The Sean McVay vacuum haunts the Redskins now more than ever

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Nearly three years ago, as Sean McVay’s name was starting to creep up the list of the NFL’s brightest head coaching candidates, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder had an opportunity. One that required some franchise-changing foresight, but remained completely out of reach for Snyder largely because it relied on a modest set of football strengths he has never been able to buy.

Listening rather than dictating.

Observing rather than neglecting.

Learning rather than ignoring.


If 20-plus years of Snyder’s reign in Washington has taught his fan base anything, it’s that listening, observing and learning haven’t translated from his business acumen to the football field. If those attributes had, there would be a different conversation around the franchise today. One that might involve more Sean McVay right now and less Bruce Allen. Almost certainly, it would be a dialogue that was more about winning than losing.

One NFL executive who has known Allen and Snyder for decades summed up the Redskins in cutting fashion Monday, stating: “As an owner, you have to know what you have. Dan never should have let McVay get out of the building and he probably never should have let Bruce stay.”

Sean McVay (R), pictured in 2014 with quarterback Kirk Cousins and head coach Jay Gruden, was a rising talent with the Redskins before leaving for the Rams. (Getty Images)
Sean McVay (R), pictured in 2014 with quarterback Kirk Cousins and head coach Jay Gruden, was a rising talent with the Redskins before leaving for the Rams. (Getty Images)

You want to understand what the hell is wrong in Washington? That’s the entire conversation in a nutshell under Snyder. The Sean McVay vacuum. A departure that saw Snyder place a premium on keeping Allen in the fold for a stadium project that may never happen, while failing to see that McVay was a head coach who could win enough to actually get a stadium built.

That’s just revisionist history, right? Snyder couldn’t have possibly fired Jay Gruden in 2016, after three seasons of 21-26-1 football and one playoff loss. Right? For a 30-year-old McVay who was unproven as an NFL head coach? Who could have taken that kind of risk?

Here’s my response to that: Dan Snyder fired Marty Schottenheimer after one season of 8-8 football so he could hire a superstar college coach in Steve Spurrier and reinvent the wheel on offense in Washington. Yet he let McVay go despite the fact that McVay was already reinventing the wheel on offense inside Snyder’s own franchise, and with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, no less. Of course, Snyder never knew what he had because he didn’t understand how good McVay was, didn’t see him as a star, and was never going to be able to make that kind of decision unless someone with football brains explained it to him. And even then, Snyder probably wouldn’t have listened unless Allen told him to.

This is the epitome of the Snyder football empire. It’s a place where an ownership flack jacket like Bruce Allen can endure for a decade, while the brightest minds like McVay gladly depart to find meaningful success. Through 20 years, that’s the legacy of Snyder: periodically grooming football winners for someone else and retaining the losers to do his dirtiest bidding and then stand up in front of the cameras.

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Just like Allen did on Monday, when he tried to explain why Snyder wasn’t addressing the fan base on the day he fired yet another head coach: “Because I am,” Allen said. “Dan makes himself available from time to time.”

Allen smiled after he delivered that line. Probably because he knows that Snyder was never going to have the courage to stand up and be the rightful punching bag in this whole mess. That’s Allen’s job. He’s the suited armor of distraction, taking the blows and trying to keep the fans’ ire on himself rather than Snyder. This is what makes Allen so valuable to Redskins ownership. It’s why he continues on, despite the franchise winning less than 40 percent of games since he was first hired as general manager in 2010.

Fans shouldn’t fall for that sleight of hand, the messaging that will once again pin the blame on someone lower in the food chain than Snyder. For 20 years, Snyder has tried to paint his failures as someone else’s mistakes. From the seven different head coaches to the assembly line of coordinators to the quarterbacks who never live up to expectations. It’s an always-changing but never-adding-up equation of talent and coaching with the same common denominator:

Dan Snyder. The guy whose place in this failed math is always in the bottom half of the fraction.

A 42.9 percent winner in 20-plus years. All while his franchise value has nearly quadrupled, to the tune of $3.1 billion this season. A titanic incubator that makes unbelievably little sense, growing Snyder’s resume of football failure but also bloating his bank account in the process. All the while, letting talent slip away to find better results on some other horizon. Living inside the McVay vacuum and wondering how many quality head coaches might have slipped through the organization’s fingers.

Guys like Kyle Shanahan, who spent four years under Snyder’s rule and then was fired in late 2013 — eventually freeing him to climb to the Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. The same Shanahan who is now appearing to turn his own head coaching corner with the 4-0 San Francisco 49ers. Or Matt LaFleur, who was purged in the same firing as Shanahan. A move that set LaFleur onto a five-year journey that has parked him in the head coaching spot of the 4-1 Green Bay Packers.

Those are two guys who might have been useful to the Redskins after the ax came down on them following the 2013 season. But they went out the door, while guys like Allen remained — set on a path of promotion and placation that has positioned him as Snyder’s football czar in Washington. He holds the purse strings. He shapes the personnel staff. He has the last call on marketing. And when a coach like Jay Gruden gets fired in the middle of the season, he stands up in front of media and tells lies about the organization having a “damn good” culture.

In the broader sense, maybe Allen is right. Maybe the Redskins do have a “damn good” culture. You can find it at the top of the Packers, 49ers and Los Angeles Rams. Promoted by the coaches that Snyder let get out the door, due to a football understanding he has never been able to buy.

The coaching talent leaves and thrives in organizations that Snyder can’t touch. Guys like Allen stay and try to explain it away. Somewhere, Snyder is hidden from the spotlight of football responsibility, planning to make himself available about as often as he finds success in this realm.

Rarely.

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