Vinny Cerrato once had a small part in a forgettable movie called “Kindergarten Ninja,” an anti-drug fable about a tarnished football star, played by former untarnished football star Dwight Clark, whose life gets turned around by a guardian angel.
It was just a footnote to Cerrato’s career, a harmless little diversion. Clark, a wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers, had become a Niners executive. Cerrato, who was part of the staff, agreed to be in the film. Who wouldn’t? But now, sitting behind his desk as the Washington Redskins‘ executive vice-president/football operations, Cerrato seemed slightly embarrassed when the subject came up.
“I was living with Dwight and went along and helped him out,” he said, as if apologizing. “It was OK. I had a line or two. I was a cop or something.”
In fact, Cerrato was miscast. In the Vinny Cerrato Story, a tale of twists and turns, ups and downs, he would be a superhero, maybe “Indestructible Man” or something similar. Because he is just that. Since joining the Redskins front office when Dan Snyder bought the club in 1999, Cerrato has been fired, weathered a constant turnover of players, coaches and staffers and absorbed regular beatings from critics - not just fans and the media but real football people, too.
Yet here he sits in his office at Redskin Park, three-quarters of the walls covered by the names of every player in the NFL, color-coded and ranked. Since his promotion in January from vice-president of football operations after Joe Gibbs resigned as head coach and team president, Cerrato now is officially the team’s No.1 personnel man, the place where the buck stops, the key decider.
Except for Snyder, of course, Cerrato perches atop of the organizational food chain, having rocketed from page 30 of the team media guide to page 12, up from half a page to two full pages.
“I have a lot more things to do now,” he said. “I’m responsible for more things. I deal with public relations, interview security people. There’s always something different going on.”
Given all he has endured, Cerrato’s foremost title might be “survivor.” It’s a label he does not readily accept. “What do you mean?” he asks. After the word is explained in context, he replied, “I don’t know. If I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to be doing, I wouldn’t be here.”
But starting in San Francisco, where he rose from regional scout to player personnel director, and continuing throughout his association with the Redskins, Cerrato has been an oft-criticized, polarizing figure subjected to attacks on his astuteness, judgment and intelligence that exceed the conventional “it comes with the territory” rationale.
No one knows this better than Cerrato himself, who is sensitive to the criticism and has told his mother to stay away from the blogs. In an interview with a local columnist last year, he volunteered that he did not “get the respect for doing the job I do,” and denied being “a lapdog,” a reference to his frequently ridiculed relationship with Snyder, with whom he regularly played racquetball before a bum knee ended the competition.
“I’m aware of the perception, sure,” he said. “When I was at Notre Dame, there was a perception. When I went there I was 24 years old. And when I was with the Niners, the perception was, ‘How did I get that job at such a young age?’ Because I was related to [then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo], or something like that. I’m not sure what the perception is now.”
But then he quickly adds, “I think the perception has improved recently because of how we’ve handled free agency, how we did things with the draft and stuff. And I think being around Joe [Gibbs] probably helped, too. … The thing about it is, when you’re sitting at 5-7, you’re an idiot. When you’re 9-7 and in the playoffs, you’re a genius.”
That was a reference to last season, when the Redskins turned things around following the shooting death of safety Sean Taylor. Although any genius references are hard to discern, Cerrato was part of the effort. But after earning praise for the Redskins’ draft last spring, in which he turned six picks into 10, it now looks as if none of the selections will make an immediate impact except punter Durant Brooks.
But even that created some controversy when Derrick Frost, the incumbent punter who was cut to make way for Brooks, was quoted last week as saying the Redskins treated him “dishonestly.” Frost intimated that Brooks, a sixth-round pick, was kept so Cerrato’s draft would “look as good as possible.”
So once again, Cerrato is taking some heat. But his staunchest ally remains the man in charge.
Snyder and Cerrato took to each other quickly after Snyder, not his former partner, Howard Milstein, bought the club from the trustees handling the estate of the late owner, Jack Kent Cooke. Cerrato had signed on with Milstein as a consultant.
