Fans at FedExField in 2018
Fans at FedExField in 2018 Credit: KA Sports Photos/Flickr Creative Commons

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A surprising number of people (to me) took exception to my cynical response to the Washington football team’s firing of Bruce Allen, a walking smirk in a button-down shirt, and hiring of Ron Rivera, a well-respected NFL coach. Where I feel that team owner Dan Snyder’s long track record of being bad at owning a football team will doom the franchise no matter who he hires, a lot of fans just want to believe that Rivera and whomever else comes onboard will be able to check Snyder’s worst impulses (i.e., most of them).

While I stand by my overall opinion here, two of the responses made me think.

First, a friend pointed out that if another hapless team had made precisely these moves—fired a much-derided martinet, hired a respected head coach, dismissed a clownish underachieving defensive coaching staff in favor of  a successful veteran defensive coordinator who has worked well with the new head coach in the past—I would likely praise them, which is accurate. (I don’t believe that any other NFL owner is as actively detrimental to their franchise as Snyder is, but maybe I’m mistaken.)

Second, more than one person pointed out that all I had done was crankily preach doom without much in the way of constructive advice. Which is very fair, since I don’t believe there’s much constructive advice to give beyond, “Keep your expectations very low as long as Snyder owns the team.” But it made me think: Is there anything the team could do that would actually give me hope? That would convince me that they’ve learned something from the last two decades of concentrated failure, and weren’t just repeating the moves from the exact same crisis playbook they used in a similar situation a decade ago?

So, in the spirit of fairness, here are seven things that I would view as signs of genuine improvement. (I decided to pick seven without getting permission from Joe Theismann, so I fully expect to be lambasted by a bunch of old D.C. media people.)

To keep myself honest, I’ve tried to stick to quantifiable things that we can see from the outside. Saying “Dan Snyder should recuse himself from all football decisions” is great and all, but we will never, ever, ever be able to truly know if he’s done that. Some beat reporters might have some impressions from a couple of sources, but it’s unlikely anyone would ever know the full truth.

With that in mind, I will start to believe things are different in Ashburn if…:

1) We hear more from Dan Snyder. Seems paradoxical, given that everyone wants Snyder further out of football matters, but I think Snyder has believed for years that keeping a low public profile would lessen the impression that he’s meddling. He thinks that being quiet and refusing interviews during the year keeps the focus on football, when all it actually does is enhance the impression that he has no idea what’s going on in the outside world. Touch base with reporters, and by extension the fans. Speak in bland generalities if you must—everyone else in sports does—and try to stick to off-field issues (charitable events, new stadium and other infrastructure changes, etc.), but get out of the cone of silence. Introducing Rivera at his press conference and acknowledging the need for a culture change is a fantastic beginning to this; now keep it up throughout the year.

2) We hear less from anonymous sources. The best public indicator of divisions in the team over the last decade have been the number of anonymous quotes from players, coaches, “team staffers,” and the like. If fewer of those quotes are showing up in beat reporter stories, it means that the culture is actually improving.

3) The infrastructure continues improving. When I first visited the team facilities, waiting in the lobby to be interviewed, I was watching my feet tap out my nerves when the carpet caught my eye. It was surprisingly threadbare, aged and worn. And the more time I spent at the facility, and the more I saw the facilities of other NFL squads, the more I got the sense that the whole facility was outdated. There have been improvements in the years since I was last there, and I thought the problems had been addressed, but a recent ESPN story about the league’s sad-sack franchises focused heavily on how the building seemed like “a place that looks like it should be selling CBD oil,” which stood as synecdoche for the team as a whole. I understand that they may want to include a new facility as part of a stadium deal, but in the meantime it sounds like the existing place is still in need of upgrades. If word of those changes come out, it would be a sign that Snyder is spending money in places that it is badly needed.

4) The staff grows organically. I’d like to see fewer hires based on past D.C. glory (sorry, Doug Williams) and more based on the new head coach’s vision for the organization. This will become clear quickly as more names come out.

5) Minor successes are given proportional celebrations. Basically, I’d like to see the team take a more realistic view of itself—acknowledge wins and attribute success to those who are responsible for it, but also be aware that improvement is a process and that one four game win streak or a backwards slide into a playoff berth does not indicate that the team is on the cusp of greatness. This will be apparent in how the team-owned media is allowed to present things. (I know that I was given vastly more freedom to criticize the team than my successor was, and I strongly suspect that Allen’s growing power at the time was a reason why.)

6) Nostalgia is minimized. The years of greatness are long gone. Many, many, many fans never saw any of it. Fans who will be able to drink legally this year have never known any ownership other than Snyder’s. Cancel the stupid “homecoming game,” another Allen brainstorm. Reduce your reliance on highlights from the past, and focus instead of the future.

7) Rivera is allowed to make unpopular decisions—and still keep his decision-making power, even if the team has a losing record. This is the crux of it, really. Snyder is very, very good at claiming to do what everyone knows needs to be done, but he’s very, very bad at actually doing it. He’s given coaches full decision-making authority before (Marty Schottenheimer, Joe Gibbs 2.0, Mike Shanahan) but has rarely actually let them exercise or keep it when it differed from what he wanted anyway. This will maybe the most difficult to judge (although it is in some ways tied to the minimizing of leaks in item No. 2—Snyder’s interference will always trigger anonymous leaks), but Rivera seems like a reasonably straight-shooter and genuinely good dude, so part of me—the very small optimistic part—thinks that the simple sign that Snyder has overstepped will be Rivera publicly threatening to quit.

The introductory press conference was a good start for this stuff, as are Rivera and new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s public social media presence. The rest of it, we’ll have to wait and see—but at least now I’ve made it clear what some of the things are that I’m waiting to see.

Photo by KA Sports Photos, used under the Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license.