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Even in a normal year, the NFL Draft sells hope in its most purely distilled form. Every young player is just his potential, having had no opportunity yet to disappoint, or to have his skills squandered playing out of position, or to let off-field concerns derail his on-field performance.
They are all just their best moments, played on loop after their selections, and fans of their new employers project those moments out into infinity.
If a team’s fanbase doesn’t come out of the draft with at least some faint flicker of optimism, something has gone seriously wrong somewhere.
That said, Washington’s draft weekend seemed genuinely promising, for reasons that go beyond the players selected.
1.) The coach and front office appear to be aligned.
This was the most obvious issue for the issue-riddled team heading into last season, and a problem that’s been present to some degree or another going back two decades. But this draft was different. New head coach Ron Rivera and vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith spoke to the media regularly during the draft, candidly explaining aspects of their picks (like their research into fourth-round selection Saahdiq Charles’ disciplinary issues at school) and their frustration with the situation leading up to the trade of former star left tackle Trent Williams.
Both men showed personality, transparency, and, unusually for football coaches and execs, humanity. They appeared to be collaborating (despite the distancing forced by the pandemic) and operating in complete alignment. This is the most startling thing I have written about this football team in years.
2.) The team behaved like it was being run by rational adults.
Williams has been dissatisfied with the team since before last season, and it was reported by August that he would never play for them again. For some reason (widely assumed to be former team president Bruce Allen’s petulance), the team engaged in a protracted battle of wills with Williams rather than trading him for a return commensurate with his status and abilities.
As the standoff stretched into this offseason, Williams’ value dipped, and then cratered when likely suitors drafted highly-rated prospects rather than pay the premium for Williams. Rivera and Smith, aware that the relationship was beyond repair, elected to trade Williams for a fraction of what he might’ve brought a year ago, just to turn the page. Smith even explained the situation plainly, speaking highly of Williams in the process—not the usual Ashburn M.O.
And to really emphasize that there are grown ups in charge, the team who traded for Williams was the San Francisco 49ers, whose coach, Kyle Shanahan, left a stint in Ashburn on questionable terms with Allen and team owner Dan Snyder. Allen allegedly refused to consider trading quarterback Kirk Cousins to Shanahan, presumably out of that same petulance. It shouldn’t be this exciting just to have a football team run rationally, but here we are.
3.) The team might be watchable.
The draft picks may never pan out, of course, but at least the selections point toward a team that might be a bit more fun to watch. These include a top-level elite pass rusher (first-rounder Chase Young), a versatile wide receiver/running back (Antonio Gibson), a big receiver (Antonio Gandy-Golden), and even a fascinating longshot in undrafted free agent signee Thaddeus Moss, son of NFL legend Randy Moss.
If these picks show promise, and if last year’s reasonably successful draft class continues to develop, maybe Washington fans will finally get to watch a young team of promising players. (It seems that noted child-discipline enthusiast Adrian Peterson will still be around to drag up the average age of the team, but you can’t fix everything in one offseason.)
If history has taught us anything, though, it is that nature abhors a promising Washington football team run by normal, seemingly-competent people. The Arena Football League folded a little more than a year after the Washington Valor won the championship. The entire XFL 2.0 shut down after the DC Defenders showed a little promise. So the NFL team’s success in the draft should probably be viewed as the surest harbinger of a COVID-19-induced cancellation of the upcoming NFL season.
Photo by KA Sports Photos on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.