The 35-year-old owner, who insists upon being called Mr. Snyder by everyone, has instilled a measure of fear that players say wasn't there before he arrived. He often seems like a high school outcast who hasn't gotten over the rejection, and his frequent use of swear words and one-on-one meetings with players hasn't succeeded in making him one of the guys. But players certainly are hip to his obsession with winning. "Dan is not out of control; he's not the meddler that people make him out to be," insists Sanders, who was released by the Cowboys in June in a cost-cutting move. "He didn't do anything this off-season that Tampa Bay didn't do; he just brought in higher profile athletes. Shoot, everyone went shopping this off-season, even Dallas. It's just that Dan's shopping at Versace, and some teams are shopping at Wal-Mart."
To his credit, Snyder has taken steps to make players feel that they're in the loop. Last February he asked wideout Irving Fryar, a 17-year veteran, to help him scout rookies at the NFL combine. Before making a play for Sanders, who seized the starting job of 18-year veteran Darrell Green, Snyder not only rewarded Green with a contract extension but also persuaded the revered seven-time Pro Bowl player to recruit Sanders, who gives Washington its first true superstar in years.
If Green, the erstwhile locker room leader, has been reduced to playing the role of elder statesman, it may fall on Sanders to establish the team's temperament. Despite his much-publicized embrace of born-again Christianity in recent years, Prime Time insists he is his usual, flamboyant self. "Only my dance partner has changed," he says. "I'm dancing with Jesus now, instead of dancing with myself."
Slowed by a toe injury for the past two seasons, Sanders bristles at the notion that his physical skills have eroded. "Instead of listening to the experts," he says, "you should ask the receivers I play against if I've dropped off." He has become a mentor to fellow cornerback Champ Bailey, a 6'1", 184-pound second-year standout who, Sanders says, "can become the best corner in the game. He just needs to bulk up a little. The other day I told him he was built like Ally McBeal."
In a rare stroke of humility, Sanders said Rhodes, who was fired as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and then the Green Bay Packers after the last two seasons, "was the Redskins' biggest acquisition of the offseason." Rhodes's player-friendly demeanor and aggressive coaching style have energized a unit that, in Smith, Sanders and tackle Dana Stubblefield, features three starters who have been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "New coaches, new scheme, new players—it's like a whole new world," says defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson.
Offensively, the Skins march to the steady, pounding beat of Davis, their fifth-year back who last Saturday signed a reported nine-year, $90 million contract extension that, in this era of salary-cap massaging, is actually a three-year, $15.75 million deal. Until last season, when he won the starting job in training camp and ran for an NFC-best 1,405 yards, Davis was known mostly for being the guy on the wrong end of a sucker punch thrown by teammate Michael Westbrook during a 1996 practice. "He hit me, and I hit the ground," Davis says of the incident, which was captured on videotape. "That was the hardest I've ever been punched."
Davis and Westbrook, a wideout who caught five passes for 53 yards on Sunday, have repaired their relationship, though others won't let the memory fade. Davis, a stickler for fair play on and off the field, says fans and opposing players frequently try to bait him about the incident, "but I put up a wall, because I'm trying to help clean up the NFL's bad-boy image." Early in an Aug. 19 preseason victory at Cleveland, Davis says, Browns linebacker Wali Rainer referred to Westbrook's punch during an on-field staredown. "The guy was pulling me down by my neck, and I got up and said, 'Hey, man, I'm not with all that,' " Davis recalls. "So the guy says, 'Then how you gonna let Michael Westbrook whup your ass like that?' I stepped forward and said, 'You do it, then.' The cool thing was that Mike heard it and got mad, so the two of us were in his face together."
Westbrook, who earned teammates' respect last season by playing with a broken left wrist, doesn't buy the notion that Snyder's win-now-or-else mentality has placed undue stress on the players. "What pressure?" Westbrook asks. "Dan's mentality is the same as ours. The pressure's not on us; it's on the coaches."
Indeed, the Skins are so loaded that they're expected to win big, and guess who'll get the heave-ho if they don't? That might help explain why Turner, his team trailing 10-7 and facing a fourth-and-four at the Carolina 35 midway through the second quarter, elected to go for it—and watched in frustration as defensive tackle Eric Swann's bull rush forced Johnson to dump a pass to fullback Larry Centers, who was dropped for a one-yard loss.
It's too early to tell whether Snyder's middle initial stands for meddlesome, but there's little doubt that if Washington struggles early, there will be talk of George replacing Johnson, perhaps even of Rhodes taking over as coach. Yet Turner seems unperturbed by the situation, and the Redskins, with all their weapons, might well work through their kinks and build a unit worthy of its hype. "In your opening game there are things you're not ready to handle," Turner said on Sunday afternoon, just before hitting the showers. "The key is fixing those things and winning as you go along."