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Unpacking the Curious Logic of Dan Snyder’s Defenders

Who Is to Blame for the Team’s On-Field Struggles?

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The Washington Redskins held their rookie mini camp at Redskins Park Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Halloween must be coming, because the trolls are out in force on Hogs Haven. Or perhaps it’s because their hero, maybe employer, Dan Snyder has been back in the headlines. Most recently, fellow NFL franchise owner Jim Irsay and long-time NFL announcer Al Michaels almost simultaneously broke ranks to suggest it is time for the NFL to do the right thing and force him to sell the team.

While it is generally considered best practice to not feed the trolls, sometimes I can’t resist, because they say the darndest things. What I have found is that, after indulging their twisted arguments for a while, it is usually possible to make them go away by asking them to defend Snyder’s record on the field. The simple reason this works is that the team’s record under Snyder is indefensible. There is nothing anyone can say to put a positive spin on 23 years without a divisional round playoff win.

The only recourse is to attempt to shift the blame to others in the organization, such as coaches, players and front office execs. The current front office and coaching staff are easy targets, because none of them has been that successful in the NFL. But what about Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan?

As current events are once again bringing Snyder’s defenders out of the woodwork, I thought it would be a good time to examine the logic behind their blame shifting arguments. I will start by reviewing the team’s record during Snyder’s tenure. Then I will take a detailed look at the records of all of the key football staff who have worked for Snyder and other NFL owners to see if I can work out who is really responsible for the team’s on-the-field struggles.

Washington’s Record Under Snyder

NFL-Monday Night Football: Chicago Bears at Washington Redskins Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the immortal words of Bill Parcells:

You are what your record says you are.

Let’s see what that means for Mr. Snyder.

Dan Snyder took over principal ownership of the Redskins franchise from the estate of Jack Kent Cooke in 1999. That season, the team he inherited from his predecessors went 10-6, clinched the NFC East, beat the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card playoff round, and lost the Divisional Round playoff to Tampa Bay. Quarterback Brad Johnson completed a new team record 316 passes for 4,005 yards and 24 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, en route to a Pro Bowl appearance.

Little did we realize at the time, the 10-6 regular season record and Wild Card wins would both become high marks of the team’s performance during his tenure as owner up to the present.

During his first season in charge, Snyder fired Super Bowl winning GM Charley Casserly who had been named NFL Executive of the Year by Sports Illustrated, Pro Football Weekly, The Sporting News and USA Today for fleecing the Saints of their entire 1999 draft and 2000 first and third-round picks, while still managing to select Washington’s primary target, future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey. In Casserly’s place, Snyder appointed Vinny Cerrato as Director of player personnel. Head coach Norv Turner was fired 13 games into the 2000 season, with a 7-6 record.

What followed for the next 22 years was a sustained run of under-performance that is only rivaled by two other football teams.

It would be unfair to include the 1999 season in Snyder’s record, because he only began to exert influence over football operations in the 2000 offseason. It is also still too early to judge the 2022 season, although early results are not looking great. Therefore, I will focus on the record from the 2000 through 2021 seasons.

From 2000 to 2021, Washington only had four winning seasons (> 8 regular season wins). This ties them with Jacksonville as the second worst teams in the league during that period. Cleveland only had three winning seasons, making them the only team worse than Washington and Jacksonville.

Washington is the only NFL team to not register a single season with more than 10 regular season wins since 2000. Cleveland, Detroit and the Jets all managed to record one 11 win season. Jacksonville and Houston managed two seasons with 11 or more wins.

Since 2000, Washington’s post-season record consists of a single Wild Card playoff win (2005 season). They are in a three-way tie with Miami and Cleveland for the second worst playoff record in this period. Detroit is the only team without a playoff win this century.

Washington looks slightly better in terms of regular season winning percentage during Snyder’s period of influence. Since 2000 they are ranked 27th in the league with a 45.6% winning percentage. This puts them ahead of the Raiders (44.7%), Houston (48.3%), Jacksonville (40.9%), Detroit (38.1%) and Cleveland (36.9%), but trailing the Jets at 47.5%.

Perhaps the most perverse argument I have heard recently, actually in defense of Ron Rivera not Snyder, was about avoiding really bad seasons. Since 2020, Washington has had seven seasons with five or fewer wins. This puts them in a tie with Houston as the eighth-worst team in the NFL, behind the Jets (8), Tampa (8), Arizona (9), Detroit (11), Jacksonville (11), the Raiders (11) and Cleveland (13).

