Boots on the Ground; A Football Team Returns to Redskins Park

When we were putting together Maple Street Press' 2010 Annual Redskins' magazine this year, we asked  long-time Redskins beat writer, Rick Snider, to write an article highlighting the differences at Redskins Park from past regimes to the current one. It's obvious things have changed with Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan in charge, so Rick takes us inside Redskins Park. This article unfortunately got dropped from the magazine due to a miscommunication at deadline, so we're posting here as to not let this gem go unread.

There's a football team inside Redskins Park nowadays.

Not a simple statement. For the past 10 years, it was a marketing company whose product was football. A billion dollar corporation more worried about corporate patrons than its players no matter how much they were overpaid. The first $100 million team payroll was in Washington. The first $5 million per year coach. This was the place everyone was paid and paid well.

It was all about selling jerseys of new stars. Postgame parties where the Redskinettes shaked, rattled and rolled for club seat members. Players signing dozens of jerseys and helmets every day for marketing workers to entice advertisers.

It was all about shaking the money tree of Redskins fans in a 90,000-seat stadium with an alleged 200,000 waiting list. Snyder nearly doubled the team's worth from his $750 million purchase with reported $50 million annual profits...

Owner Dan Snyder entered a young corporate tycoon, a 34-year-old who yearned to be cool like athletes despite a small frame and no sports background. His first speech to the team after taking over in 1999 was to say he was an expletive thinking players would be impressed. Instead, they laughed at him like some presumptive nerd folding towels who wanted a varsity letter, too.

Snyder quickly made a very telling change that epitomized the culture switch from football team to corporation. Oversized couches in the lobby where many players spent a few minutes between meetings were replaced with sterile, shallow furniture that wouldn't support 300-pounders.

Indeed, players were informally steered to the lower lockerroom level of the Ashburn, Va. facility. So was the media. No more milling around like the family atmosphere under preceding owner Jack  Kent Cooke. This was a corporation and Snyder didn't want visitors to see all these ballplayers hanging around the building even if it was their building.

Indeed, Snyder moved business operations into Redskins Park. Cooke kept accountants, attorneys and marketing workers at his Middleburg, Va. estate and stadium. Snyder replaced much of the preceding staff and turned a company where many workers spent decades into one that needed a revolving door to handle the constant staff changes both on and off the field.

It stayed that way for 10 years through six coaches. Indeed, only the receptionist remains from the Cooke era.

This long-winded recap is needed to demonstrate the seismic shift undergone over the offseason.

General  manager Bruce Allen and coach Mike Shanahan now run Redskins Park. Snyder is seldom seen, having reportedly spent the offseason trying to buy Miramax Films for $700 million. Snyder's top two aides - vice presidents Vinny Cerrato and Karl Swanson are gone.

And everyone in the building has exhaled. Working hard hasn't stopped, but workers inside Redskins Park now longer fear being fired on a daily basis. Why, you can almost see people smile.

Shanahan ordered a remodeling of the weight room with new strength staff, too. That's not surprising. Most coaches change the atmosphere. But, players noticed a new attitude immediately. After two years of a loose-styled Jim Zorn, including the past season where the coach's fate was seemingly sealed after three games, players now face a new discipline with a long list of fineable infractions down to double parking their vehicles.

Players are no longer permitted to see the owner even when he's around the team. Got a problem? See Allen, who's not overruling the coach so don't bother.

Players are buying into the system. Offseason workouts are technically voluntary, but 99 percent of the roster arrived in March. Clinton Portis and LaRon Landry, who preferred other venues in the past, were staples at Redskins Park this time.

"[Shanahan] came in to this organization and brought in what we we've been looking for, and that's a spark and a head coach who's going to put you in a position to win," Portis said. "It's different when you say commitment and you want someone to buy into a system that you really don't believe in.

"I think having coach Shanahan here, you just believe in whatever he says. If he tells you, ‘I think we can jump off the roof and land safely,' it's like ‘All right, let's jump.' You buy into it. He's a proven coach and a proven leader. I think he gets the best out of the guys. He'll approach you like a man and tell you what he wants from you, and you get it done."

Said quarterback Donovan McNabb: "I think this whole ball club has a lot of excitement and anticipation because of that. We know what we have to do on this football field. A lot of things that happen on the field are really what we do in the classroom as well as out on the practice field so we can put it out on game day."

Which brings us to Albert Haynesworth. The $100 million defensive tackle was the only player not to report for offseason work. In past years, Snyder and Cerrato would have shrugged it off while the coach powerless to say anything.

Shanahan doesn't like to talk about Haynesworth, trying to stay on message over those there. And, there is nothing any coach can do under labor agreement rules given workouts are voluntary. The Redskins couldn't find reasonable trade partner before the draft so the stalemate lingered into June when the only mandatory camp occurred.

But Shanahan finally said, "You're either with us or you're not" over Haynesworth. That star players don't get preferential treatment so whenever the ambivalent defensive player balking over the team's switch to a 3-4 scheme arrived, he'd be no one special to Shanahan. And if Minnesota or another team is still willing to trade for the problematic playmaker, Shanahan's willing to listen.

