Giddy as any Dallas fan, looking ahead to 2010 I watch the changing face of our division which was accelerated on Black Monday with the firing of Jim Zorn in DC. During the 2009 season I'm sure many of you as I did identified the Zorn situation as the main chink in the Skins' armor. Zorn was an offensive expert who was out of his depth at the head coaching position. Daniel Snyder maligned him for many of the flaws in a team that he and Vinny Cerrato put together from the beginning. The decision to strip him of offensive play calling duties was a half measure that in the end only prolonged Zorn's suffering and killed Washington's season. Indeed, the head coach was seen as such a sure candidate to be axed early in September that Snyder would have done both sides a favor had he fired Zorn after the 14-6 embarrassment against Kansas City. But as most commentators have already stated, Jim Zorn was far from being the only culprit in his undoing. It's worth it to scope the other factors that lead to the 4-12 season, from team ownership to the players.
Snyder and Cerrato
In the 2009 offseason Vinny Cerrato seemingly accomplished the task of bolstering the Washington defense. He signed ex-Tennessee right tackle Albert Haynesworth who made a monumental $7.25 million this season and in 2008 had acquired former Falcon and Raider DeAngelo Hall, who this season made over $8 million. What Cerrato failed to do was to reinforce Washington's crumbling O-line. Skins QBs Jason Campbell and Todd Collins suffered between them 46 sacks on the season, to tie Buffalo for fourth in the league behind Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Oakland. With 94.3 rushing yards per game Washington was sixth from the bottom in the whole NFL, although this area could be blamed on the musical chairs of injured RBs like Clinton Portis. It's becoming increasingly clear that Portis cannot b e leaned on by new Skins GM Bruce Allen to anchor the running game; he simply is injury prone having played two seasons with Washington in which he's played only eight games.
The midseason decision to strip Zorn of offensive playcalling was the kiss of death for him. If as an offensive specialist Zorn had no authority on offense, what role could he essentially play on the sideline? During the Week 15 loss to New York in Washington, ESPN commentators Ron Jaworski, Mike Tirico, and John Gruden remarked how insanely complicated the playcalling was after Zorn's demotion: Offensive plays were relayed through Offensive Coordinator Sherman Smith and Offensive "Consultant" Sherman Lewis, depending on whether it would be a run or pass play. It doesn't seem far-fetched to speculate that Zorn's decision to run a fake field goal in the 2nd quarter of that game was made as a statement of his frustration. Also, it was shown that Lewis, who had been drafted out of retirement by Snyder, was unaware at first that his job was effectively to quarantine Zorn from the offensive play calling. This type of management behavior is nothing short of manipulative, and it begs the question of whether Daniel Snyder deliberately sabotaged Zorn through Lewis.
Alienating the fans
Snyder's ego was so bruised by the public outpouring against him that there were reports that he attempted to muzzle fans by restricting them from holding critical placards during home games. This measure was doomed to failure and could have provoked a fan boycott of the style that was germinating in Cleveland in November. Instead of addressing the concerns of ticket holders, Snyder allowed his commissar Vinny Cerrato to go on the offensive and claim that the franchise was performing up to par with the goals it had set at the beginning. The tactic backfired, because at the same time as Snyder attempted to silence fans, he was putting heat on his head coach. The public wasn't fooled, and they bypassed Zorn in order to vilify Cerrato. It isn't surprising that when this bail out measure failed Snyder shot his own horse by forcing Cerrato to resign. Although Cerrato was certainly deserving of this outcome, by that time the season was over and the replacement of a GM wasn't very conducive to rehabilitating it.
Playing for blood
After dissecting Snyder's and Cerrato's miscues, we can only redeem them somewhat by displaying the complete betrayal that some of their players made of the purpose of their employment. This section may only add to the perception of the Skins' front office as an insane asylum, but in my opinion the specific players were more to blame than the people who brought them to FedEx Field.
It is hard to criticize QB Jason Campbell, who showed true integrity by taking hits and getting up, neither can we pass judgment on the numerous half backs who were injured in the course of the season: Portis, LaDell Betts et al. Similarly, the veterans on the O-line, like guard Chad Rinehart, also spent a great deal of time in rehab. Tight ends Chris Cooley and Eddie Williams added to the IR.
But on the defensive side of the field, we find overpaid prima donnas that seem to think old grudges are more important than winning a game. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall exhibited this on November 8 when he charged the Falcons' sideline in order to get in on a fight resulting from a late hit by Skins LB LaRon Landry against Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. Hall traded shots with his former head coach Mike Smith, with the result being a fine for Smith! Hall had made no secret that of his dislike for his former team. Coincidentally, Atlanta won the game. In the above mentioned Giants game at FedEx field Hall participated another fight with RB Brandon Jacobs after the play had been whistled dead. It's been contended that Jacobs provoked the fight, but nevertheless Hall was out of his depth in this instance.
The other Washington party to the incident was right tackle Albert Haynesworth, who followed Hall by getting into a fistfight with Jacobs. The whole situation displays the futility with which Hall and Haynesworth played. The game had already been out of reach by then, with the Giants leading by more than three touchdowns, and the Skins' playoff prospects long over. Apparently neither of the two defensive players thought that the possibility of a suspension would hurt their club. They also put a great deal more effort into that thirty-second scrap than into stifling Eli Manning's offense. The fact is that the Giants would end the game with 45 points and controlled the game more than eight minutes more than Washington as a result of the Skins' swiss cheese defense. Haynesworth rebounded from the Giants game by arriving late to a team meeting during the week between that game and the following one against Dallas. Jim Zorn made the right call by ejecting him from practice. These two players displayed every bit of galling carelessness that's attributable to overpaid athletes, and that is one of the fallacies of Cerrato having brought them into Washington. If either player had deserved the salary they received, they would have shown a great deal more determination in the six NFC East games that Washington lost this year. It's hard to compare either of them to Dallas' offseason acquisition LB Keith Brooking, who became the top factor in motivating Wade Phillips' defense. Or to their own teammate LB Brian Orakpo who earned four sacks against Oakland a week prior to the Giants game.
The Reeves Bowl
Bruce Allen and the Redskins really want Mike Shanahan, as those of us who haven't been finding shelter in a cave know. As Cowboys fans, it is too early to look past next week's playoff game against Philadelphia and worry about next season. But I for one do expect tougher competition from Washington. It also poses one of the more interesting matchups in the history of the rivalry: Both head coaches served as assistants to former Denver head coach Dan Reeves together in the years 1989-91, Shanahan as QB coach and Phillips as defensive coordinator. When Reeves was fired in 1993 Phillips received his first head coaching position, only to be sacked after just one season in order to be replaced by Shanahan. Rumblings in Dallas during this season included rumors that Jerry Jones was courting Shanahan to be Phillips' replacement in Dallas again. Dan Reeves was even hired briefly towards the beginning of the season as a consultant before storming off.
If the Shanahan hiring occurs, Dallas-Washington games could earn the nickname Reeves Bowl, due to the common history of the two head coaches and their former superior. Shanahan already faced Reeves in Super Bowl XXXIII as coach of the Broncos against Reeves' Falcons. As head coach of Buffalo Phillips never faced the Broncos, and in 2007 the Cowboys under Phillips did face the Broncos, but in the preseason when they defeated them 31-20. Next season would conjure up the first head to head matchup of both coaches during the regular season, which should add some more spice to an already volatile division considering Saturday's game and the future of the New York Giants' coaching staff.