The stats reviewed to this point show that Washington has achieved a sustained run of poor performance under Snyder’s ownership that is only really rivaled by two clubs: the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns. What distinguishes these three teams from the rest of the league is how, even compared to the other handful of consistently losing franchises, they have managed to completely deprive their fanbases of anything to get excited about on the field for over two decades.

The Jacksonville Jaguars also have only had four winning seasons since 2000. However, unlike Snyder’s team, they made an appearance in the AFC Championship game in 2017. They also achieved a 12-win record in 2005 and an 11-win season in 2007, capped by a Wild Card playoff win.

Raiders fans have been similarly bedeviled by a meddling owner, and have only enjoyed one more winning season than the Washington faithful. Nevertheless, despite the Davis family’s mismanagement, they enjoyed a consecutive streak of three playoff winning seasons while Snyder was taking the reins, culminating in a Super Bowl appearance in 2002, and enjoyed a 12-win season as recently as 2016.

Arizona, Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago and San Francisco have subjected their fans to long losing runs, but those have been punctuated by Super Bowl appearances and other playoff wins. Even the lowly Houston Texans have managed to string together winning runs with Wild Card Playoff wins from 2011 to 2012, 2014 to 2016 and 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, any Washington fans born in the late 1990s have never even experienced back-to-back winning seasons.

The only other team that deserves an honorable mention in this conversation is Cincinnati, who until last season managed to deprive their fans of a playoff win since 1990. However, their seven playoff appearances from 2005 to 2015 put them in a completely different class than Snyder’s Redskins. And that was before they finally drafted a top-tier franchise QB and made a trip to the Super Bowl last season.

Who is to Blame?

The facts regarding the Washington football team’s performance on the field during Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner are indisputable. Applying Parcell’s axiom, Dan Snyder would seem to be the third-worst owner in the NFL over the last 22 years.

This brings us back to the curious arguments of Mr. Snyder’s defenders. According to the small contingent of commenters who turn out to defend his reputation when any of these facts are brought up, somehow it’s not his fault.

If the team’s consistently poor performance on the field is not the result of the owner meddling in football operations, then it must either be the fault of the people running football operations in his employ, an incredible 23-year run of bad luck, or some kind of curse. I think we can safely discount the bad luck and curse theories, which means it comes down to Dan Snyder or the people working for him.

Being a scientist by training, I couldn’t help but put that to the test. My method was to compare the records of the main football operations staff who have held the same or closely similar positions under Mr. Snyder and other team owners. By holding one thing constant (same coach or front office exec) and varying the other (team owner), we should be able tease out the owner’s influence across the many changes in front office and coaching regimes.

To make this comparison, I limited myself to head coaches, offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, and front office executives with primary responsibility for player personnel, who have worked in a similar capacity under Snyder and at least one other NFL team owner. I did not attempt to compare records of any of the talented coaching assistants who had limited success in Snyder’s organization and then flourished after taking HC roles with other clubs (e.g. Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, Kyle Shanahan), to avoid the confounding effect of comparing performance across different positions and team owners. The results would look worse for Mr. Snyder if I had included them.

Head Coaches

Five men have been head coach under Snyder and at least one other team owner. Out of the five, only Norv Turner managed to have his best regular season winning percentage with Snyder’s Redskins. For his efforts, Snyder fired him with a 7-6 record, during the 2000 season.

The most notable names on the list are Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan. Under Jack Kent Cooke’s ownership, Gibbs led the Redskins on a dominant run for a decade, winning three Super Bowls, four NFC championships and accumulating an amazing 67.4% regular season winning percentage and averaging more than one playoff win per season. Shanahan led the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl Championships and kept the team in playoff contention for over a decade from 1996 to 2005.

Neither multiple Super Bowl winner could even achieve a winning regular season record under Snyder’s leadership. Gibbs became the only head coach to ever win a playoff game under Snyder in the 2005 Wild Card round (technically, Norv Turner did too in 1999, but I am not counting that because it happened before Snyder started wielding influence on football operations). His 10-6 regular season record that year is the high mark under Snyder, and is also equal to the fifth-worst record during his 12 seasons under Jack Kent Cooke.

Marty Schottenheimer had the second-best regular season record prior to joining the Redskins, although his playoff record was no match to Gibbs or Shanahan. He did manage to achieve an 8-8 record in his single season in DC before Snyder fired him. Like Gibbs and Shanahan, his season in DC marked the low point of his coaching career. After leaving DC, he had mixed results in San Diego, leading the Chargers to a 12-4 record in 2004 and a 14-2 record in 2006, both well exceeding the best season records of any head coach under Snyder.

