redskins nickname has been under fire for many years as it is viewed as racially offensive to Native Americans, and has remained in place while teams in other sports have changed their respective nicknames in response to that affront.
This complicated legacy is now in the hands of Daniel Snyder, the founder of a broad based marketing firm, who purchased the franchise in 1999 for a then record $800 million. The 2008 season concluded his 20th year as the steward of the Washington franchise. What has occurred in the past two decades has been a lackluster performance on the field and petty intrusiveness off of it.
To put these past twenty years of Washington Redskins football into perspective in the Snyder era, we shall look back upon the twenty years prior to Snyder's purchase to shed light on what this sizeable and passionate fan base had come to expect once a new owner took the helm of the Burgundy and Gold ship.
1979-1998: The Redskins Golden Era In all fairness, the Jack Kent Cooke era was going to be a tough act to follow regardless of who would have purchased the Redskins at the turn of the century. Cooke was Washington's majority stockholder since Marshall's passing but abdicated his role of controlling owner until 1974, then became sole owner in 1985. Two key hires would become the foundation for the Redskins for those coming years; Miami Dolphins director of player personnel Bobby Beathard would be named general manager in 1978 and San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs would be tapped to be head coach in 1981. This brain trust would lead to Washington's zenith as a franchise, winning 2 Super Bowls and 3 NFC Championships under Beathard and Gibbs winning a third Lombardi Trophy in 1991 with Charley Casserly as GM. Their 176-135-1 regular season record in this twenty year span ranks fifth amongst all NFL teams in the same time frame, with only San Francisco (215-96-1), Denver (191-120-1), Miami (190-122), and Dallas (183-129) above them. A significant number of Redskin greats (WR Gary Clark, DE Charles Mann, DE Dexter Manley) and Hall of Famers (RB John Riggins, WR Art Monk, CB Darrell Green) were fixtures on those rosters. Gibbs would carve his own legacy in unique ways, as his offensive line was dubbed "The Hogs" for that unit's unavoidable tendency to "root around in the mud", And Gibbs would be the only head coach to win Super Bowls on the same team with different quarterbacks (Joe Theismann in 1982, Doug Williams in 1987, & Mark Rypien in 1991). The stability of the organization would manifest itself into the on field product during Gibbs' tenure, but once he retired in 1992 to focus on NASCAR race car ownership, it would be the end of the good times, as both Gibbs' hand picked successor in Ritchie Pettibon and his replacement one year later in Norv Turner would struggle in Gibbs' long shadow. By only having two general managers (Beathard and Casserly) and four head coaches (Jack Pardee, Gibbs, Ritchie Pettibon, & Turner), this gave Redskins a level of continuity that would keep them competitive as they would come down some after their successful run in the 1980's. Unfortunately, Cooke would not see a return to glory, as he would pass away on 6 April 1997 at the age of 84. As was stated in his will, the Redskins would transferred to his foundation to be sold. Despite the fact that his son John Kent Cooke put up a bid to retain familial ownership, the Redskins were purchased by a group spearheaded by Snyder, buying both the Washington Redskins and the two year old Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now known as FedEx Field) for $800 million. This was a record deal, but it was almost irresistible taking the stadium ownership into account. While many stadiums are owned by municipalities and separate entities therein where leases are enacted, thus cutting into team revenue, Snyder would see all those revenues land on his balance sheet instead. From a business standpoint, it was a wonderful deal for Snyder and his investors. How it would play out would another story altogether.
