Since the season-ending blowout to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, there’s been a consistent talking point coming out of Ashburn: swift offseason moves will herald a “culture change” for the beleaguered football team.
The theory seems to be that the dismissal of former team president Bruce Allen, combined with the swift hiring of former Panthers coach Ron Rivera, will usher in an age of discipline, transparency, and professionalism that will right the team’s fortunes and bring back the fans who have been jumping ship in droves. Which sounds great, except that it is exactly what everyone believed when this happened a decade ago, and so, so much of it appears to be happening the exact same way again.
In December of 2009, with another failed season winding down, Vinny Cerrato—who had a number of titles but was basically the head football operations guy and, more importantly, owner Daniel Snyder’s pal—“resigned,” presumably under some duress, in the face of extreme fan frustration and anger. The same day, Snyder introduced Bruce Allen as general manager, and fan response was rapturous relief. Gone was the owner’s drinking buddy, replaced by a longtime football guy with family ties to the team’s storied history.
“I think the best way to put it,” Snyder said at the time, “is it was time for a change.”
Almost immediately after the season ended, head coach Jim Zorn was dismissed. The next day, Mike Shanahan was named head coach, with the security of a five-year deal and (allegedly) ultimate authority on football decisions. Fans rejoiced again: gone was the pleasant, well-intentioned, overmatched Zorn, replaced by a hard-nosed football coach with a track record of success who would bring in a new sense of discipline and focus to the team.
“No one in the organization is satisfied with our record over the last two years,” Snyder said in a statement at the time.
Recounting how the next decade unfolded would be tedious and unpleasant, and most of you probably remember it anyway. Suffice it to say that it was not good, and here we are on the heels of another fan uprising, in the exact same place. Some of the details have been shifted slightly, but the spine of the story is precisely the same.
This time the coach (the pleasant, well-intentioned, overmatched Jay Gruden) was dismissed with the season still in progress, but the executive was kept until the day after the final game. At word of his firing, the fanbase rejoiced: gone was the owner’s drinking buddy. His replacement was unclear, but obviously anyone would be better than the guy who was gone.
“Like our passionate fan base, I recognize we have not lived up to the high standards set by great Redskins teams, coaches and players who have come before us,” Snyder said in a statement at the time.
The new coach was (reportedly) hired a day later, with the executive position still (apparently) open. But reports are that Ron Rivera (a hard-nosed football coach with a track record of success who would bring in a new sense of discipline and focus to the team) received the security of a five-year deal. “A big commitment,” wrote NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, without any apparent intended irony.
I considered the possibility that I was being overly negative about this. That I’m failing to consider the possibility that Snyder might have grown and changed (which is true, because I believe him to be entirely incapable of growth or positive change). I wanted to be able to blank my mind to the last decade, goldfish-like, and view this with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm as so much of the fanbase (all of whom should know better).
Then, the first bits of news rolled out following the leaked agreement with Rivera. The first signs of a new, post-Bruce Allen Ashburn. The indicators of a clean culture and new mindset. First, a report that the new defensive coordinator would be Jack Del Rio, a big name defensive coach with head coaching experience who had most recently been an analyst on ESPN—as classic a Snyder hire as you could design.
Then, a since-retracted report that well-regarded Senior VP of Football Operations and General Counsel Eric Schaffer had been fired, followed by updates that he had not only not been fired but was still in the building working. Another report followed that named Schaffer himself as the “leaker.”
That was enough to kill that little seed of optimism. Fool me once, shame on me. Try to fool me twice in exactly the same way despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, shame on me for even listening to you for a moment.
I’ll put this as simply as I can: This is who the Washington football team is. And as long as Snyder is the one making the decisions, it won’t matter what those decisions are, and it won’t matter how they initially appear to turn out. This will be the end of each swim around the goldfish bowl.
Photo by All-Pro Reels/Joe Glorioso, used under the Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 license.