By S.L. Price
November 06, 2009

It's all about him now. Whether Dan Snyder secretly wanted this when he bought the Washington Redskins a decade ago is less intriguing a question than why it took so long to become clear, but then, there were so many distractions along the way. There was so much free-agent cash thrown about, year after year, and the rise and fall of Steve Spurrier, and the return of Joe Gibbs, and the slew of forgettable quarterbacks, and the strange hiring of Jim Zorn -- so many high-drama ideas gone wrong -- that it was hard to cut through and see that maybe this was the real plan all along.

How else to explain it? Billionaires do what they want. Big money allows the owner of a professional sports team to fade into the background, or be a gushing fanboy or a meddlesome presence, but none of those roles occur by accident. In essence, this is the realization that dawned upon the team faithful -- the whole Washington region, really -- over the last few weeks.

The Redskins are 2-5 coming out of their bye week and, yes, there's still chatter about Zorn's ability and the offensive line's failures and quarterback Jason Campbell's leadership. But this season's debacle has taken on a decidedly different feel, as if everyone simultaneously, sadly, realized that all that football stuff was secondary. Every game is shaping up as a referendum on Snyder. The team's most important player is a guy in a business suit.

"Most people think the owner's an idiot," said Phil Fenty, 69, whose sportswear store has been a Washington fixture for 25 years, and whose son, Adrian, happens to be the mayor of Washington D.C. "And that's putting it mildly."

Indeed, instead of tamping down the vitriol, the Redskins bye week only seemed to fuel further disgusted chatter about fan boycotts, about lifetime supporters turning in season tickets, about Internet-fueled plans for some kind of anti-Snyder demonstration for the Nov. 15 home game against Denver. The heat has grown so constant and so intense that Snyder, veering from his no-interview policy during the season, orchestrated an impromptu mea culpa on Tuesday, apologizing to the fans with a royal we. "We just feel terrible," he said of the team's poor play. "We're disappointed and we're embarrassed."

And he misread his audience completely. The outrage toward Snyder goes well beyond losing; it has been fired and fed by management moves that any sentient being would recognize as public-relations minefields. First, there was the Washington Post's September revelation that the team had been taking an usually hard line against defaulting season-ticket holders, suing 125 of them, many recession-strapped, despite the team's legendarily long waiting list. A month later, the team hired retired offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis -- fresh from calling bingo numbers in Michigan -- to send Zorn a devastating vote of no-confidence, and soon relieved the head coach of his play-calling duties.

"The things he's done in the past, people sort of tolerated, but what he did with Zorn, hanging him out to dry like that? That was just plain cruel," Fenty said Thursday. "Either fire the guy ... but you don't let him hang out there like that."

Then, during the team's hapless Monday night loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 26, FedEx field personnel confiscated any signs from people entering the stadium -- many of them ripping Snyder, but one held by a woman sending a supportive message to her husband fighting in Afghanistan. The takeaway was irresistible: A near-caricature of an owner so tin-eared, hard-hearted and, well, dumb, that he all but begged to be ripped. On Wednesday, former Redskins running back and lifelong loose cannon John Riggins went on Showtime's Inside the NFL, verbally soaked Snyder with gasoline and lit a match.

"This is a bad guy that owns this team. I'll just tell you that up front: Bad guy," Riggins said. And, he added for good measure, "Let me put it to you this way ... this person's heart is dark."

Never mind that, when pressed, Riggins had nothing to back up such a statement. Never mind, too, that the next day Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache broke his media boycott to defend his boss, calling Riggins' words "vicious," and Snyder "generous" and "kind."

"There's nobody that cares more about the fans than Dan Snyder," Blache said.

The suspicion here is that Riggins' words will carry more weight. After all, Washington is a town that values perception more than reality, and winners most of all. Who do you think the common fan is going to identify with? The beloved former Super Bowl hero? Or the coordinator whose defense couldn't stop winless Detroit?

"You know, there comes a tipping point in these things," says former Republican congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, who surveyed the Washington scene for three decades before retiring in 2008, as he puts it, "undefeated and unindicted." Davis saw one such tipping point when, as chair of the House Reform Committee that oversaw the hearings on steroids in baseball in 2005, he watched Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro self-destruct in one afternoon. He says a combination of factors -- traffic problems at FedEx Field, high ticket prices, new Congressional ethics rules -- have already drained Redskins games of their once-lofty status as a Washington power center, and the latest lawsuits and signage issues may well turn the tide for the rank-and-file.

"Somebody invited us to the Eagles game," Davis said of he and his wife. "And I said, 'How much you going to pay us?'"

But, he adds, "there isn't anything here that a winning team can't turn around. That's the bottom line."

Maybe. But fans have a way of separating a winning team from its owner, especially one whose image has crystallized in so negative a fashion; Steinbrenner won, but his rehabilitation came only after many decades, a debilitating illness and a much lower profile. Snyder, meanwhile, has only two playoff wins as Redskins owner. He is nearing 45, but hardly seems to be growing into the role. Even this week's apology came wrapped in pettiness: Snyder has long feuded with The Washington Post, which was pointedly not told he would be making a rare statement on Tuesday. Post reporters later asked why they were frozen out and, word is, they were told that, had they shown up, Snyder would have probably not spoken at all.

Consider that: Snyder would've scuttled his apology to the fans if the region's biggest conduit to the fans had been present. The possibility of such a stance -- just the fact that Snyder's staff thought it possible -- points to an essential smallness that fans instinctively read into the sign and season-ticket imbroglios and that Riggins, in his inarticulate way, finds so repellent. It's no wonder, really. His career was powered by a mythic looseness; Riggins was, after all, the player who called across a table to Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor: "Loosen up, Sandy baby, you're too tight."

Of course, Riggins also played for owner Jack Kent Cooke, a noted bon vivant who didn't apologize for much either. The fact is, teams do reflect their owners for good and ill, and on Wednesday a pall hung over the team's training facility. Zorn stood up after practice and, with the earnestness of a parson, talked about "soul-searching." The players ducked their heads to show they heeded Snyder's words about "embarrassment," and nearly to a man did their best to echo them.

"We're all embarrassed with the way we've performed thus far this season -- so what he said is true," said linebacker London Fletcher.

"It's not a good feeling to be who we are and where we are right now," said wide receiver Santana Moss, sitting in front of his locker. "We know there're people out there who pay a lot of money and respect what we've been trying to do for a lot of years, and you hate to let them down."

But then something in Moss kicked in -- pride, or maybe just the idea that he was forced to swallow something he didn't quite believe. His mouth twisted, his eye took on a harder glint. "But at the same time, I hope they understand that we're not trying to," he said. "You know what I mean? They have to have our backs. It's like, you have my back, I have your back. Just because we're not as good as you want us to be, that's not reason to turn your back. To me, that's not a real fan.

"For the ones that's truly behind us? We feel sorry and we are ashamed. But for the ones that's not? We're still ashamed, but there's nothing we can do about what you're letting out at us with your anger and signs and whatever else you've got going on. You know?"

It wasn't much, just a flash of fight, gone almost as soon as it appeared. Dan Snyder's team plays in Atlanta on Sunday, embarking on a second-half schedule that leaves little room for error or shame or apologies, for that matter. One of the world's most valuable sports franchises -- it says so right in his official bio -- stumbles onward, waiting for the next mistake.

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