ASHBURN, Va. — Reporters hurried to their seats and cameras were moved into position on Oct. 7 for a news conference at which Washington Redskins president Bruce Allen announced the firing of another head coach. As the team was dismissing Jay Gruden after an 0-5 start, Allen spoke of the club’s “damn good culture.”
After another losing season concluded Sunday — the second 3-13 season under Allen’s leadership — Redskins fans won’t have to hear any more questionable statements from the former president of the team. Owner Dan Snyder fired his top lieutenant Monday morning.
Washington had a winning percentage of .387 since Allen’s arrival in 2010 — ahead of only Oakland, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Cleveland.
To get the franchise back on track, Snyder is expected to make Ron Rivera his next coach as soon as Monday. Rivera, like Mike Shanahan and Joe Gibbs before him, has taken a team to the Super Bowl; his Carolina Panthers lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Still, plenty of questions remain. How did the losing culture that started when Synder became owner get worse under Allen? Can Dwayne Haskins be the franchise QB? Will Rivera have a chance to succeed under Snyder, who has been hands-on in the past with personnel decisions? And who will take over Allen’s role?
In interviews with more than 30 current and former league and team officials, coaches, agents and players, a portrait emerges of what has gone wrong in Washington and what is next for the storied franchise.
How did Allen get to the Redskins?
Allen was hired in December 2009. He and Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Broncos, brought hope of a turning point for Washington. After all, Allen had experience and a legacy. His father, George, quickly transformed the Redskins franchise in the 1970s, coaching a team that had one winning season in 15 years and turning it into a Super Bowl participant in his second season (1972). Snyder often has talked about Allen’s passion for the Redskins; it was developed during this period.
And Allen, now 63, had experience when he was hired by Snyder. He served as an executive with the Oakland Raiders from 1995 through 2003, winning the George Young Executive of the Year award in 2002. He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004, lasting five seasons as the general manager alongside coach Jon Gruden.
|Note: * Along with 5 other teams|
Allen drafted 47 players as GM in Tampa Bay and only one player — guard Davin Joseph — made a Pro Bowl while with the Bucs. Cornerback Aqib Talib blossomed after leaving, winning a Super Bowl with the Broncos and playing in another with the Los Angeles Rams. In a results-based business, the Bucs went 38-42 under Allen, including 0-2 in the playoffs.
When the Redskins hired Allen, several league executives echoed a similar refrain, pointing to his business acumen and salary-cap knowledge. One said at the time, “I love Bruce; he’ll be great … as long as he’s not in charge of personnel.”
Some might ask, after his time in Tampa, should he have been in charge of the 53-man roster?
Despite Allen’s struggles with personnel with the Bucs, he was Snyder’s top lieutenant in all business and football operations matters. He wielded more power than all but a handful of team executives in the NFL, having strengthened his position after initially occupying a lesser role in roster construction.
The Redskins did hire Scot McCloughan to be the general manager, with control over personnel and the 53-man roster, after the 2014 season. But he was fired with cause during the 2016 offseason and Allen took all of those GM-type responsibilities back.
Was drafting Haskins a microcosm of the Redskins’ issues?
The quest for a franchise quarterback wasn’t new heading into the 2019 NFL draft. During Snyder’s tenure, the Redskins have started 21 quarterbacks, including four first-round picks (Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell, Robert Griffin III and Haskins).
As for the Redskins’ current starter, long before the draft there was a sense they would take Haskins with the No. 15 pick — no matter how their board stacked up. Snyder had dropped Haskins’ name throughout the year, telling people he was the best player in the country. Like Snyder, Allen liked the Heisman Trophy finalist who threw 50 touchdown passes and eight interceptions in 2018 at Ohio State.
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|Source: ESPN Stats & Info|
With quarterback Alex Smith’s career in jeopardy after a leg injury — although he said Monday that “without a doubt” he wants to play next season — the Redskins needed a replacement. But opinions varied on Haskins (some in the organization graded him as a third-rounder), with some believing it would take up to two years to develop him into a starter with Gruden on a white-hot seat.