Welcome to the new tough love of Shanahan.

The tempo of practices also speak volumes. There's no walking onto and off the field. There's no walking through plays. They're non-contact drills, but you'd see running back Willie Parker busting a gut to get around the edge of defenders when past runners wouldn't have bothered. Running back Larry Johnson continued running up the middle after defenders fell behind. And Portis is trying to remain No. 1 in the crowded veteran backfield with his best camp in years after past seasons of watching more than working.

In past seasons, the secondary would lateral interceptions to each other, laughing during the return like schoolyard players. That's not happening under Shanahan, whose quiet military demeanor is remindful of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. You don't want to anger either.

But it's not all about Shanahan, Allen and Snyder. At some point, players must emerge.

In a quiet offseason of free agency, the Redskins still managed a headline-grabbing move by trading for McNabb.

It has made all the difference.

Teammates liked predecessor Jason Campbell. They just didn't believe he could win games. Portis created a firestorm with frank season-ending comments that were roundly downplayed in the lockerroom but quietly confirmed.

Campbell was traded to Oakland and McNabb took over - immediately.

Players used to a quiet quarterback were quick to embrace McNabb, a proven winner at rival Philadelphia. It didn't take more than a moment for teammates to rally around McNabb.

Same for fans, too. McNabb may be the most popular player in Washington in any sport before playing one snap in the burgundy and gold.

McNabb wasn't the only change. The fourth overall draft selection was left tackle Trent Williams. Mild mannered much like predecessor Chris Samuels, Williams won't be known so much for leadership as his ability to help a woeful offensive line.  Shanahan made no pretense of Williams needing to work into the starting lineup. Williams lined up with the regulars right away.

"I like the way he has handled himself," Shanahan said. "He's come out here and he has competed very hard. He picks things up very quickly. We threw into the fire right away, working with the first unit. I have been impressed with him thus far."

The receivers gained aging veteran Joey Galloway, whom the Redskins once considered drafting over Michael Westbrook in 1995. Maybe they should have because Westbrook was a disappointment while Galloway is still chugging away.

Galloway's signing was partly to grow a young receiver corps that underperformed the past two years. Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly need to prove their 2008 second-round picks aren't busts. Maybe Galloway can provide enough tips to make more of a difference in his sidekicks than his own stats.

The defense is not much different. No fancy signings. No big additions. Just a lot of quiet change and indifference over whether Haynesworth comes. This unit is run by defensive end Phillip Daniels and now linebacker Andre Carter whose toughness is unchallenged.

The switch to a hybrid 3-4 has seemed seamless. The team will play a 4-3, too, so practices have seen both. The entire defense and offense was installed by late May during OTAs before another 10 practices to make it instinctual for players before a five-week break before training camp.

"What we do there is we talk about the system that we're using both offensively and defensively and what this system has done, in my case, over the last 17 years," Shanahan said. "Defensively, what system we use and what the defense has done over the last 17 years. I think it's important for the players to know what our goals are, what has been done in the past, what our goals are in the future and what we've done with both systems over time. If they do the little things the right way, we got a chance to do something special."

 Will it be a special season? The optimism around Redskins Park is they can contend. That Shanahan will find a way to win just like the preceding staff often found new ways to lose.

But it's not easy for a team to jump from 4-12 to 9 or 10 wins needed for at least a wild card berth. The Redskins draft was thin after Williams while NFC East rivals New York Giants, Dallas and Philadelphia seemed to better restock.

Williams is only one player and the line could use a couple more on the right side. Maybe a slimmed down Mike Williams can make the move from tackle to right guard and free agent Artis Hicks can play right tackle. Perhaps the new backfield will find strength through depth. It could be the switch to a 3-4 defense will be flexible enough to stop a running or passing team.

The boots on the ground don't see looming obstacles. The tough schedule that opens with a Sunday night national game against Dallas and dates against non-division contenders Minnesota, Indianapolis, Green Bay and Tennessee.

The Redskins are a bit of a mystery team. Rivals expect a much tougher, more disciplined team under Shanahan. The question is how long does it take to reshape the roster. Already, Shanahan signed nearly a dozen veterans who will be at least 30 years old this season in hopes of a quick turnaround.

Half of the playoff teams over recent years didn't make the postseason the previous year. Washington might fit the profile.

An underperforming team that's learning to win in the offseason with new drills and tactics under an old-school coach they know has two Super Bowl rings. An aura of new spirit in the once hallways of despair.

Maybe the Redskins can immediately turnaround their worst season since 1994. They believe with a little luck and a lot of health, it's certainly possible.

After all, few would have believed Redskins Park is a football team with a marketing department after vice versa for the past decade.

Washington Examiner columnist Rick Snider's first Redskins story was in 1983 and his work can be found at the WashingtonExaminer.com and WarpathConfidential.com.

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