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People make the same mistakes over and over again. That’s human nature, and it’s too obvious to generally be worth mentioning. What’s not always obvious is that there’s something fractal about how people make those mistakes, so you wind up with the same pattern repeating at varying degrees of scale.
The most glaring example of this in D.C. sports this week was the Nationals. The Lerner family, which owns the team, is notoriously… let’s say “parsimonious” when it comes to paying management, and managed to get themselves outbid for a manager without any competition. They simply were not willing to make Bud Black a competitive offer, so their new manager is Dusty Baker.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the willingness to pay players (the team had the sixth-highest payroll in baseball this year), Nats ownership consistently looks for corners to cut. This pattern includes everything from their previous managerial hires, the refusal to up the player budget for a pre-playoff trade, and paying the stadium’s electric bill in 2008.
The football team’s fractal pattern showed up in a more unexpected place: the radio station, as ESPN 980 announced the cancellation of their stupidly named morning show The Man Cave before it could ever find its footing.
The show paired comedian Chris Paul and Washington Post-turned-ESPN columnist Jason Reid to do morning chatter, and it was at times a rough listen. Paul’s comedy superfan routine might’ve played off better against Reid’s straight-man analyst role if Paul hadn’t also been doing the unfamiliar work of hosting the show, or if he had been given more time to learn.
Instead, the show ran for just seven months before being swiftly axed, allegedly due to ratings.
Pigskins owner Daniel Snyder also owns Red Zebra Broadcasting, which owns and runs ESPN 980, but a number of people in a position to know have said that Snyder and the football people had nothing to do with the sudden cancellation. (A series of tweets from former ESPN 980 Program Director Chuck Sapienza similarly pointed the finger directly at “Rockville”—that is, ESPN 980 management—as opposed to “Ashburn,” where the team’s headquarters is located.)
The Man Cave was snakebit before it even hit air, pushed back from its announced start date by two weeks for reasons that remain unexplained, as rumors swirled that someone (in either Ashburn or Rockville) wanted it canceled, stillborn. Now it’s gone.
But it doesn’t really matter if Snyder was directly involved in the decision or not. Because this pattern is very familiar: advance, backpedal, move forward again, scuttle.
At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, head coach Jay Gruden announced that Robert Griffin III would be the team’s starting quarterback, and the team guaranteed Griffin’s 2016 salary. Then, following no officially announced competition, Gruden named Kirk Cousins the starter for the 2015 season at the end of August.
Zoom in on that controversy and the same pattern repeats again. Prior to the final demotion, Griffin was knocked out of a preseason game against the Lions. The team-owned preseason broadcast crew indicated that Griffin had been assessed and cleared under the concussion protocol. After the game, Gruden assured reporters that Griffin had a concussion and was still undergoing the protocol. On the third day after the game—a brief duration for concussion recovery—Griffin was back in non-contact work at practice. The team announced that he had been cleared by an independent neurologist to play in the third preseason game. The next day, the team announced that the independent neurologist hadn’t cleared Griffin after all, and ruled him out of the game. Three days later, Gruden benched him for the season.
The pattern recurs throughout Snyder’s tenure: the comical events around the hiring of Jim Zorn as head coach in 2008; the botched handling of succession from Joe Gibbs to Gregg Williams; the midseason firing of Norv Turner; and the one-season tenure of Marty Schottenheimer.
This pattern iterates not only for the football team, but in other Snyder business ventures as well—for example, Mark Shapiro’s stint at Six Flags and Dick Clark Productions.
Zoom out as far as you can, and Snyder’s entire tenure with the team seems to follow a similar pattern: announce a new direction, cautiously walk it back in the face of general derision, relaunch a slightly watered down version, and ultimately abandon it in favor of another new direction.
These sorts of dysfunction have transcended the singular personalities that create them and become institutionalized in Ashburn and now at Nats Park, apparently. This is how those teams operate now—you no longer need Daniel Snyder to personally intercede to make a bad decision regarding a radio show, because that’s just what’ll happen naturally.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.