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The Washington Football Team finished the 2021 NFL season with mediocrity, claiming a 7-10 record after its 22-7 victory over the New York Giants that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Washington heads into an offseason of some uncertainty: The coaching staff seems likely to stay at least mostly intact, and there are surefire starters at a few skill positions. But there is no franchise quarterback on the roster, nor any obvious candidates in the 2022 NFL Draft or free agency, and there are plenty of other areas of need on the team.
This might sound familiar, as the WFT finished the 2020 season with an overall 7-10 record following a 31-23 playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that was closer than anyone anticipated. The team headed into an offseason of some uncertainty: The coaching staff would stay largely intact, and Washington returned promising starters at a few of the skill positions. But there was no franchise quarterback on the roster, nor any obvious candidates in the draft or free agency, and there were still areas of need on the team.
(This is a mediocre football team, but at least they’re consistent about it.)
Reasonable minds can disagree on which mediocre finish was better. The 2020 version led to an improbable playoff berth, but it was mainly because everyone else in the division was worse than just mediocre. The 2020 team (and the defense especially) finished the season strong, but it was mainly because players were feasting on a truly dreadful assortment of backups and no-marks.
The 2021 version had no playoff appearance and finished the season with a win but only by snapping a four game losing streak against a truly horrific Giants team. The defense, expected to be the strength of the team, was underwhelming even before being ravaged by injuries.
Neither team had a quarterback. Neither team had a winning record. Neither team had a clear path to future success.
The only real difference is one of perception. Where the 2020 team was perceived as a sort of scrappy, fun, underdog story, with a coach successfully battling cancer, a quarterback returning (sort of) from a leg shattered into oblivion, and a high draft pick earning rookie of the year, the 2021 team is … well, the polar opposite of that.
Many of the stories and national headlines around the team this year have centered on employees describing a pervasive culture of harassment, an owner embroiled in multiple lawsuits, a stadium that has dumped water (but allegedly NOT sewage) on customers, and a railing collapse that nearly took out an opposing team’s quarterback. This is all on top of the typical baggage that has plagued this team since Daniel Snyder took ownership almost a quarter century ago.
Snyder’s presence has always put limitations on the team, but it’s easy forget that he actually manages to do that in two separate ways. First, he appears by all evidence to limit the actual on-field ceiling for the team. But he also, through continued actions (see Dave McKenna’s justifiably legendary, comprehensive-at-the-time breakdown) and inactions (see the best-case reading of the harassment accusations), limits the team’s narrative appeal. Or, put more simply, he makes it harder for them to win and he makes them harder to root for.
The 2020 team managed, through an entire holiday-season’s-worth of Hallmark movie feel-good fluff, to overshadow that. The 2021 team has not only reasserted the longtime narrative, it has crystallized it.
The minority owners who helped force the change are gone, and ownership has been consolidated entirely in Snyder’s family. The NFL has repeatedly refused to release any details of attorney Beth Wilkinson’s report on Washington’s toxic culture and the allegations of harassment. Every decision the NFL has made this year, every twist in all the dramas, has led to Snyder solidifying his hold on the team. Which means, bluntly, that there should be no optimism coming out of the season.
It’s going to be difficult for the team to build a competitive roster when, if the team manages to identify a potential starting quarterback, the owner will somehow insinuate himself into the situation (as he allegedly did with Robert Griffin III), or one of his lieutenants will poison the relationship (as Bruce Allen apparently did with Kirk Cousins), or, most likely, he’ll over-involve himself with the selection and make the wrong choice, as he allegedly did with Dwayne Haskins Jr.
And it’s going to be very difficult for head coach Ron Rivera to establish his cultural rebuild when everyone who looks at the organization just winds up thinking about the horror stories. That’s how you wind up on the Monday after a meaningless end-of-season win with Peter King, one of nation’s most prominent NFL columnists, taking some time out from writing about the actual playoff teams to instead discuss Washington’s truly pathetic attendance figures and saying that he “sincerely hope[s] Daniel Snyder comes to his senses in 2022 and sells the franchise.”
The team is announcing their new name and brand identity on Feb. 2, and I’m sure there will be a significant fuss about it. (Candidly, I’m sure I’ll both buy into and contribute to that fuss when the day comes.) The hope will be that a rebrand will help galvanize the fanbase, present a clean starting point toward a successful future of better results. But really, I think every WFT fan knows it doesn’t matter. No matter what the team is called, the identity that everyone associates with it is Daniel Snyder. Unless that somehow changes, it seems unlikely the results will.