In the past two years, the Washington Redskins had consecutive 7-9 seasons and missed the playoffs twice, and they watched one of their former assistant coaches become the darling of the NFL. Sean McVay, who spent seven years with the Redskins from 2010 to 2016, is the youngest head coach to take a team to the Super Bowl.
But the Redskins didn't let him get away. They really had no choice but to let him leave as offensive coordinator to become the Los Angeles Rams' head coach.
Losing McVay two years ago at age 30 hurt Washington in many ways, removing a strong voice in the locker room for coach Jay Gruden. McVay was firm in his beliefs, unafraid to stand up to other coaches. Players loved his detailed game plans.
McVay's departure is very different from perhaps the biggest mistake of Dan Snyder's tenure as owner, which also involved losing a 30-year-old prodigy.
When the Redskins fired coach Marty Schottenheimer after the 2001 season despite winning eight of their last 11 games, they also fired then-vice president of player personnel John Schneider. Schneider landed on his feet and spent seven seasons in a successful front office with the Green Bay Packers before he was hired as executive vice president and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. He assembled a team that has made the playoffs in six of the past seven years and won the Super Bowl after the 2014 season.
People who worked with Schneider in Washington say that even years after being fired, Schneider would talk about the five-year vision he and Schottenheimer shared for the franchise. The Redskins have won one playoff game since that season.
The Redskins were stuck in McVay's case, however. He already had been promoted to offensive coordinator three seasons earlier. They knew he was a smart coach, although few believed he would get a head-coaching job at age 30, becoming the youngest head coach in the modern era of the NFL. Some in the league did see it; former Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins expressed some desire to those close to him about signing a long-term deal shortly after the 2016 offseason because of McVay. But he was warned: McVay wouldn't be in Washington for much longer.
The Redskins couldn't prevent him from interviewing for a head-coaching job. The only way to keep McVay would have been to fire Gruden after the 2016 season. But the Redskins had won the NFC East in 2015 and were 8-7-1 a year later, losing in the season finale to miss the playoffs. After a 4-12 start to his coaching career, Gruden had helped turn the Redskins into a playoff contender. They had not had consecutive winning seasons since 1996-97, not even under Joe Gibbs or Mike Shanahan. Under that backdrop, it's hard to imagine a team firing Gruden and then promoting a 30-year-old assistant with a little more than two seasons of calling plays.
McVay has been appreciative of the opportunity, and freedom, that Gruden gave him. And even if the Redskins had wanted McVay to take over, getting his first head-coaching job in that kind of manner would have made any coach wonder about his job security.
"He's such a good person and respects Jay letting him be the playcaller; I could see Sean backing away," one former member of the Redskins organization said. "It just wasn't a good [situation]. You look at it now and of course. ... But it was one of those things where you'd be rolling the dice."
McVay put together a terrific coaching staff in Los Angeles, inherited a second-year quarterback who had been the top pick in the draft the previous year in Jared Goff, and also had running back Todd Gurley II. Those were two building blocks he lacked in Washington; although he was always a big Cousins fan, his eventual price tag still might have been too high for the organization. There's no guarantee McVay's success would have happened in Washington, although it's hard to imagine him failing.
McVay is an innovative coach, obsessed over the details of the game. The Rams are 24-8 in the past two years, now with a Super Bowl appearance. The Redskins, after two years of heavy injuries, are 14-18, and Gruden faces what is probably a must-win season in 2019. For what it's worth, the Redskins have another 30-something talent in the building in director of college scouting Kyle Smith, a guy they need to keep around.
The Redskins had McVay and he left. They have made plenty of mistakes, but this one can be chalked up to something else: bad timing.