This weekend comes Vinny Cerrato’s first draft since being named “executive vice president—football operations” for the Redskins.
That’s Cerrato’s third title since joining the team in 1999. But excepting a one-year sabbatical that serious football man Marty Schottenheimer forced on Cerrato in 2001, he’s been atop the team’s personnel staff since Snyder’s Day 1.
His ride here has been rough. No matter what his job has been called, Cerrato has never been embraced as a man in charge of anything.
The organization realizes that for all his years here and the hoity-toity business card he now carries, Cerrato still has a gravitas deficiency: The January press release announcing Cerrato’s most recent title switch touts his working with Lou Holtz and his “winning a national championship ring in 1988” at Notre Dame.
It’s doubtful anybody not yet sold on Cerrato’s NFL qualifications would be swayed by either the new title or what he did before he got here.
But if the Skins really want to hark back to Cerrato’s past, including his pre-Redskins Park vocations, well, OK.
One of Cerrato’s specific duties under Holtz was mentioned in a 1991 article in the Washington Times headlined “Dear Kid.” For the piece, writer Elizabeth M. Cosin got access to the holiday mail that colleges had been sending football prospects at DeMatha Catholic High School. Among her findings: “Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross personally signs all his Christmas cards. Lou Holtz of Notre Dame got recruiting coordinator Vincent Cerrato to sign the appropriately understated white-on-white greeting.”
Though not mentioned in the Times piece, Holtz had originally hired Cerrato as an assistant at the University of Minnesota, so he had been with him for more than seven seasons before being asked to sign Christmas cards for the boss.
A Golden Gofer, indeed.
Also, anybody who goes looking for Cerrato’s pre-Redskins duties might find evidence of Cerrato’s brief movie career. He played the role of “Antonelli” in a 1993 feature film called Kindergarten Ninja. According to promotional materials, drug gangs are “taking over” until “a kung-fu kicking angel named Bruce” shows up to save the day.
It’s been a long time since the Redskins have unearthed a kicker, or anybody else, capable of providing happy endings.
Cerrato was shown no respect even before he had a chance to earn that status. He was brought in as a consultant to the original Howard Milstein and Dan Snyder group that won the auction for the Redskins in 1999. John Kent Cooke, then the team president, banned Cerrato from what was then called Redskin Park (Snyder changed the name to Redskins Park) while lobbying his peers among NFL owners to reject that bid.
So Cerrato spent his first couple of months on the job at a hotel near Dulles Airport as the Redskins ownership was sorted out. But when Snyder hired Cerrato to take Charley Casserly’s job, he didn’t give him Casserly’s title: general manager. Cerrato’s original title was director of player personnel.
Cerrato didn’t inherit the respect afforded his predecessor, either. When Snyder chased Casserly out of town, he chased a revered figure. That reverence showed the power of a Super Bowl win, because Casserly’s No. 1 draft choices in the years following the Skins’ 1991 title include some of the biggest draft busts ever. The list:
1992: WR Desmond Howard, Michigan (fourth overall)
1993: CB Tom Carter, Notre Dame (17th overall)
1994: QB Heath Shuler, Tennessee (third overall)
1995: ER Michael Westbrook, Colorado (fourth overall)
1996: T Andre Johnson, Penn State (30th overall)
But Casserly left town with his ring. And Cerrato started out with a goodwill deficit.
Cerrato did nothing to mend fences with the fans during his early days as Casserly’s replacement. For example, while the big boss was chasing the biggest names in the game—Jeff George, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith—Cerrato revealed a fetish for players who were already out of the game.
First, Cerrato tried to get Chris Doleman, an ex-Vikings and 49er pass rusher, out of retirement in 1999. That same season he coaxed Irving Fryar to leave the broadcasting business and sign with the Redskins a year after the former Philly receiver had been presented with a motorcycle as a retirement gift from the Eagles. Reports also had the Skins trying to get Barry Sanders, the Lions running back, out of retirement. In 2000, it came out that Reggie White, the then-38-year-old retired sack man, was approached by Cerrato and asked to suit up again.
Cerrato also alienated the players in the middle of his first season. In October 1999, he announced to the press that he was investigating punter Matt Turk’s finger injury to see if it came in a pickup basketball game, not on the football field. Turk called Cerrato’s disclosures “a joke” after the coaches and training staff said he’d hurt the finger taking a snap during a game against the Arizona Cardinals. A football game.
Cerrato was reported to be on Snyder’s protected list when Schottenheimer arrived in 2001 and took control of everything he could.
“I’m good to go. I’m here. That’s what Dan told me,” Cerrato told the Washington Post in January 2001 after Schottenheimer’s hiring. Cerrato was fired before the month was out.
Snyder jettisoned Schottenheimer after one season, of course, and gave Cerrato his same old personnel duties—but only after word got out that Snyder had failed in an attempt to get Bobby Beathard, Casserly’s mentor and architect of the ’80s Skins dynasty, out of retirement.
Cerrato’s image got poleaxed yet again in a September 2002 profile of Snyder by Peter Perl for the Washington Post Magazine, which remains the greatest piece ever written about the owner. Cerrato is introduced as Snyder’s “regular racquetball partner,” and, from the story, it appears that is his most important role with the franchise during the Steve Spurrier era.
Snyder came to the rescue by the next season with a loftier title for Cerrato: vice president of football operations. Then Snyder brought back Joe Gibbs and told the world that the coach was in charge of everything, except setting racquetball times for the owner and the top personnel man.
Now begins the Jim Zorn Era and the hoity-toitiest title yet for Cerrato. Snyder’s comments this offseason indicate that the new executive vice president will have real clout in personnel matters. In any case, Cerrato’s days of signing Christmas cards for the boss are over.
But Hanukkah cards? God only knows.