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George Michael looked sad. The WRC-TV sportscaster was with Joe Gibbs, live on the air last Thursday, commiserating about the treatment the Redskins were getting in their hometown. To hear Michael tell it, suddenly the local media covered the home team the way Al Jazeera covers the Pentagon.
“Everything is so negative!” Michael said.
Well, not everything. Michael, the only sports anchor who matters in this market, has used his nightly broadcasts and weekly show, Full Court Press, to defend Redskins management during what’s building up to be the least newsworthy offseason in memory. For the first time in the Dan Snyder era, there haven’t been any A-list free-agent signings or firings or trades to talk about. No minicamp looms. There’s no buzz around town about this month’s draft. The only thing close to man-bites-dog facing the Skins last week was the failure to land Courtney Brown, a defensive end whom Gibbs had recruited by: (a) flying to Cleveland on Redskin One, owner Snyder’s jet, and (b) signing Brown’s second cousin, free-agent reserve safety Pierson Prioleau.
But Michael didn’t try to coax Gibbs into apologizing for the Brown nonsigning. No, he instead turned over his highly rated airwaves to Gibbs so the coach could again claim that no matter what you read or hear about all the chaos or dishonesty within the front office, the Redskins are as “stable” as any team in the NFL, the team’s personnel department is essentially a clone of dynastic New England’s, and everything’s going according to plan. In the absence of new free agents to hype, the coach re-endorsed last year’s most expensive acquisitions, though every football mind but his had already determined those moves to have backfired like an old dirt bike. “Mark Brunell’s days are not through!” Gibbs said at one point, and, at another, “We’re still trying to get [Mike Barrow] on board!”
Much of Gibbs’ presentation is easily rebutted by, well, the facts. Stable? Redskins Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot, guys whom Gibbs had built up as the sort of “core-group Redskins” that he’d need with him to bring back the glory days, have bolted for other teams. And over the past year the Redskins front office has been very publicly labeled as dishonest by Laveranues Coles, LaVar Arrington, and Kellen Winslow Jr. Then there’s Brunell, who was given an $8.5 million bonus to sign with the Skins last season and then overthrew everybody but Fidel Castro during his nine games as a starter. And Barrow, an aged (he turns 35 this month) linebacker who signed an $11.6 million pact with the team last year, didn’t even get through one full practice because of recurring knee problems he’d had before he inked the deal.
“It was as if he was a politician stumping for votes,” says Steve Czaban, co-host of The Sports Reporters on sports radio station WTEM-AM, of Gibbs’ WRC appearance. “We were watching that and wondering, ‘Why’s he doing this?’ and thinking, ‘Just go run the team!’ The whole thing seemed unnecessary for a coach of any stature, much less Gibbs’ stature, to spin things in Carvillian fashion. That was so strange.”
Stranger still, the coach delivered the exact same spiel during a barnstorming tour of local radio shows a couple of weeks ago. The rehashes could be taken as proof that somebody upstairs—in Ashburn, that is—thinks the message didn’t take.
Teams that have lost as long and as loud as the Redskins have in recent years should expect to be hammered during the offseason. But the Michael/Gibbs circus provided more proof that the franchise hasn’t yet figured out how to behave when handled with anything but kid gloves.
During his return season, Gibbs had a weekly radio show on WTEM, The Joe Gibbs Show, co-hosted by Czaban and Andy Pollin. But Gibbs at some point apparently became disenchanted with the hosts’ coverage of his 6-10 team, which, when he wasn’t around, occasionally reached a degree of toughness that was almost Philadelphian: Displaying equal parts ingenuity and sadism, a Sports Reporters producer once inserted a laugh track into highlights of a Gibbs press conference. At season’s end, Gibbs hinted that he wouldn’t be going back to WTEM and began making appearances on rival WJFK on an evening show hosted by Larry Michael, who replaced 25-year veteran Frank Herzog as the Redskins play-by-play man last season. The environment at WJFK just got even friendlier: Larry Michael was hired two weeks ago by Snyder to be the team’s executive producer of broadcast properties but will keep his WJFK and play-by-play jobs. (The other Michael in local media, George Michael—no relation—has a similar whiff of Armstrong Williams in his résumé: George Michael has for years worked with Redskins Broadcasting, a team-owned entity, both as a play-by-play man for preseason game telecasts and as co-host of a weekly TV program with the Skins coach. He didn’t return several phone calls for comment for this story.)
Redskins spokesperson Karl Swanson says that as things now stand the coach’s show will be on WTEM next season, but no decision has been made as to whether Gibbs will be joined by Czaban and Pollin.
“I’d love to have him back,” says Czaban, who has no contractual ties to the Redskins, when asked about potentially losing the Gibbs show. “I thought we had a good relationship and that he’d come back. But it’s tough when he’s objecting to things said [on WTEM] outside the broadcast of his show.”
Gibbs is not the only guy in Skins management who appears to have gone forum-shopping lately. Snyder’s been doing the same. After a year of threats, last month Snyder pulled a group of season tickets from the Washington Post, claiming that employees were selling them to scalpers. The ticket pulling occurred shortly after the Post’s Nunyo Demasio, the Redskins beat reporter, broke the story that Coles, the team’s leading receiver, wanted out. Gibbs held a press conference to refute the story, but his performance in front of the microphones only threw the Coles situation into turmoil. (Full disclosure: I write pop-music articles for the Washington Post as a freelancer.)
Turns out that most of the season tickets at issue were distributed to those in the paper’s circulation department. In any case, taking back the seats didn’t get the newsroom in line: Demasio later reported that Snyder threatened to prevent Coles from playing anywhere next season and instead send the player a “flat-screen” television so Coles could watch Redskins games. So last week, Snyder hit ’em where it really hurts. He sat down with David Elfin of the Washington Times for what the paper billed as his first interview in two years.
Swanson says the Times interview came about primarily because of Elfin’s recent election as head of the Pro Football Writers Association. He adds that Snyder’s paper choice shouldn’t be taken as a chilling in the relationship between the Redskins and the Post or as in any way connected to the reportage of the Coles story.
“Really, the most surprising thing to me was that it took so long for somebody to write that story about Coles,” says Swanson. “Since the end of the season, everybody at Redskins Park knew he was unhappy.”—Dave McKenna