1999-2018: The Snyder Era On The Field When it comes down to what any fan base wants, it can be summed up in one words: wins. And over this particular two decade span, that has been considerably inconsistent, to be polite. Their regular season mark from 1999 to 2018 is 139-180-1. This puts the Redskins tied for 25th in the league, right there with the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners' 2012 NFC Championship aside, that is a franchise whose fall from grace were equal parts precipitous and stubborn. Over this time frame, the Redskins won their division three times (1999, 2012, & 2015), have earned playoff berths five times, and never advancing past the divisional round. They are among three NFC teams that have not played in a conference championship game in over 23 years, the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions being the others. Washington has posted 14 non-winning seasons in the Snyder era. In contrast, under previous owners, it was a 35 year span (1964-1998) that eclipsed for the Redskins to turn in 14 non-winning seasons. In this era of the NFL, coaches who don't produce are given the hook, and this franchise is right in line with that trend, as Snyder is on his seventh coach in his second decade. After inheriting Turner, this team has used Marty Schottenheimer for one year, brought in the brash college coach Steve Spurrier (who lasted all of two seasons), brought back Gibbs for a four year run that was no where near as successful as his first, hired Jim Zorn when the job lost all of its appeal (and muddled through two campaigns), brought in Mike Shanahan after a short layoff after his 15 year run in Denver (and had a controversial four years tenure that laid bare the organizational dysfunction once he was fired), and hired Jay Gruden for what will be his sixth season at the helm (where he finds himself on the hot seat, even despite the fact that injuries, not coaching ineffectiveness, derailed a promising 2018 season). When it comes down to brass tacks, there is only one conclusion to draw upon Snyder's first 20 years as the Redskins owner: he has been a failure. The team's struggles over this time frame are akin to their times in the wilderness in the 1950's and 60's, where they did not win a conference or divisional championship, which meant they never played a down of playoff football in that time. This is a fan base that has grown accustomed to remaining competitive, even in periods of transition. Needless to say, the Redskin faithful is restless with Snyder's track record. What has those same fans in revolt is what has occurred behind the scenes.
The Snyder Era Off The Field
Fans of most stripes are willing to give ownership the benefit of the doubt if they collectively feel that the effort in team building is being done in good faith. However, Snyder's motives and actions suggest otherwise. Here are just a few instances of how this billionaire has dealt with people even loosely associated with his franchise (H/t to Washington CityPaper for their unabashed coverage of all things Washington Redskins):
In 1999, Snyder expressed his displeasure with the Redskins' defensive play calling under then coordinator Mike Nolan by first placing a gallon of vanilla ice cream on Nolan's desk. A few weeks later, Nolan's desk was covered with 3 five gallon drums of the frozen dessert, with an accompanying note regarding the 'Skins defense: "I wasn't joking. I do not like vanilla."
Snyder has no qualms in sliding huge checks to players who he believes that can make a difference. But his direct involvement in the negotiating process has routinely left his chief executive in charge of personnel froze out. As a result, this has made the Redskins an outright laughingstock when it comes to free agent busts. Be it picking up players in the twilight of their careers, signing those who don't fit the current scheme regardless on which side of the ball they play, or acquiring those who would ultimately show Snyder was sold a bill of goods, Washington has been burnt in free agency numerous times.
Toward that end, the Robert Griffin III saga showed what could happen when the front office and the head coach are in two different books, much less the same page in one. The Redskins spent a veritable king's random to the St Louis Rams to move up in the 2012 draft to select Griffin. What Snyder saw was talent on the field, as Griffin was a Heisman Trophy winner as a junior with Baylor University, and a charismatic personality off the field that could make him not only the face of the Redskins franchise, but a cornerstone personality of the NFL. Griffin's rookie season was electric: He led Washington to its first division title in 13 years, Griffin would be named the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he would named to the Pro Bowl. But in a late season game against the Baltimore Ravens, he would suffer a sprained knee. He missed one game, came back to close out the regular season and start in the wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks. In that game, Griffin would exacerbate that knee injury, to the point where he would tear his ACL. When Griffin returned to the field to open the 2013 campaign, his performance regressed greatly. While not evident at the time, head coach Mike Shanahan was never behind Griffin so much so that Shanahan was able to convince executive vice president Bruce Allen to draft Kirk Cousins out of Michigan State in the fourth round. This tension between the proven head coach and the anointed future star of the franchise would come to a head in training camp in 2013, as it was made clear that Griffin would start if physically able. While blame on the collapse of Griffin's once promising pro football career should be shouldered by the player, the dysfunction between coach and owner has done a disservice to the Redskins over Snyder's reign. That has translated into every coach who has worked under Snyder leaving with a losing record (exception noted for Schottenheimer's lone 8-8 season).
