City Paper is not for tourists
The whole football prognosticating world expects the Washington Football Team to be awful this season—a reasonable assumption, since the team was demonstrably awful last season and has ranged from awful to mediocre for most of the quarter century prior. And I cannot point to many concrete football reasons to expect otherwise.
Many of the players are the same as last year, and the new additions are unproven and (with the notable exception of second overall draft pick Chase Young) unheralded. The coaching staff is new to Ashburn, but largely comprises familiar, experienced coaches (which, if you’re being uncharitable, could be read as “retreads who got fired elsewhere”). The widely-vilified general manager is gone, but the even-more-widely-vilified owner remains, and in fact, seems to become increasingly vilified with every passing day.
It is easy to predict more of the same for the WFT, and many people are doing quite literally that: a review of the expert predictions turns up a lot of repeats of last year’s 3-13 or incremental improvements to 4-12. No one believes this team can change. Heck, back in January, I wrote a skeptical column listing the things I would need to see to believe that change was even possible in Ashburn.
But if there’s one thing the 2020 offseason has not been for this team, it’s more of the same—I cannot think of a more turbulent, change-filled offseason for any franchise in all of professional sports, up to and including the Baltimore Colts fleeing unannounced to Indianapolis on a snowy March night in 1984.
A quick recap of the last year or so in WFT: Bruce Allen is fired. Ron Rivera is brought on as head coach, with a focus on changing the culture. In the wake of the increased national sensitivity to systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd, the team first shed all references to its racist founder, then, following a sponsor revolt, took the step I thought they never would and shed their team name.
Shortly after, the Washington Post published multiple heavily-sourced, meticulously-reported stories detailing a toxic culture of sexual harassment and discrimination dating back decades, which somehow managed to not be as bad as the rumors that swirled ahead of their publication. The team fired a number of longtime employees, and the public face of the franchise, Larry Michael, abruptly retired. The new hires, on the other hand, have been genuinely promising candidates from outside the organization, including Julie Donaldson (soon to be the first woman with a regular on-air role in an NFL team’s broadcast booth) and Jason Wright (the first Black NFL team president, and also the youngest).
On top of all that, owner Daniel Snyder is filing lawsuits and chasing down a theoretical conspiracy from his minority owners designed to force him to sell. The new head coach has been diagnosed with cancer and will be undergoing treatment during the season. The team remains under an investigation being run by the NFL into their culture.
So despite all the reasons to think things will stay the same, I can’t help but feel that the sheer narrative weight of all that change will carry over to the on-field portion of the season. Here, then, is my quick argument of why each area of the team could (will?) lead to an improved result on the scoreboard.
Head coach: The new coaching staff may be retreads, but the coaches have already brought a stunning increase in professionalism to the team. Practices sound more productive, players sound more bought in, and, perhaps most importantly, it seems that the scheme is being built to fit the players who are actually here.
Offense: I was happy about the team cutting Adrian Peterson mainly because I couldn’t watch him play without ruminating about child abuse, but also because his skillset seemed like a complete outlier with everything the team is trying to do. If, as appears to be the case, they’re building an offense around pre-snap motion and a versatile array of pass-catching skill position players to confuse defenses, it made no sense to line up a plodding, old-school running back in the backfield.
Culture: It’s also worth noting that the way the team handled Peterson’s release spoke as much to a changed culture as anything else. Releasing him a day early so he could have an extra day to hunt for teams; telling him before leaking it to the media; holding an outgoing player interview with him for the team site; congratulating him on signing in Detroit—I wouldn’t have believed this team would do any of those things, let alone all of them. This may not immediately impact the team’s record, but it’s a pretty stark contrast to what happened when Jay Gruden tried to bench Peterson for Week 1 last year, which isn’t nothing.
Defense: The team’s various defensive coaches have seemed overmatched for years, incapable of getting the most out of the occasional good players and frequently making average players look worse by putting them in positions where they had little chance of success. The new coaching staff seems determined not to do that, and has a past track record of success with similar units. That alone could yield an additional win.
Quarterback: Second-year signal caller Dwayne Haskins Jr. should get this year to prove what he can or can’t do, and he seems to be rising to the occasion. He’s the rare player who is literally living the training camp cliché of “best shape of his life,” he’s giving thoughtful, insightful interviews, and he’s seemed to be a leading voice in the team’s responses to the ongoing social issues outside of football. That may not lead directly to wins in any analytic way, but it certainly can’t make things much worse than last year.
Karma: In the end, maybe this is all I’m arguing: This team has spent so long weighed down by *gestures wildly at everything at the team facility* that it was impossible to imagine them rising. Just mentioning the team’s name invited argument and controversy, and the next five topics anyone would want to discuss were also awful. The generalized dreariness around this team was pervasive, and it affected everything. This offseason has had the feel of a lanced boil—just a sudden release of pent-up toxicity and poison—so maybe what’s left behind is healthier and more revitalized than anyone expects.
Or maybe they’re just a normal rebuilding football who is doomed to go 3-13 again. Either way, two things are certain: First, they’ll be more fun to watch and more pleasant to root for, and second, we’re finally going to have a chance to see them perform on the field, which will allow for prognostication rooted more in what’s actually going on than in the weight of imagined narrative.
Photo by David on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 license.