Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I’ll bet my Sonny Jurgensen football card against your Clinton Portis sunglasses that you can’t identify the Redskins coach with the best winning percentage.

Joe Gibbs? George Allen? Ray Flaherty? The sainted Vince Lombardi?

Forget it. Our guy is Dud DeGroot, whose two-year tenure in the mid-‘40s produced a 14-5-1 record and a percentage of .725.

After his Redskins lost the 1945 NFL title game to the Cleveland Rams 15-14, DeGroot bolted to the new All-America Football Conference — probably to escape the considerable wrath of George Preston Marshall, the team’s short-fused owner.

Unfortunately, DeGroot didn’t leave much of a legacy for Redskins Nation; in fact, a team history published a few years ago identified him as “Doug” DeGroot. Considering the Redskins didn’t make the playoffs for 26 years after his departure, you’d think he would be more fondly remembered.

Through their 71 years in the District, the Redskins — like most other franchises — have given us both terrific and terrible choices of coaches. What sort of pick will Dan Snyder and lapdog Vinny Cerrato make this time? There’s simply no way to tell, no matter how much The Danny might think he knows about pigskin pursuits.

Coaches and managers in all sports get too much praise and too much blame. OK, occasionally one of them will motivate a team to play beyond itself, but the key word in the final analysis is always play.

I go along with Charles Dillon Stengel, the eminent linguist from Kansas City who watched his Yankees collect 10 pennants in 12 years and once remarked (approximately), “The trick to being a good manager is keeping the guys on your ball club who hate you away from those who are undecided.”

Like Snyder nowadays, Redskins founding father Marshall tended to be impetuous when it came picking coaches and meddlesome while employing them. As Snyder did with Gibbs, Marshall had to keep his tater trap shut while Ray Flaherty was leading the Redskins to three division and two NFL titles in their first six seasons here. But after Ray accepted a commission in the Navy following the 1942 season, it was open season on guys who thought they were coaching George’s team.

Marshall’s hiring patterns were quixotic, to say the least. Among other selections, he anointed a superstar lineman who couldn’t control his former teammates (Turk Edwards), a career Navy man who probably couldn’t tell a holding penalty from the hold on a ship (John “Billick” Whelchel) and a revered NFL pioneer whom he fired after the first exhibition game of his third season (Curly Lambeau).

Then, probably figuring he might as well not pay a coach big bucks to lose, Marshall gave the job successively to assistants Joe Kuharich (26-32-2), Mike Nixon (4-18-2) and Bill McPeak (21-46-3). The best commentary on this was contributed by legendary District sports columnist Morris Siegel after John F. Kennedy won the presidency and Nixon was canned following a 1-9-2 season in 1960: “They ran the wrong Nixon out of Washington.”

By way of continuing this trend, successor McPeak was 1-12-1 in 1961.

Marshall, of course, made it impossible for any Redskins coach to win by his refusal to employ black players until forced to do so by the government in 1962. After illness forced him from the scene, the Redskins continued to make bad coaching decisions, such as hiring Otto Graham, a Hall of Fame quarterback but so innocuous a leader that his players mocked him as “Toot” (changing the letters in “Otto”) behind his back. In three seasons, Graham went 17-22-3.

Team president Edward Bennett Williams excited all of the District by anointing Lombardi in 1969, but we know how that turned out. Later George Allen and Gibbs restored the Redskins to respectability and then some, but they were succeeded by nonachievers like Jack Pardee, Richie Petitbon, Norv Turner and Steve Spurrier.

See what I mean? You never know. You just never know.

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