Ron Rivera was less accomplished than Gibbs or Shanahan, and had a worse regular season record than Schottenheimer prior to working for Snyder. Nevertheless, he did rebuild the 2-14 Panthers and lead them to an NFC championship and he came to DC with a career winning regular season record. He also had seasons with 11 (2017), 12 (2013) and 15 (2015) wins in Carolina. He has yet to achieve a winning season under Snyder, and three years into his rebuild it is not clear if his team is going forward or backward.

In summary, the two most highly accomplished head coaches of the group were unable to come close to replicating their prior success under Snyder. Both Schottenheimer and Rivera experienced some success with their other teams, but were/have been unable to do so in Washington. For the four previously successful coaches, working for Snyder represented the low point of their coaching careers. Only Norv Turner achieved his highest winning percentage working for Snyder, and he was fired after Week 14 of his second season, with a winning record.

Offensive Coordinators

Six of Snyder’s offensive coordinators have held the same position with other teams. I used the average rankings of their offenses, in yardage (Yds) and scoring (Pts) production, to compare their performances in Washington with their time at other clubs. For simplicity, all of the rankings this and the following section are expressed with 1 being best and 32nd being worst.

Almost uniformly, offensive coordinators have fared better elsewhere than with Dan Snyder’s team. The lone exception was Al Saunders’ post-Redskins career. Saunders spent one year apiece with the Rams and Raiders after his two years in DC from 2006 to 2007. His average rankings fell after leaving Washington because of a single season with the Rams where his offense ranked 27th in yardage and 30th in scoring. The following season in Oakland, his offense ranked 9th in yardage and 16th in scoring, both marks bettering his rankings with the Redskins. Prior to joining the Redskins, Saunders’ led one of the league’s top-ranked offenses in Kansas City from 2001 to 2005.

Defensive Coordinators

Washington has been through an amazing 11 defensive coordinators during Snyder’s tenure as owner. I compared coordinators’ defenses in terms of average rankings for yardage allowed (Yds), opponents scoring (Pts) and takeaways (Tk Aways). Results for this group are more of a mixed bag than the offensive coordinators.

Jack Del Rio, Greg Manusky, Jim Haslett, and George Edwards ran better ranked defenses at their other clubs than in Washington. Marvin Lewis led one of the greatest defenses of all time in Baltimore from 2000 to 2001 before coming to DC. It took a few years to put that defense together, and it was not that dominant from 1996 to 1998. As a result, his average ranking for yards allowed during his time in Baltimore is lower than during his single season with the Redskins. His defense in Baltimore ranked much better in terms of points allowed and takeaways than his unit in Washington, even including the ramp-up years in the average rankings.

Joe Barry and Gregg Williams had mixed results before and after their times in Washington. Barry ran the worst-ranked defense in the league during his two years with the Lions from 2007 to 2008, during which time the club became the first NFL team to ever go 0-16. That might beg the question why he was hired by Washington, but I suppose there was nowhere to go but up (incidentally, current GM Martin Mayhew was also Senior VP/General Manager of the 0-16 Lions team, albeit in his first year with the team). Not surprisingly, his defense in Washington was better than his previous stint. After leaving Washington, his defense has shown further improvement through a season and seven games in Green Bay.

Gregg Williams’ defenses have been up and down in four years with Tennessee before coming to Washington, during his time working for Snyder, and afterward. Overall, he was one of the better defensive coordinators under Snyder, except for the 2006 season when his defense hit the skids. As a result, it is hard to say whether he was better working for the Redskins or any other team.

Finally, Greg Blache, Kurt Schottenheimer and Ray Rhodes all had their best seasons as defensive coordinators with Snyder’s Redskins.

In summary, out of 11 defensive coordinators under Snyder, five performed better with their other teams, including Marvin Lewis, two had mixed results, and four had their best seasons with the Redskins.

Front Office Execs

Five front office executives with primary responsibility for player personnel have served in similar or roughly analogous roles under Snyder and for other teams.

Of the five, only Scot McCloughan achieved a better regular season in Washington than with his previous teams, San Francisco and Seattle. McCloughan is a difficult case for inclusion, because his role in Seattle involved a joint effort in roster building between himself, as senior personnel executive, GM John Schneider and HC with personnel authority, Pete Carroll. I decided I couldn’t ignore his role in building one of the dominant teams of the decade through some of the most inspired drafting this century.

His pre-Snyder stats are also split between the under-performing 49ers (VP Player Personnel/GM 2005 to 2009), which he had a role in bringing back to respectability, and the highly successful Seahawks (Senior Personnel Executive 2010 to 2014), where he was instrumental in some of the best draft picks in recent decades, including Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and many others.

Needless to say, McCloughan was unable to build a similar juggernaut under Snyder, although he did mastermind Washington’s best draft in a decade.