At the time of the NFL draft last April, multiple sources said it became a foregone conclusion Snyder and Allen wanted Haskins. Snyder sat in on the interview with the Buckeyes QB at the scouting combine. As one staffer said, “There was no point arguing with the owner and the president.”
Haskins recently told ESPN, “My understanding is that everyone in the building wanted me. [I have heard people say] ‘other coaches wanted positions of need more than quarterback’ — that’s something I can’t control. The guys that made the decisions picked me and I’m here. Of course, I try the best I can to ignore that stuff.”
Haskins played in nine games, starting seven. He finished 119-of-203 for 1,365 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions before sitting out Week 17 because of an injured ankle.
Snyder has fondness for Haskins. In Week 16, Haskins caused some consternation for the organization when he said Snyder told him not to return to the game against the Giants after suffering the ankle injury. A Redskins spokesman later said Snyder told Haskins to listen to the medical team’s advice, which — per a statement from Dr. Robin West — was not to return. Another source said Snyder often goes to the locker room when a player gets injured and removed on a cart.
“He did come down from the box. He was concerned. That meant a lot to me,” Haskins said.
The situation was another example of what Haskins still needs to learn. During the Week 3 game against the Chicago Bears, a Washington Post photograph showed offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell going over plays with then-starter Case Keenum. Inactive backup Colt McCoy looked over their shoulders. Haskins sat several feet away, looking disengaged.
Haskins takes losing hard. During a news conference after a Week 8 loss in Minnesota, when he relieved an injured Keenum, Haskins’ shoulders were slumped and he was difficult to hear, even from 5 feet away.
“He’s just young,” said one player.
During the Week 11 game against the New York Jets, a video from NBC Channel 4 showed Haskins pleading with teammates, “What do I have to do to help you?” Most of the linemen looked disinterested.
The following week, Haskins thought a Redskins interception had ended a win against Detroit, prompting him to take a selfie with fans behind the bench. Meanwhile, the Redskins needed to take one more snap and, because they couldn’t find Haskins, sent Keenum onto the field.
By all accounts, Haskins has matured over the course of the season, altering his work approach since being pressed into service. One team source said Haskins discovered after back-to-back wins against the Lions and Panthers that the extra work pays off on the field.
How Haskins will develop is yet to be seen, especially with a complete regime change at the top.
Dan Orlovsky, Rex Ryan and Domonique Foxworth applaud the Redskins for hiring Ron Rivera as their next head coach.
What problems will the new president/GM/coach face? Tight quarters and loose lips.
Former defensive back Will Blackmon played for Green Bay, Seattle and the New York Giants, in addition to the Redskins (2015 and 2016). While he was with the Packers, Blackmon said he never saw the executive offices. In Seattle, he said execs worked on a higher floor than where players practice and train. And Blackmon said he doesn’t even know where the Giants’ executive offices are located.
At Redskins Park, Blackmon knew where to find the executives. That’s because, unlike many other teams, the Redskins are housed in a mom-and-pop-type shop, a 27-year-old facility packed with offices where secrets rarely remain so.
The executive and coaches offices are on the same floor, separated by a lobby area. The players are often in that area — going in and out of meetings — because of the tight layout. Redskins Park predates Snyder’s ownership, but ownership renovated the facility in 2013 — thanks to a $4 million grant from the state of Virginia — and added numerous offices and employees.
While that renovation made it newer inside, it has also cramped the main level.
The office and training facilities at Redskins Park comprise 121,000 square feet, according to Redskins.com. By comparison, the new Minnesota Vikings’ state-of-the-art TCO Performance Center has 277,000 square feet for offices and training facilities, per Vikings.com. For comparison, the Vikings’ previous facility, Winter Park, had 138,000 square feet — still larger than a renovated Redskins Park.
“[Redskins Park] is so small quarters that you run into everybody all the time. It was tough because everything always got out,” said Blackmon, who added he had no issues with Allen. “There were always rumors and so many stories and it’s exhausting. It’s like we’re on Capitol Hill when it comes to politics.”
