In Place of Strife
It’s incredible how an organization can hold onto the racial slur explicitly in its name through decades of social and racial change in American history, and suddenly sanction a name review in 2020 because its minority shareholders and sponsors decide the time is convenient to do so. With FedEx, Pepsi and Nike threatening to pull their sponsorship unless Washington changes its name and Nike, Target, Walmart and Amazon deciding to stop selling the team’s merchandise, we’re entering the end of an era in Washington. Quite what will emerge next is hard to predict. We do know there will be no Native American imagery. The team will stick with the burgundy and gold color scheme. The name change is expected to be confirmed today ahead of the start of the 2020 season. The new nickname won't be announced because trademark issues are pending. Washington has heard FedEx and its other sponsors loud and clear. At time of writing, the team I’m profiling this week is called Washington Redskins and they play in the NFC East Division. For the purposes of this blog post, because their name is a racial slur, I’ll refer to them as Washington throughout. My focus will be on the challenge for the team's ownership, and how the roster is looking two months prior to new season. The Burgundy and Gold Washington was considered one of the premier NFL franchises when it was winning Super Bowls in the 1980s and early 90s. Joe Gibbs was the decorated head coach who steered them to three championships. The team was chock full of star players from the rampaging and gregarious John Riggins - who you might find in DuPont Circle on a Tuesday having drinks with a Supreme Court judge - to venerable cornerback Darrell Green who played for Washington for twenty years.
Gibbs smash-mouth offense unleashed Riggins as part of one of the most dominant rushing schemes of the 1980s. His innovative ‘triple tight end’ package, targeted the NFL’s best defensive player in New York Giants linebacker, Lawrence Taylor, by sending three players to block him. It worked against a Giants team also at the height of its powers. That hugely successful era has been followed by a disappointing and barren period. While it continues to be a successful club in terms of net worth and merchandise, Washington since the turn of the century has under-delivered and turned over rosters and head coaches at an alarming rate. This is the appropriate point to introduce its owner, Dan Snyder. D.C. Discord Snyder made his fortune with a marketing business, Snyder Communications, that he started as a college drop-out and eventually took public.
When he took over as owner in 1999, Snyder garnered a reputation as a meddlesome owner. He showed little interest in investing for the future of his organisation in the draft. The team has qualified for the playoffs just five times in Snyder’s 21-year tenure. An example of his interference could be seen in 2012, when the curious case of Robert Griffin III and then head coach Mike Shanahan surfaced. Griffin was viewed as the leading edge of the next generation of quarterbacks coming from college to league, and Washington gave up three first round picks and one second (an obscene amount) to acquire him. Snyder encouraged his young quarterback to challenge the coaching staff, such that Griffin was using Snyder’s expressions in meetings with the coaches. They knew the outspoken quarterback had the owner's support in trying to change the offense. It ended in an ugly, bitter mess for all three, with only Snyder remaining in the long run, albeit with his reputation undermined.
A stubborn character, he must take his fair share of the responsibility for what Washington failed to do. With its revolving doors for multiple coaches in the past 15 years, the organisation has been a dumpster fire for a long time. Throughout his time as owner, Snyder has always been bullish on the name issue, notably saying in the past he would never change the name. Snyder’s problems won’t be solved with what many consider to be a long overdue name change. Sources close to him have briefed that plans for a possible name change were already in the works.
Despite a litany of failures on and off the field in the last fifteen years, Forbes ranked Washington 14th on the top 50 most valuable sports teams, placing them fifth overall among NFL teams. In July 2019, Forbes listed the franchise value at $3.1 billion.
Solidarity Under a New Head Coach One positive move Washington has made is to bring Ron Rivera as head coach. Rivera is something of an Hispanic pioneer in the league, having been the first person of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent to play in the NFL. When he was hired as coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2011, where he presided over a successful period in the franchise’s history, Rivera became only the third Latino to become a head coach in the NFL. He remains one of only four minority head coaches in the league. With Rivera there’s already been a change of tone and a sign that he’s the leader. Proof of that is Rivera recently telling The Washington Post he'd like the name change to happen before training camp, most likely borne out his desire to have it over so he can focus on football.
One of the potential new names being mooted is the Red Tails. This is the nickname for the Tuskegee Airmen unit, consisting of Black service personnel, which flew bomber raids in World War II. Washington Football Club has a duty to consult with the families of the Red Tails and/or Native American groups to gain consent first. If it were deemed a substantive move and not a token name by those who fought for this country, then perhaps it would be really appropriate, and a suitable volte-face for the organisation. The Quarterback Dwayne Haskins is Washington’s starting quarterback. After a difficult start, in which he missed a lot of open receivers and held onto the ball too long, his accuracy improved and he finished the season strongly. He’s capable of making one or two outstanding throws that remind you why he’s a first round pick. His blemishes are classic rookie mistakes and seemingly rectifiable. Haskins walked into an unenviable situation. Alex Smith, the incumbent, had endured one of the worst injuries in American sports, as I documented, and journeyman quarterback Case Keenum was brought in to start the season. Haskins had only 14 college starts and wasn’t ready to start as a pro when he did in Week 4. When he was drafted, it was made clear that the outgoing coaching staff led by head coach Jay Gruden, did not want him. It is indicative of how dysfunctional Washington can be that it leaked. When Urban Meyer, Haskins’ former head coach at Ohio State was asked about the situation, he rolled his eyes and said ‘it’s Washington,’ and his former player needs more time and talent around him. Rest of the Roster The standout player on the team last season was rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin. One of the steals of the 2019 draft, he caught passes from three quarterbacks and established himself very quickly as the number one receiver. They call him ‘Scary Terry’ because of his electric speed and ability to catch contested balls. Already, he looks like the best receiver in the division.
Washington's roster notoriously has had structural holes for the last decade, but there are some younger players to build around. Dwayne Haskins has been cast in a difficult situation with a sluggish offensive line and few options outside of McLaurin to throw to. Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice will carry the bulk of the rushing attack. The son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss, tight end Thaddeus, has been added from the draft. As one of the worst NFL teams, Washington had the no. 2 pick in the 2020 draft. They chose Chase Young, the best overall player and pass rusher. The defense will benefit from Ron Rivera’s input and play-calling. With draft picks from recent years in Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat showing promise, the defensive front will have to carry a lot of responsibility. Dollars and Cents A new team name for Washington is welcome. With a storm raging off the field, you might be inclined to ask what would be considered a good season for Washington? A name change, a steady first season with Ron Rivera at the helm, Dwayne Haskins bedding in and an improving defense. Six wins would be a decent return for a team with a brutal schedule. Washington fans crave stability and a turnaround in the teams’ fortunes. They also care about the reputation of their team. Once those in charge of the organisation put right a ninety year injustice with the franchise name, there’s a lot more from a football, cultural and business dimension to transform. Only then will we be able to say things have changed in D.C. or not.