He came here when Daniel M. Snyder first bought the Redskins in 1999 and, with a one-year exception, has been here ever since.
For better or worse, he was the "other" face of the franchise.
Usually that high-profile role belongs to the coach but the Redskins often did not keep coaches around long enough for them to become such icons. Joe Gibbs arrived with that distinction, earned through three Super Bowl titles and enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For the four years here known as Gibbs 2.0, Gibbs enjoyed not only the status but the deal-making authority and power to shape the roster.
When Gibbs retired (again), the Redskins engaged in a prolonged process naming a replacement. Ultimately, the job went to Jim Zorn, who had been hired as offensive coordinator for the new, unnamed coach.
Credit for this promotion went to Cerrato. Now it looks like blame.
The Redskins are 12-17 in two seasons under Zorn, 6-15 since the midpoint of 2008. The offensive line fell apart in a pandemic of injuries, the young receivers drafted last season took too long to emerge and the disconnect between Zorn and the front office grew immense.
Cerrato broached the idea of bringing in an offensive consultant when the Redskins struggled to score points earlier this season. He suggested (strongly) that Zorn give up his play-calling duties to that consultant, Sherman Lewis. And he insisted that the Redskins had given Zorn a playoff-caliber roster.
Neither of the first two moves turned out badly, clumsy as they might have been. Lewis brought an extensive background in the West Coast offense and the Redskins' production perked up. They executed more efficiently even after starter after starter fell to injury. The 30 points the Redskins scored in losing to the New Orleans Saints marked a high in the Zorn era and the team topped it a week later by getting 34 against the Oakland Raiders.
A playoff-caliber roster? Well, there are playoff teams and there are teams that go to the playoffs and they are not the same. The Indianapolis Colts are a playoff team. The Philadelphia Eagles are a playoff team. The New England Patriots, too.
The Redskins are a team that goes to the playoffs, and none too frequently. In 2007. In 2005. Before that? In 1999. That's the last time the Redskins won the NFC East and the first and last time the team hosted a playoff game at FedExField.
Cerrato was absent from the equation only in 2001, when Snyder hired Marty Schottenheimer as coach and gave him control of football operations. Schottenheimer promptly fired Cerrato, who then worked at ESPN until Schottenheimer's 8-8 season and hunger for power got him fired.
Then the Steve Spurrier Era (or Error) dawned. Two years, 12-20. A No. 1 pick wasted on quarterback Patrick Ramsey. A No. 2 pick wasted on receiver Taylor Jacobs (give at least partial blame to Spurrier for that). While the better teams in the NFL built through the draft, the Redskins misfired or, worse, swapped their picks for a bag of magic beans. Those beans rarely sprouted.
Five picks traded in 2003. Six in 2004 (including a first for Clinton Portis and a second for Mark Brunell). Three traded in '06. Four in '07. Four in '08. Four in '09.
Consider the extent of the waste. In 2008, the Redskins dealt their '09 second-rounder to the Miami Dolphins for defensive end Jason Taylor. Then they decided he should play linebacker … on the other side of the field. No more Taylor. Released. Back to Miami. Playing well. They also had coughed up a No. 7 for another defensive end, Erasmus James. Right. And there was a No. 4 to complete the previous trade for guard Pete Kendall, also not resigned for '09.
Remember this old children's rhyme?
- Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away*
Those are the Redskins draft picks – the men who aren't there. The men who went away.
So the roster grew thin and the players got hurt and the offense stumbled and the Redskins dropped poorly-played games to bad teams. The coach got help he never asked for and lost the responsibility he coveted. Fan anger grew and most of it was directed at the front office. That's the owner and the executive vice president for football operations. Owners never fire themselves.
Everyone knows the Redskins' M.O. Too much splash, too much cash, not enough emphasis on a sound foundation. Too many free agents who were anything but free (pretty expensive in the case of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth). Too many older guys getting big money here for what they achieved elsewhere. Too few hungry players getting their chances. Cerrato always said the Redskins "have a plan" but no one can sum it up in 100 words. Except to say, "Bring on the next big thing."
The Cerrato bio in the team's media guide credits him with drafting or acquiring 10 players who earned Pro Bowl honors: Linebacker LaVar Arrington (gone), tackle Chris Samuels (injured reserve, possibly done due to spinal issues), receiver Laveranues Coles (gone), linebacker Marcus Washington (gone), receiver Santana Moss (present), tight end Chris Cooley (injured reserve), long snapper Ethan Albright (present), running back Clinton Portis (injured reserve), fullback Mike Sellers (present) and safety Sean Taylor (fondly remembered, murdered senselessly in a robbery).
That's a lot of injuries and bad fortune. It's also not a lot of Pro Bowlers. The only ones the Redskins drafted were Arrington and Samuels in 2000, Taylor and Cooley in 2004. Four? In 10 years? Here's a little comparison. The Colts finished the 2008 season with 48 of their 53 players having played for no other team but them. And in Bill Polian's 12-year tenure with the club, they've had 13 players selected for the Pro Bowl, 11 of them drafted, and eight are still with them (though safety Bob Sanders is on injured reserve).
In Indy, one person's fingerprints dot the operation. One philosophy rules and is the constant. In Washington? Well, it was always hard to tell.
So Cerrato moves on. Perhaps to another job in football, perhaps back to ESPN. And the Redskins move on. A good choice of direction would be forward.
Larry Weisman covered professional football for USA TODAY for 25 years and now joins the Redskins Broadcast Network and Redskins.com to bring his unique viewpoint and experience to Redskins fans. Go to Redskins.com for the Redskins Blitz column and NFL Blitz on Friday. Larry also appears on The Jim Zorn Show on WRC-TV on Saturday night, on Redskins Nation, airing twice nightly on Comcast SportsNet, and on ESPN 980 AM radio, all in the Washington, D.C. area. Read his blog at redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.