I got a head start on my eulogy for the Washington Football Team this year, using a Nov. 1 column to write off Ron Rivera’s team and turning my attention to all the other options for fun and entertainment in this blessed year of 2020. But something totally unexpected happened on the way to the funeral: The team started to get better.
That alone wouldn’t actually be worth mentioning; it’s actually pretty typical for this team. Washington’s rare trips to the playoffs this century generally come as a result of a fluky late-season run. This time, though, there’s a different and much stranger component: The team might actually be … good? And even weirder, they’ve somehow become likable.
When I wrote off the season, I dismissed their feel-good narratives (Coach beats cancer! Quarterback comes back from catastrophic injury! Very few positive tests for novel coronavirus!) as a gauzy film over an uninteresting season. Storybook narratives are great for filling time during Monday Night Football, but they’re not enough to make the average fan care about a particular team.
A winning streak, though, plus a game-wrecking defense featuring multiple, likeable young stars, and a couple of promising out-of-nowhere rookies, that’s how you develop a following. The gauzy narratives are just added decoration.
The team is likely going to receive an unusual amount of postseason acclaim this year. Alex Smith is such a mortal lock for the Comeback Player of the Year award that people have not-jokingly suggested renaming the award after him. Rookie Chase Young was already the odds-on favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and probably cemented that award with a dazzling performance in a must-win game last week in Arizona (versus San Francisco, but in Arizona, because 2020). Several members of the defense and punter Tress Way, at a minimum, will likely be named to the Pro Bowl, and for the first time in decades, a Washington player might even be named All-Pro. Even unheralded running back Antonio Gibson has worked his way into the fringes of the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation.
Heck, Sports Business Journal already got the accolades started by naming new team president Jason Wright the “Best Hire of the Year.”
But somehow, Rivera isn’t the front-runner for Coach of the Year awards, trailing Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin on most betting sites, and Tomlin and Miami’s Brian Flores on many. Tomlin is an excellent coach, probably under-recognized in his 13 years as a head coach. His bonafides are impeccable, Pittsburgh started the season strong, and he has handled the shifts to his schedule caused by other teams’ COVID issues with aplomb. Flores is a terrific young coach getting the most out of his team, and the rare (apparent) success from the Bill Belichick coaching tree.
Rivera should get the award over both of them.
He has continued coaching—with a new team, through a pandemic—during his cancer treatment. Despite some shaky in-game decisions at the start of the seasons, he has slowly, steadily, led the team’s onfield turnaround, trusting in the coaching staff he assembled and letting them find their feet, leading to an upset of Tomlin’s then-undefeated Steelers. He navigated a challenging quarterback situation, benching a player allegedly hand-picked by the team’s owner. He proved thoughtful and considered during 2020’s fraught conversations on racial injustice and politics and the changing of the team’s name and the organization’s past sins.
But even more than those things, he has done what I quite honestly believed was impossible: He has changed the way people look at this team and somehow changed the entire texture of the franchise even though ownership remains the same.
Back in 2016 (coincidentally also after a four-game win-streak), I tried to explore why people had so much hatred for Washington’s NFL squad. The answer was exactly what you’d expect, but to get to the point I brought on a professional hater: Drew Magary, now of Defector, then of Deadspin. Magary has built his brand hating stuff online—even your Boomer relatives will likely be sharing his annual Haters Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog on Facebook any day now—and, as a Maryland resident, has always had special vitriol for the local team. When I needed a subject matter expert on hating this team, Magary was the obvious go-to.
So when I was listening to his podcast a couple weeks ago and Magary admitted to not only watching the Washington Football Team and rooting for them in that specific game, but to finding them likable, that’s when I realized how far things had shifted. If there’s a reverse LBJ-losing-Cronkite equivalent for sports fandom, this is it.
Honestly, if Rivera can, despite everything going on, and in less than a year, lead a turnaround that makes people like Magary talk favorably about this team, he should probably be in discussions for the Nobel Peace Prize. Coach of the Year is a no-brainer.
Photo by All-Pro Reels Photography, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.