The Washington Times
Thursday, January 24, 2008

In his tour of NFL second-hand stores and used-coach lots, Dan Snyder has happened upon Jim Fassel. The former New York Giants boss, who was said to be finalizing a deal with Snyder last night, makes perfect sense as a replacement for Joe Gibbs — that is, as “perfect sense” is currently defined in Redskinsland.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s been a significant lowering of expectations in Ashburn. Not so long ago, coaches (e.g. Norv Turner) were fired in the middle of the season for the crime of being 7-6 — a year after winning the division, no less. Now, coaches (e.g. Joe Gibbs) are given ticker-tape parades for posting a 31-36 record and missing the playoffs as often as not. In education, it’s called grade inflation.

Snyder insists he’s pleased with where the team is — nine years after he hocked the silverware to buy it — and to back up that claim he has just given Vinny Cerrato the lofty title of executive vice president/football operations. This is obviously part of Dan the Man’s plan to maintain continuity in the organization after Coach Joe’s departure. But continuity is overrated when, despite vast expenditures of capital, you’re still below .500 as an owner (70-79) and just finished third in your division.

Some would say this is evidence of Snyder growing into his role, developing the patience necessary to succeed in the rock ‘em, sock ‘em NFL. It could also, however, be evidence of an owner who, after years of having his nose bloodied, is grateful just to make the playoffs and inclined to keep things status quo — to the extent that’s possible.

I’m partial to the latter interpretation. For starters, it explains Cerrato’s elevation from a low-profile Personnel Guy to the overseer of “all aspects of the team’s football organization, including … the roster, scouting and salary cap management.” If nothing else, Vinny has shown an ability to co-exist with hands-on Dan, a willingness to do his bidding. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of work in the ego-driven world of pro football.

Still, Cerrato’s exact contribution to the cause has always been something of a mystery. Clearly, Snyder and Gibbs made all the major calls the past few seasons. The best that could be said for Vinny, perhaps, is that the Redskins have generally guessed right when they’ve had high draft picks; LaVar Arrington, Chris Samuels, Sean Taylor and LaRon Landry all turned out to be Serious Players, though the jury is still out on Carlos Rogers. That ain’t bad, given how many busts there are at the top of the draft each year — expensive, cap-killing busts.

But now, it appears, more of the decision-making will be up to Vinny. His job won’t just be to “get the coach what he wants.” Stay tuned for the first thrilling episode of “Cerrato Unchained.”

Which brings us to Fassel. He definitely fits the Preferred Coaching Candidate model discussed in This Space last week. First of all, he has previous head coaching experience (seven seasons with the Giants), and second, he has led a club to the playoffs (three times, including a trip to the Super Bowl).

Also, Fassel has dealt with the New York media maelstrom — good preparation for the Redskins Madness he’d encounter here. Indeed, when The Washington Times’ Ryan O’Halloran asked him Sunday in Green Bay, where was he doing radio work, whether Snyder was wooing him, he unhesitatingly said no. So the man is already a Pro Bowl player at playing loose with the truth, which means he’d fit right in with the Langley-like culture of secrecy at the Park.

Fassel’s experience with the Giants, moreover, though it ended badly (4-12 in ‘03), was markedly better than Gregg Williams’ floundering with the Bills (17-31, no postseason appearances). That, no doubt, is one of the reasons Snyder zeroed in on him, despite the players’ support for their defensive boss.

And I’ve got no problem with that. Players don’t always know what’s best for them, anyway. Heck, if it were up to them, they’d put away the pads in September and just have walkthroughs the rest of the season. No, polling the delegation is not how you run a football team. Snyder was right to take his time with this hire, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with going outside the “Redskins family.” Clubs do it all the time.

What gives you pause about Fassel is his failed stint as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator from 2004 to mid-‘06, his last NFL post. Granted, anybody would have trouble trying to make chicken salad out of Kyle Boller (and a creaky Steve McNair), but it might explain why he wasn’t in contention for the other head jobs that came open this year.

Then, too, with a coach, there’s always the question of: How much of the success was due to him, and how much was due to the people around him (GM, assistants, players, etc.)? When Fassel went to the Super Bowl seven years ago, his offensive play-caller was Sean Payton and his defensive play-caller was John Fox. Fox, I’ll just remind you, guided the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his second season, and Payton took the Saints to the NFC title game in his first try.

Coaching searches are always a crapshoot, especially if, like Snyder, you haven’t grown up in the game. Dan’s last hire, the sainted Gibbs, was a no-brainer. This one carries a lot more risk. So you play the percentages, pick a former coach with a decent track record — rather than a rising-star assistant who’s an even bigger gamble — and hope for the best.

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