The NFL and its franchises are like any other business: they are always looking to improve the bottom line. Snyder has been unabashed in his efforts toward that end. The Washington Redskins were the first team to charge an admission fee for fans to watch the team's training camp. While $10 may not be a bank breaker, it was still considered galling for the Redskins faithful to pay entry to watch camp when every other team does not. In 2005, the Redskins had a season ticket list that allegedly reached into the thousands (While that may have been the case at this time, the season ticket list became a debunked myth in 2018). But for the sum of $100,000, one could jump up the list past many who had been waiting for years to procure those prized duckets. While there has been some skepticism about the existence and/or length of said waiting list, this was another potential revenue stream for Snyder's Redskins. Yet another area to generate money was FedEx Field itself. When Jack Kent Cooke Stadium was built in 1997, its seating capacity was a little over 80,000 and considered a gem with its spacious field and seating areas. That open space was targeted, as seating expansions would be built four times; in 2000 to increase capacity to over 85,000, another 1,000 added in 2001, 2004 would push it to 91,665, & the highest capacity was reached in 2009 at 91,704. While Washington would set season attendance records through the mid-2000's and early 2010's, seating capacity would contract in 2011 and 2012 before another expansion to reach the current capacity of 82,000. This tinkering with the stadium is a microcosm of how Snyder works with this franchise: anything to draw revenue, even if it harms the image of the team.
This is not to say he isn't image conscious when it comes to his franchise. From 2006 to 2018, he was the primary investor in Red Zebra Broadcasting, which owned a number of sports talk radio stations that covered Washington DC pro sports and broadcast ESPN Radio weekday programming. Due to instances of direct actions against hosts and guests critical of the Redskins organization, the group of stations were nicknamed "Dan-Jazeera".
But then again, if he is concerned with the image of him or his club, that makes his intrasiegence over the Redskins nickname more curious. While a nickname change would give him the opportunity to reap the benefits of selling merchandise to his beleaguered fan base, he has made it abundantly clear that the Redskins name will stay in place as long as he remains owner. And seeing the fact that Snyder is 54 years old as of this post, that looks to be for a long time.
The Future For The Redskins
Billionaires tend to be driven people that are very self confident yet egotistical, under the erroneous belief that they can become successful in any venture just by force of will. Daniel Marc Snyder, in fairness to him, deep down wants the Washington Redskins to be a success both on the field and at the box office. Like in the business world, the NFL is about results. And the results during his two decade rule over one of the NFL's storied franchises has been lackluster. His direct involvement in football affairs have translated into a litany of players who have left the District of Columbia with their careers and professional football legacies damaged, coaches being turned out prematurely, and the resulting subpar campaigns wearing on loyal fans. While few may resent NFL owners for trying to find new revenue streams to increase profits, Snyder's scorched earth tactics to squeeze every red cent out of every Redskin fanatical devotee only increases the anger and frustration of that now decaying base. Snyder's inconsistency regarding the public image of him and his franchise is puzzling. For over twelve years, Snyder removed those critical of the Redskins off the airways, but is unwilling to budge on the notion that the the nickname of his NFL team is deemed offensive in some circles to the point that he has publicly pushed toward no action for the foreseeable future.
Can he learn from these events and improve everything Washington Redskins? Being only 54, he has not only many years ahead of him as the ultimate authority of Washington football, he is relatively younger than his NFL ownership peers, which offers the hope that he can change. But his reputation is in tatters. He will need to do a lot to get back into the good graces of his cynical fan base. But as fans, most believe that hope springs eternal; that's why we all watch come every September. It's never too late.