Too many issues reach the locker room. There are plenty of stories describing a divide between the coaches and the front office or a coach sharing his thoughts on a player to his teammate.
Former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley even hosted his radio show from the facility for several years; at the time, Snyder owned ESPN 980. Cooley’s on-air film evaluations led to occasional flare-ups from players.
Issues about the culture within the building also arose when McCloughan was fired. An anonymous quote from a Redskins official to The Washington Post about McCloughan’s alcohol problem led to players being asked about what they had seen or heard. There were also questions for two years about quarterback Kirk Cousins and his contract. And about Griffin’s benching — and just about anything else RG III-related.
Then there was safety Su’a Cravens, who retired suddenly before the 2017 season. He wanted to return to the team weeks later, but the Redskins placed him on the reserve/left squad list, ending his season. That situation led to more speculation and questions about yet another issue regarding how the franchise handled player relations.
Allen held multiple meetings after rumors about personnel spread and tried to determine the source. But the culture and facilities combine to foster an environment conducive to leaks.
“You loved being there, loved the relationships you had there, but outside the friendships and relationships, you see that, man, it’s a toxic place,” said former Redskins linebacker Will Compton, who played in Washington from 2013 through 2017. “It’s hard to be successful with what goes on and what’s allowed. A lot more goes into it than just being a solid team. You’ve got to endure a lot of s— at Redskins Park.”
All of this is why Allen raised eyebrows when he said, “The culture is actually damn good,” at the Gruden news conference in October. Later, Allen clarified, saying the comment wasn’t about the overall atmosphere at Redskins Park.
“What I’m talking about is our players are working hard,” he said during an October phone interview with ESPN. “Have we made mistakes on the field? Yes, we obviously have, and too many to win. But the work ethic, the camaraderie, the way they respond to each other and the way they support each other [is indicative of a good culture]. There hasn’t been finger-pointing at a player, which I think is the environment conducive to winning.”
Obviously, a positive culture alone won’t result in Super Bowl championships. Blackmon points to Jacksonville’s good culture during his two seasons with the Jaguars, who “got their asses kicked” while compiling a 7-25 record. He said the Redskins had a good locker room culture in 2015, with veteran players organizing extra meetings away from the facility and reaching across position groups to create a tighter bond. It was the season Cousins emerged. Those factors helped the Redskins finish 9-7 and win the NFC East.
What’s going to happen with the Redskins’ best player, Trent Williams?
A rift formed with Williams — who’s also popular in the locker room — after the Pro Bowl offensive tackle held out to start the season because of a medical issue. He reported to the team on Oct. 29, only to be placed on reserve/non-football injury list in early November. The Redskins elected not to pay his remaining $5.1 million base salary for the 2019 season at the time.
Williams, 31, has spoken multiple times about his displeasure with Allen and the medical staff since he reported. A mess has ensued, featuring leaks about what Williams did — or didn’t do — throughout this medical situation, which he described as a cancerous growth on his scalp.
“I don’t see that anywhere else, organizations biting their own nose off,” Williams said. “You just don’t see that in a lot of places. I thought it was counterproductive to leak stuff about your own organization.”
Williams said he would have been quiet had the Redskins traded him. The Redskins were always reluctant to do so unless they received a big haul in return. They thought fines combined with missing his weekly paychecks during the season would prompt him to return. Team sources said other franchises weren’t offering enough; but sources with other teams told ESPN’s Dan Graziano they never got to the point where they’d make an offer.
Williams said he believes Allen didn’t trade him out of vindictiveness. He also said the Redskins treated him more like a dog.
“Where you can beat the s— out of a dog and they come back to you the next day with their tail wagging like nothing happened,” he said. “It’s hard for a human with emotions to reconcile stuff when you’ve been slapped in the face and then come back with your tail wagging.”
Earlier this month, Williams told ESPN he couldn’t say for certain “it would be a no” to return to the team. He has a year remaining on his deal.