Two names that have become nearly synonymous with the Snyder-era dysfunction in Washington are Vinny Cerrato and Bruce Allen. Both execs achieved much better records with their prior teams than they were able to achieve in Washington. Vinny Cerrato, in particular has become a laughing stock due to his role in the numerous free agent fiascos during the early Snyder years. I’m not sure how many fans even realize he came to Washington from the highly successful Steve Young era 49ers where he was EVP for Player Personnel and, as a scout, had a hand in drafting players including Ted Washington, Ricky Watters, Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young.

Bruce Allen was GM of the post-Super Bowl championship Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While his prior team was nowhere near the level of Cerrato’s late 1990’s 49ers, it was still significantly better than the Allen-era Redskins.

That’s right, Dan Snyder’s organization even managed to make Vinny Cerrato and Bruce Allen look worse.

Last of all, of the current duo of Mayhew (GM) and Hurney (EVP Player Personnel), Hurney has had more success with his prior team. Mayhew has yet to achieve any real success at the executive level. He appears to be picking up where he left off with the Lions in Washington, while Hurney’s record has dropped a little in the early going.

In summary, four of Snyder’s main personnel executives did better with their previous clubs than in Washington and that even includes Vinny Cerrato and Bruce Allen. Martin Mayhew presided over a crap team in Detroit and seems to be on track to do about the same with the Commanders. Last of all, it is worth noting that none of these executives have got a job with another NFL team after working for Snyder.

NFL-Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Occam’s Razor Says Dan is the Problem

To summarize the main findings thus far:

  • Four out of five Head Coaches achieved greater success working for different team owners, including multiple Super Bowl winners Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan and even the underwhelming Ron Rivera.
  • All six offensive coordinators who have held similar positions elsewhere had greater success with other clubs. The one partial exception, Al Saunders, was much more successful in Kansas City and Oakland than in Washington.
  • Five of 11 defensive coordinators had greater success with other clubs than Washington, two have had mixed results throughout their careers and four had their best results under Snyder.
  • Four out of five personnel executives achieved greater success with other teams than with Snyder.

To most Washington fans, these findings will just reinforce what they already know: that Dan Snyder is the ultimate cause of Washington’s on-the-field struggles. Yet certain regular posters on Hogs Haven will invariably attempt to explain that the problem lies with someone else. Most recently, the blame has shifted to Ron Rivera, the Martys, Scott Turner, Jack Del Rio, Carson Wentz, or some combination of those culprits. That might seem plausible to fans with short memories, because none of that cast of characters has a particularly impressive football resume.

The problem with argument is that, in order to excuse Dan Snyder of responsibility for 23 years of failure on the field, they also need to explain how a long line of accomplished coaches and executives before them have also failed to find success in Washington. These include three-time Super Bowl champion Joe Gibbs, two-time Super Bowl champion Mike Shannan, 2000 Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, Kansas City offensive coordinator Al Saunders, and Carroll-Wilson Seahawks co-architect Scot McCloughan. Even dismal Redskins’ defensive coordinators Greg Manusky and Joe Barry managed to field respectable squads with other teams (Manusky: 2009 San Francisco; Barry: 2021 Packers), but not under Snyder.

Scientists have a principle known as Occam’s Razor, which is used to decide between competing explanations put forward to explain the same set of phenomena. Occam’s Razor states that the simplest explanation which can account for all observations is preferred, until facts are uncovered which require a more complicated explanation.

On the one hand we have the simple explanation that, through his mismanagement, Dan Snyder creates the conditions which prevent even accomplished football executives and coaches from succeeding. On the other we have: Rivera failed because of X, Gruden failed because of Y, Shanahan failed because of Z, Gibbs failed because of Q, Scot McCloughan failed because of R, and so on. I will grant you Spurrier, Zorn and Bruce Allen.

By simple application of Occam’s Razor, it is clear that Dan Snyder is the problem. And when William of Occam and Bill Parcells both drive you to the same conclusion, you know you are on to something.

Acknowledgement: Thanks as usual to James Dorsett for expert editorial assistance and to one regular commenter, in particular, whose bizarre arguments and strangely robotic writing style provided the inspiration for this piece.


Who is most responsible for the team’s struggles on the field since 2000?

This poll is closed

  • 89%
    Dan Snyder
    (658 votes)
  • 0%
    The coaches
    (6 votes)
  • 1%
    Front office execs
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    The quarterbacks
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    Other players
    (0 votes)
  • 1%
    The curse
    (13 votes)
  • 0%
    (4 votes)
  • 4%
    The liberal media
    (35 votes)
  • 0%
    Someone else
    (3 votes)
737 votes total Vote Now