Lombardi: Behind Daniel Snyder's messy Washington Commanders tenure

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In 2003, after only four years of observing Daniel Snyder owning the Washington Football team, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins concluded: “He runs the franchise with such lunatic impatience and excess. Self-restraint is apparently not an option.” Sally penned those words almost 20 years ago and nothing has changed. 

You might say things have gotten worse, yet his organization has been cultureless since the day Snyder bought the team.  What has occurred inside the house of Snyder has been happening since the day he became King of all things Washington football.  You didn’t need to be in the building to know -- the performance on the field offered more than enough clues about the dysfunction inside those walls.  Snyder’s reign has been a pattern of reckless behavior, and as Jenkins wrote, impatience and excess. 

During those 22 years, Snyder has not learned anything about how to become a great owner. Nothing. Winning 156 games and losing 212 (with one tie) is strong evidence of his lack of growth or understanding the framework of how to build a champion.  His teams have played in eight playoff games, never advancing to the NFC Conference title game and only winning two playoff games under his ownership.  He has no understanding on how to build a culture, how to develop loyalty, install an organizational philosophy, have systems and protocols in place to ensure compliance. He hires, fires, and does as he pleases.  He behaves much like the character in the movie “Arthur,” living off his money and doing whatever he wants.

Snyder’s idea of how to win is to hire people that are popular, allowing him to win the press conference, then work behind the scenes to destroy their ability to operate.  Snyder has no interest in winning; his interest lies in winning his way.  He is subversive from within. And because of the revenue streams from the television deals, Snyder is guaranteed a profit every season, regardless how poorly his operation preforms.  What other business in the world can you be so dreadful over a long period of time and still make money?  The NFL cash cow allows poor management to flourish. 

When Snyder entered the league, he was a brash new owner who behaved like a fan.  He thought he understood the game and was smarter than most.  Unlike most new owners, Snyder didn’t listen to everyone and anyone, he was more reclusive and was not interested in taking suggestions from the NFL office, or from reporters trying to win his favor.  One of the many problems new owners face is they believe everyone has their best interest at heart, when in reality everyone has an agenda.  Snyder didn’t fall prey to this trap.  He operated in a vacuum, along with a hired hand to help him execute his plan.  Snyder remained loyal to the hired hand for an extended period, not because he understood how to be loyal, only because the person allowed him to do what he wanted and always be the lightening rod. 

Snyder understood plausible deniability better than most from an early part of his tenure.  His first buffer (someone between Snyder and the coach, to implement the plan and keep Snyder from being the bad guy) was Vinny Cerrato, for almost 10 years before taking the fall in 2009.  Then he hired former Washington head coach George Allen’s son, the punter from Richmond, who oversaw the operation until 2019 and was in charge when most of the indiscretions occurred.   (Side note: I worked with the punter in Oakland, and from that experience I will never say or type his full name.)

When the punter had to go, Snyder did what he also has done and hired a press conference winner:  Ron Rivera entered as the new man in charge of all things Washington.  Rivera is a popular choice and a wonderful man, which Washington needed to help clean some of the destruction done by Snyder and his past regimes. The main problem is Rivera has never run an entire team or developed an organizational culture from scratch. And even though Washington has hired Jason Wright as President to run the operation and appointed Snyder’s wife Tanya as the main CEO. nothing has changed on the culture front as evidenced by defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio political rant two weeks ago.

Clearly, neither Wright, Mrs. Snyder or Rivera installed systems and protocols to prevent a coach from operating in a rouge fashion.  Great cultures establish guidelines and philosophy for those in the organization with a clear and concise understanding of how each member represents the team in private and public.  Del Rio believed he was free to speak as if he were a sub-contractor.  In reality his behavior wasn’t his fault, rather the fault and neglect of the organization, pointing towards the man who was given the authority to develop the new culture -- Rivera.  Rivera fining Del Rio makes sense on the surface, but for those that understand organizational culture, the real culprit was Rivera for not ensuring everyone knew the standard of behavior. 

Let’s go back for a moment to the 2020 season and Year 3 of the Rivera rebuild.  During his 11 years as a head coach, eight times he has finished with a sub-.500 record he’s never had back-to-back winning seasons.  His overall record is 90-82-1 which is helped by the 15-1 season in 2015 and the Super Bowl appearance.  Had Rivera been in DC during the earlier Snyder days, he would no longer be the coach.  There was not chance “Danny Boy” would have tolerated two losing seasons.  Hell, he fired Marty Schottenheimer after one 8-8 year, so why would he tolerate two bad seasons?  Yes, I know they made the playoffs with a 7-9 record, but that was more about how bad the NFC East was than Washington being a playoff quality team. With the new front office regime and Snyder away from the day-to-day operation, Rivera gains a third year.  With marginal improvements from 2021 until now, it doesn’t appear to be fixable for 2022. 

Washington was bad in every area last season: offense, defense and kicking game.  Rivera made no changes to his staff, keeping his three cordiantors, which indicates he believes their coaching and schemes are solid and the only area of improvement that needs attention is adding more talented players.  I’m not sure I agree, especially defensively when they couldn’t get off the field on third down, even with their quality pass-rushers or prevent scoring in the red zone.   Opponents were able to throw the ball easily against Washington’s defense and they allowed the most touchdown passes of any team in the league. 

Offensively, they struggled to throw the ball consistently, and with new quarterback Carson Wentz replacing Taylor Heinicke I am not sure that will improve.  Last season both quarterbacks averaged 6.9 yards per attempt passing, and Heinicke had a better completion percentage and rushed for more yards.  Wentz protected the ball better, throwing just seven interceptions to Heinicke’s 15, and threw more touchdown passes (27-20); Wentz had the slight lead of 3,563 passing yards to Heinicke’s 3,419.  The comparisons are ever so close, indicating Washington didn’t not make the significant improvement at the most critical position.  One could argue that Heinicke performs better under pressure than Wentz, especially in big games when Wentz often disappears. 

With Jacksonville and Detroit to start the season, Washington should enter Week 3 undefeated and poised to play their division rivals the Eagles and Cowboys in consecutive weeks. Their win total is set at 8, which seems like the perfect number, as you can find five wins rather easily:  Jacksonville, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and the New York Giants at least once. The rest are more like jump balls, and getting to nine to cash seems challenging.  My advice would be a stay away on the over in part because after their bye in Week 14, they end the season with the Giants, in San Francisco, home for Cleveland and Dallas. 

Yesterday in front of the United States Congress, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that he had “no authority to remove Snyder as owner” -- which is correct.  Snyder’s removal can only occur when 24 other owners vote him out.  Goodell would never call for a vote unless he knew two things:

1) He had more than 24 votes

2) He would win the litigation brought on by Snyder

Without certainty in those areas, Goodell is willing to allow the Snyder train to operate alone and self-destruct. 

For this once-proud franchise, the future remains bleak, in large part because unless Snyder is completely removed, the team will always be distracted by the news he creates from his past behavior.  Players and coaches will proclaim they block out all the noise, yet these distractions affect the overall performance of the team.  When the off the field becomes bigger than the on the field, winning becomes a challenge. 

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