“As of now it would be hard to see that as far as how far both sides were apart,” said Williams, who did not immediately respond to a text message Monday morning to see if this stance was the same. “It would be hard to see that. But at the end of the day, I’m still on the Redskins’ roster. They still have my rights. Obviously you can’t force your way out of anywhere.”
Who’s to blame for the Redskins’ current culture?
An increasingly frustrated fan base had come to see Allen as the face of the team’s continued struggles under Snyder. The team was 62-97-1 during Allen’s tenure, and his positive outlook had been poorly received.
Chap Petersen, a Democratic state senator from northern Virginia, a Redskins fan and Allen’s friend, is quick to point out that Allen — not Snyder — was out front, taking the shots for the team’s dismal on-field efforts.
“He is the public face of the ownership, and ownership is not popular because of the team’s performance,” Petersen said of Allen. “There’s the perception, which is rapidly becoming reality, that the franchise — which was one of the three or four landmark franchises — is in a free fall. I’m at every home game. I see all the other [teams’] fans in the stands. It’s painful.”
On and off the field, the Redskins were what Allen made them. On social media, #firebruceallen had become popular with Redskins fans. One fan even spent $1,600 to have a plane fly over the stadium with a banner that read “Help Skins Fans. Fire Bruce Allen” when Washington played at Miami in October, the first game after Gruden’s firing.
“It’s awful. For everyone, it’s awful. Losing sucks,” Allen told ESPN in October. “But it is the motivation to win. We’ve got to do better in order to win.”
— Evan Golden (@Golden_TV) October 13, 2019
Now the fans will get what they wanted: new leadership.
Redskins cornerback Josh Norman said that if Rivera — his former coach with the Panthers — is hired, there will be a “night and day” difference in the culture and he’d be excited to be part of it. Norman has one year remaining on the five-year, $75 million deal he signed in 2016.
Is there any indication Snyder’s role in personnel will change?
There are indications Snyder has changed, but sources who have worked for him anticipate he will still be involved.
One source said Snyder’s input often came through “backdoor ways,” funneled through others in charge, such as Allen. It wasn’t just about drafting Haskins — the Redskins knew they had to take a quarterback. It was about making decisions on which free agents to pay and who the team would let leave.
“Critical decisions,” the source said.
It has also been Snyder’s desire to return to a 4-3 base defense after using a 3-4 for the past decade. Rivera’s base has been a 4-3, so that won’t be an issue. But the new leadership will need to make personnel additions to make it work.
Numerous sources say Snyder would stay away from roster decisions more than in the past — he was on his personal yacht for most of the month before the 2019 draft. But Snyder still made it known he wanted Haskins.
Rivera is expected to have more roster control than Gruden, something similar to what Shanahan had during his four seasons. That could help. It also could help to have more cohesion between the front office and coaching staff because it would lessen the divisions and leaks. That’s why it would make sense for Rivera to be paired with someone he has worked with in the past, such as Marty Hurney, who is currently the general manager of the Panthers. Hurney got his start in the Washington market as a Redskins beat writer for the Washington Times, and also worked for Redskins public relations for two years.
The Redskins could also promote senior vice president of football operations Eric Schaffer, who has been with the organization for 17 seasons. He has been the team’s main negotiator and cap analyst. Schaffer has worked quietly behind the scenes with different regimes. The director of college scouting, Kyle Smith, is another possibility.
The Redskins have also expressed interest in ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick, who worked in Washington’s front office from 2001 through 2007. He remains a possibility and, while he has never worked with Rivera, he would share a similar mindset when it comes to staying united and squashing leaks.
Two other names to watch: former Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith and former Redskins director of player personnel Morocco Brown. The latter is currently in charge of the Indianapolis Colts’ college scouting.
Regardless of who gets the job, they need to be in sync with Rivera and learn how to massage Snyder’s football desires. One source said framing ideas to make it appear as if it was Snyder’s to begin with is the best approach. If Rivera and his boss can do that, perhaps they can do what others here failed at for two decades under Snyder: put together a consistent winner.