“He has a natural feel for talent evaluation, which, from a scouting perspective is the most valuable asset anyone can have,” Snyder wrote in an e-mail message.
Addressing the criticism leveled at Cerrato and, especially, his closeness to the owner, Snyder wrote, “The media not only exaggerates, they also fabricate. In reality, when you are working with people over long hours, extensive travel, in a high-stress environment, you’re going to become closer to them and their families.”
But it’s not just “the media,” fabrication or otherwise. As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. More than one NFL executive disparaged Cerrato’s performance and reputation in interviews for this story, though none would do so on the record. Still, their sentiments are commonly expressed in league circles.
Cerrato has taken unattributed hits from league types for a long time, but one real, tangible act happened when Marty Schottenheimer was hired as Redskins head coach in 2001 and fired Cerrato as one of his first official acts.
Cerrato, who did some work for ESPN after getting fired, said he never saw it coming. He recalled, “Prior to that, [Schottenheimer] is telling me, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be sleeping together,’ we’ve got to be on the same page.’”
At that point, Cerrato admitted he thought his career might be finished. “You wouldn’t think Marty was just gonna be one and out,” he said.
But Schottenheimer lasted only a year, leaving in a dispute over control with Snyder, who immediately brought Cerrato back.
Cerrato helped implement the philosophy associated with the Redskins favoring high-priced free agents over building through the draft. He was part of the misguided spending spree that brought, among others, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Jeff George to the Redskins in 2000. Although Gibbs had the final say, Cerrato had his fingerprints on the free-agent signing of safety Adam Archuleta and the trade for wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Both signed six-year, $30 million deals and both were busts who are no longer with the club. The draft record through last season was mixed.
But free agent signings like Marcus Washington, Shawn Springs, Cornelius Griffin and London Fletcher have worked out, and this year’s draft offers at least some hope. “I think we’ve all learned,” Cerrato said.
For example, when he engineered the July 20 trade with Miami for All-Pro defensive end Jason Taylor, Cerrato said the financial implications were carefully measured. “Everything we do … we have a three-year plan,” he said. “We have a budget.”
Cerrato always found a way to move up. A former quarterback and wide receiver at Iowa State (Redskins wide receivers coach Stan Hixon was a teammate), he hustled his way into a graduate assistant’s job under Lou Holtz at Minnesota. Then he followed Holtz to Notre Dame and became the recruiting coordinator.
Cerrato was known for his diligent, creative efforts. One ploy involved standing on the sideline with a big, clunky cell phone (this was the ‘80s), eavesdropping on the play-calling and letting the recruit know what was coming. The NCAA would outlaw the practice, enacting what Holtz called the Vinny Cerrato Rule, but in the end, Cerrato landed the cream of America’s high school crop and a bunch of future NFL players. With his help, the Fighting Irish won the national championship in 1988.
Cerrato also outworked other recruiters, visiting them well before other coaches got to see them. The practice was legal at the time, but the NCAA changed that, too.
“He just had a way of communicating with the athletes and the parents,” Holtz said. “But I tell you what, he could evaluate a player very well. … I could never thank him enough for what he did.”
In San Francisco, where he did extensive pro and college scouting, there were hits and misses. When president Carmen Policy left in a dispute with DeBartolo, taking Clark with him to help start up the Cleveland Browns, Cerrato did not go along. Instead, he was fired. Policy and Cerrato cited a league policy that prohibited the Browns from further raiding the Niners, but others say there was no intention to take Cerrato to Cleveland. Still, “he was an integral part of our getting to the Super Bowl after the 1994 season,” Policy said.
“When you first met him, at least back in the old days, you’d have the tendency to maybe not give him credit for ingenuity and creativity that he deserves,” said Policy. “But after you worked with him awhile you do learn he has the ability to do both.
“He was a tireless worker. I mean, whether he was right or wrong about something, at least he knew something about the subject matter. Some of the moves were wonderful, some didn’t work out.”
It sounds like the story of Vinny Cerrato’s indestructible life.