- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

In July 1999, new Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder essentially stripped Charley Casserly of his duties as general manager. Casserly resigned as GM and briefly remained with the Redskins as a “consultant” before he was hired as general manager of the expansion Houston Texans, entrusted with the big job of starting a team from scratch. Competing in the tough AFC, the Texans have gradually improved during their first three years.

The Redskins, meanwhile, have failed to make the playoffs since 1999, when they did it with a team built by Casserly. During this time, they have not had a true, non-coaching general manager.

The Redskins have employed four head coaches and an interim coach but no one with the separate job of making the tough final decisions on the draft, free agency and trades, as well overseeing the complex and tricky duties of managing the salary cap.

When Joe Gibbs returned to coach the Redskins after an 11-year absence, he also became team president. Gibbs would run the football part of the organization, and there was great optimism he would apply the same wizardry to front office decisions as he did to his Hall of Fame coaching career. But the Redskins are 3-8, and not only has Gibbs’ coaching been questioned, so have the Redskins’ general philosophy and player moves, notably the trade for quarterback Mark Brunell.

Gibbs was gone from the game for a long time, and even during his first term as coach, personnel decisions were left mainly to general managers Bobby Beathard and Casserly. Also, Gibbs and his staff put in ridiculous hours preparing the Redskins for their next game. Such is life in the NFL, and it is one reason many challenge the wisdom of giving any coach so-called total control of an organization.

“The best way to go is to have a talented general manager who is able to do the personnel work and let him hire the coach, and then the two can work hand in hand,” former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said. “With free agency and the salary cap, I don’t think one person can do it.”

Johnson should talk, some might say. With the Cowboys and Dolphins, he was both coach and GM, although in Dallas — with Norv Turner handling the offense and Dave Wannstedt the defense — Johnson might have been more GM than coach.

Johnson, now a commentator for Fox, quickly transformed Dallas from a loser into a Super Bowl team without worrying about unrestricted free agency or a salary cap. In Miami, contending with those factors, his results were less positive.

“It’s too much for one person to do,” he said. “I really think you have to have a GM.”

Despite the success of a few who run the whole show or most of it, the coach/general manager system might be coming more into fashion, with the number of teams run by “total-control” coaches in decline.

“You have to have a coach and someone the coach trusts to handle the administrative aspect,” said Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens GM. “A lot of things go back and forth between the team and the league — the waiver wire, cuts. The coach has to have someone he trusts with that, someone who understands the type of player he wants to bring to him.”

Coaching “is a tough, full-time job,” Buffalo Bills GM Tom Donahoe said. “And so is trying to be a general manager. You need to have a team approach where everybody’s involved. … The salary cap has ramifications with every personnel issue and decision you make, and you can’t expect a coach to be always up on that. You have to have one person to keep an eye on it on a daily basis.”

That can be difficult when endless coaching matters demand a full pair of eyes. Some learn the hard way. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren gave up his GM duties after the 2002 season. He called it “moving some responsibility around.” After forcing GM Rich McKay to leave in a power struggle, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden is struggling with the dual role. Butch Davis flopped as the Cleveland Browns’ coach and GM and resigned under pressure Tuesday.

When Dallas coach Bill Parcells left New England in 1996 after a dispute over power with owner Bob Kraft, he uttered the immortal line, “If I’m going to be asked to cook the meal, I’d like to be able to pick the groceries.” Parcells got to do that with the New York Jets, but now he and Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones push the same shopping cart.

“I think it’s almost impossible to do both jobs well,” former New Orleans Saints general manager Randy Mueller said.

Still, some manage to make it work. The coaches of the three best teams in the NFL (according to their records) — New England’s Bill Belichick, Philadelphia’s Andy Reid and Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher — have what is considered total control. Or at least, the personnel buck stops with them.

All, however, benefit from informed counsel and advice from front office people who mind the store and the waiver wire while the coaches toil on the practice field and hunker down in the film room. Scott Pioli, New England’s vice president of player personnel, has received nearly as much credit as Belichick for building the Patriots’ dynasty.

Pioli is a leading candidate to become the Browns’ GM. And they will have a GM. Keeping the two jobs separate “seems to be the traditional football structure that works best in this league,” team president John Collins told reporters Tuesday.

“Pro football is a three-pronged affair,” said former Green Bay Packers GM Ron Wolf, who briefly worked as a part-time consultant to the Browns last winter. “You need someone who is good at [evaluating] talent, someone good at coaching and someone good with the salary cap.”

A coach “is no different from anybody else,” Wolf added. “He only sees it one way. The same with a personnel person. So it helps to have someone you can talk to so you can see both sides of the equation.”

Without a general manager, Redskins personnel decisions largely had been the province of Snyder, who had no previous football experience, and Vinny Cerrato, the vice president of football operations who was fired from the San Francisco 49ers’ front office and had trouble finding a job until he was hired by the Redskins. Cerrato recently was described as a “disaster” by an unnamed team executive in a story appearing on the Sports Illustrated Web site. (Cerrato said Tuesday he had no comment.)

After Marty Schottenheimer took over as coach with full personnel responsibilities in 2001, he fired Cerrato. When Schottenheimer resigned after one season in part because Snyder wanted to limit Schottenheimer’s authority, Snyder rehired Cerrato. Schottenheimer now is coach in San Diego, where he works with general manager A.J. Smith. At 8-3, the Chargers are one of the league’s big surprises.

At times, Cerrato has had to bow to the whims of Snyder, whose philosophy from the day he bought the team has been “win now.” Snyder first broke the bank in 2000, adding several expensive free agents with less than stellar results. The spending has continued, and so have the losses.

“I know that Dan [Snyder] and some of his people have been extremely active,” Johnson said. “They want to build their team with free agents and big contracts. But you just don’t build a team that way. You have to build through the draft. You need a true GM with a long-range outlook.”

With Snyder, Cerrato and now Gibbs calling the shots, the Redskins have continued to choose free agency and trades over the draft as a means of building the team. Few middle or late round picks have made an impact. Although several free agent signings this season have worked out, the Redskins are assured of their fifth straight non-winning season, and salary cap issues loom in the not so distant future.

“Coaches have to think in the short term,” Newsome said. “That’s the nature of their job. The general manager has to think more long-term.”

It was Gibbs, hired to turn the Redskins into instant contenders, who hand-picked Brunell at the cost of a third-round draft pick and a seven-year, $43.6million contract even though the prevailing sentiment throughout the league was that Brunell was well past his prime. Gibbs benched Brunell after the 34-year-old compiled the lowest passer rating in the league after nine games.

Gibbs also authorized the trade that sent All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver for running back Clinton Portis. Instantly, there were questions about whether the 205-pound Portis was the type of tough, bruising runner Gibbs preferred in the past. Portis seemed to put those questions to rest with some impressive games, and for most of the season he led the league in carries. But his production, as well as his workload, has slipped lately, again raising questions about durability and whether he is suited to Gibbs’ offense.

Gibbs downplays the notion that he makes all the final decisions but said he could accept having a general manager.

“I have no problem with that,” he said yesterday. “I worked with GMs before who were really good. I don’t know if it’s as much titles and everything as it is the working relationship. Our working relationship here is very similar to what we had before.

“What Bobby [Beathard] was responsible for was the talent. I was responsible for saying, ‘OK, these are the guys that will stay.’ There’s no change in that, really. What we do here, with Vinny and all the coaches involved, we kind of make the personnel decisions together.”

Staff writer Jody Foldesy contributed to this article.

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