In Dan Snyder's world, this is the way business is conducted: Last July, a couple of days before the start of training camp, the Washington Redskins' imperious new owner summoned coach Norv Turner and new player personnel director Vinny Cerrato into his office. Snyder had just demoted general manager Charley Casserly to consultant, and now Turner—with input from Cerrato—would have final personnel authority over the Skins. So Snyder, the 34-year-old Boy Plunder, sat the two men down. "You two guys are joined at the hip," Snyder said. "If we lose, you're both fired."
The gall! The nerve! The reality of working for Snyder!
As he told this story last Saturday in his Redskin Park office, Snyder lit a Cohiba and tried to explain why he has come into this easy chair of a football team firing, quite literally, on all cylinders. Snyder looks accountant bookish, but he doesn't sound like a CPA. "In the world I come from there's pressure every minute to perform," said Snyder, the CEO of a billion-dollar marketing and Internet-service firm, Snyder Communications. "So on this team, those who don't want to play, like [waived tackle] Joe Pat-ton, we'll pack up all their s—-and throw it out in the parking lot."
It's likely that there was quite a lot of, er, stuff Snyder wanted to throw into the parking lot of soon-to-be FedEx Field around dusk on Sunday. ( Snyder is crossing the last few t's on a 27-year, $205.5 million contract—the most lucrative stadium-rights deal ever—to sell the name of Jack Kent Cooke Stadium to Federal Express.) Washington's state-of-the-art offense had had an off day against the Buffalo Bills, while the defense, the worst in the NFL, had stayed on its wayward course, letting a good but not great offense control the ball for 41 minutes. The only question after Buffalo's 34-17 win was this: Would the office keys of Washington defensive coordinator Mike Nolan still work on Monday?
The answer was yes, but the stiff-upper-lipped Nolan probably won't work for the Redskins much longer. Two months, tops. How Washington, now 5-3, fares the rest of this season will determine whether the rest of the coaching staff joins Nolan surfing nflemployment.com in January.
At the midpoint of Snyder's raucous first season on the job, the Redskins can point to three positives. First, they're tied for the NFC East lead. Second, their owner has effectively rattled their comfortable cage. "Before Snyder got here," says radio color man, local legend and buddy-of-the-boss Sonny Jurgensen, "this place was Club Med." Finally, Washington's off-season acquisition of quarterback Brad Johnson from the Minnesota Vikings has paid off handsomely. Johnson, the league's second-highest-rated quarterback, has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
But the vital hammer provided by Snyder and the first golden arm Turner has had since taking over the Redskins in 1994 can't cure what has ailed Washington since the best defensive mind in its history, Richie Petitbon, was fired as coach after the '93 season. The Skins can't play defense. That's strange to hear, given that Washington has a $57 million pair of defensive tackles, six starters who were first-round draft picks and a future star corner-back in rookie Champ Bailey. Nevertheless, it's rated last in the league in defense. Until the Redskins show they can stop someone, they're nothing more than pretenders in a wide-open race for the Super Bowl.
In 1997 Washington barely missed the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record, and the big reason was a soft interior defense that allowed 4.35 yards per rush. So before the '98 season, Casserly signed two expensive defensive tackles—Dana Stubblefield, who was coming off a monster year with the San Francisco 49ers, and Dan Wilkinson, who had been designated the Cincinnati Bengals' franchise player. Surely this 628 pounds of meat would plug the middle. Wrong. Since adding Stubblefield and Wilkinson, the Redskins have been last in the NFL against the run, allowing 4.54 yards per rush. The league average is almost a full yard less. It's no coincidence that during that span Washington is 1-10 against teams with winning records.
On Sunday, Stubblefield and Wilkinson continued to play like NFL Beanie Babies, combining for five tackles and no sacks on Buffalo's 72 offensive plays. "We did nothing special," Bills center Jerry Ostrowski said with a shrug after Buffalo ran for a season-high 204 yards. "They're good players. We usually double-teamed one and singled another, which isn't unusual for good tackles. Then we just ran the ball right at them."
The great Stubblefield-Wilkinson experiment is a colossal failure, even though Stubblefield doesn't see it that way. "No, no, oh no," he says. "We just need to do a better job on the cutback runs."