Ten years ago, the Washington NFL owner and his beleaguered top football executive decided to cut the legs out from under their overmatched head coach. The coach, an amiable-seeming everyguy in his first head job with an NFL team, simply hadn’t been up to the owner’s exacting standards.
Sure, there had been some success, and several players had spoken up in the coach’s favor. But the team’s starting running back—a former Pro Bowl veteran wearing No. 26—had been among those who were openly critical of the coaching and the offensive approach.
“We’re getting booed coming off the field,” the running back had said, not too long before. “So I think everybody in this organization on the hot seat. You know, I think you look at the owner, he on the verge of losing fans. You know, how long before people just give up and stop coming? You look at the players, and people want you out of here. You look at the coach, people want you out of here. So who’s not on the hot seat? Until we come out and play to our potential, I think everybody on the hot seat.”
The running back was Clinton Portis. The coach was Jim Zorn. The undercutting was the hiring of Sherm Lewis, a retired coach brought in to take over playcalling and bring “a fresh set of eyes” to the offense. The beleaguered top football executive was Vinny Cerrato, who would be fired himself a few months later.
The owner was Daniel Snyder.
A decade later, Portis’s ominous prediction has indeed come to pass. The team is no longer on the verge of losing fans; they’re gone in droves. Everybody is still on the hot seat. Nearly everyone involved with that catastrophic 2009 season has moved on to other things.
And now Snyder has fired another coach. After a 33-7 loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the local NFL team is 0-5, and on Monday, it confirmed an Adam Schefter report that Gruden would be replaced by Bill Callahan as the interim coach.
For much of his tenure, Gruden seemed like the definition of mediocrity, with a win-loss record hovering near .500, but he finishes in Washington as another losing coach, with a 35-48-1 record, one playoff appearance, and no wins in his final season.
It’s the right move. It gives the team a chance to hit eject on a lost season and start evaluating its coaching staff and roster to determine who can contribute next year. It also won’t make a bit of difference.
The fanbase attrition isn’t due to the head coach’s follies. It isn’t even the fault of team president Bruce Allen, despite the widespread disdain he engenders in fans, media, and NFL agents. All he’s really guilty of is continuing the proud two-decade tradition of not being able to succeed in Ashburn.
There’s a reason the events of 2019 so closely mirror those of 2009, and it has very little to do with the people who were let go, then or now. It has everything to do with the people who are still here.
There will be a coaching search now, one that will likely wind up with a blandly good-looking young offensive genius who is not, but will be reminiscent of, former Washington assistant and current (Super Bowl-losing) Los Angeles head coach Sean McVay. This person will almost certainly have ties to either the organization or the region (my money would be on Tampa offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich) but it won’t really matter.
It’ll bring a burst of hope, of course. We’ll all hear how a true youth movement isn’t something that Snyder has tried before—it’ll be positioned as being not straight nostalgia play (like Joe Gibbs 2.0), nor an NFL veteran (like Marty Schottenheimer or Mike Shanahan), nor a college “genius” (like Steve Spurrier), nor a left-field longshot with a slightly familiar name (Zorn, Gruden).
The hope will last until it goes away. Until the next rash of inexplicable injuries. Until the next veteran running back throws the coach under the bus. Until the young head coach—no longer so young, and probably markedly more haggard—has his legs cut out from under him. Until the fanbase dwindles even further.
It’s not going to matter because the problem won’t be the people who are coming in any more than it was the people who are now being let go. The problem is the people who have been there through all of it, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Photo by All-Pro Reels on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 license.