June is traditionally the quietest month for news in the NFL and often offers blog writers a chance to either pull out the crystal ball in an attempt to gaze into the future, or look into the rearview mirror to reflect on the past.
Today, I thought I’d do the latter.
I’d like to reflect on how the fan experience of the NFL and outlook on the Redskins has changed from June 2019 to June 2020.
The single most critical event
It seems almost unnecessary to say that the NFL landscape (and, thus, the fan experience) has been re-shaped by the global pandemic, and identify that as the most significant force at play right now.
But for Redskins fans, it may be legitimate to feel that a more fundamental shift has taken place since the end of the 2019 season — one that will affect the team, its fans and the franchise both this year and for many years to come. That event took place as the old year became the new with the firing of Bruce Allen and an apparent tectonic shift in Dan Snyder’s philosophy as the owner of the Redskins. While the NFL may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — certainly this season and perhaps the next — if Snyder has truly undergone a fundamental conversion in belief about the running of the Redskins organization, that could have a positive effect that will be felt for decades. The franchise may see a fresh approach to management that could impact player acquisition, on-field play, training and medical issues, the fan game-day experience, stadium development, and public perception.
It seems clear that the single biggest change from one year ago is the new hope that sprang up with the firing of Bruce Allen — the hope that, after 20 years, Dan Snyder is ready to hand over the management of the football team to people who know what they are doing.
Front office changes were part and parcel of the organizational house cleaning that began with the sacking of Bruce Allen. Doug Williams, a much beloved Redskin, was not pushed out of the organization, but he was asked to change responsibility, moving from a role in personnel acquisition (Senior VP of Player Personnel) to player development (Senior VP of Player Development). Internally, it may be a significant change, but externally it shouldn’t change much as far as fans are concerned. Doug is perhaps now a bit further from the center of decision-making, but still in a role where he can interact with players and represent the glory years of Super Bowl championships. Doug has never been ‘smooth’ with a microphone in his face, but now it won’t matter so much when speaks in his open and folksy style with the cameras running.
Unlike Doug Williams, Eric Schaffer was pushed out. This move came after Shaffer had been with the organization for seventeen years. The replacement of Shaffer’s duties was not really so significant from a fan perspective — he acted as in-house counsel and Senior VP of Football Operations with responsibility for contracts and salary cap management — but ending the relationship between Schaffer and the franchise signified the depth of the house cleaning, and just how much “out with the old” was happening as Snyder brought in “the new”.
In June last year, fans were just waking up to the fact that things with Trent Williams were seriously amiss. It was June 5th, 2019 when this JLC tweet set off fireworks among Redskins fans, who were divided on whether it was a report that could be trusted.
Trent Williams issues with Skins are not financial at all according to numerous sources with knowledge of the situation. He's told teammates he has demanded a trade or his release from the club due to their handling of his recent medical situation. Has vowed not to play for them— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) June 5, 2019
We are all familiar with the events that unfolded, right up to last week’s clear statement by TW himself that he was prepared to play the balance of the 2019 season when the Redskins unexpectedly placed him on the NFI list.
I am listing Trent Williams as a big change from a year ago, but the change isn’t, as we know, the on-the-field effect, but the fact that the distraction from this long-running personal battle between Williams and Allen has been largely excised from the organization.
Personally, I have been surprised at how many publications in recent months have reviewed the Redskins roster and listed Williams as a significant roster loss, ignoring the fact that he never took a snap for the Redskins in 2019. The change from last year isn’t the left tackle position so much as the end of one of the many badly handled “situations” that the Redskins have repeatedly bungled over the past two decades.
I don’t know if the long-time head trainer, Larry Hess, would have been fired if it hadn’t been for the Trent Williams fiasco (in fact, I should say the same about Bruce Allen), but the two will forever be linked in my mind. It always concerned me that I knew who Larry Hess was from how often Jay Gruden talked about him in press conferences.
He has been replaced by Ryan Vermillion, and I am hopeful that I rarely hear his name uttered by Ron Rivera during press conferences.
There were some other personnel moves associated with the changeover from the Bruce Allen regime to the RivEra, but the one that seems most significant was the elevation of Kyle Smith to VP of Player Personnel. The retention of Kyle Smith and the reward of being elevated in position raised hope among the Redskins faithful that the organization wasn’t throwing the baby out with the bath-water. In the months subsequent to his hiring, Ron Rivera has repeatedly praised Kyle Smith and his team for the excellent work they have done.
I found Rhiannon Walker’s comments about Kyle Smith in a recent article interesting:
Rivera was very complimentary of how Smith ran the show for free agency and the draft and how he interacted with us. Which for a coach who wants to see how people perform at their job, that’s huge.
And it wasn’t just Rivera, either. Smith made a point to understand what the coordinators and coaches needed to succeed and then going out and bringing those players in. It has been collaborative and a team effort from start to finish, and the coaches have told us Smith made everything so easy for them. He’s more than made the case for himself to earn the title of general manager.
If firing Bruce Allen was the single biggest change from June last year to June this year, then the hiring of Ron Rivera and his empowerment as the key decision-maker in the organization — the guy in charge of football — is the flip side of that particular coin.
Yesterday I posted an article asking who the “face of the franchise” is for the Redskins in 2020. My answer to that question is consistent with the largest proportion of voters in the poll: Ron Rivera.
Bruce Allen’s departure only means something if it is accompanied by an effective tenure by Rivera. A year ago, we were seeing Las Vegas odds that said Jay Gruden was the NFL coach most likely to be fired first. Rivera represents a huge change.
Here’s Rhiannon Walker from the Athletic describing how things have changed since the departure of Bruce Allen:
For every trade, free-agent signing, and draft pick, we were able to speak to both [Ron Rivera and Kyle Smith] about the process, what they were looking for and get very direct answers.
I even appreciate when we would ask the staff about the weaknesses on the team that they had identified and there was a unified front not to say anything. There was no dissension from top to bottom. Of course, we’d like the answers to our question, but I respect that everyone is on the same page, and I can see the team is working together.
For the longest time, all of those moving parts weren’t exactly in sync, and even the number of leaks has fallen off dramatically under the new regime. Again, as a journalist someone telling me information is great, but not if it isn’t accurate or I’m being used for another play. It’s annoying to chase things that aren’t real.
So the biggest changes have been the directness of the people we speak to, having access to leadership when major moves are made and the consistency we’ve had speaking to the people in power in the organization. Once we get back to being out at the facility, I can speak to the changes I see there, but those have been the most noticeable ones given the circumstances we’re currently in.
Jack Del Rio
Remember the embarrassment that we watched on defense in 2019 under Greg Manusky? And in 2018? And 2017?
Remember Joe Barry?
Remember the great defenses fielded by Jim Haslett that led the organization to retain him after Shanahan was fired and Jay Gruden came on board?
Redskins fans, for the first time in a decade or more, have a reason to feel good about the defensive coordinator and the talent he has to work with.
It’s funny - I feel good about Scott Turner. This is largely based on the film study that Mark Bullock did in the Athletic earlier this off-season, supplemented by what I’ve heard Turner say in his media sessions so far.
Mark Bullock of the Athletic
A year ago, another young coordinator, Keven O’Connell, seemed to be a sacrificial lamb being led to the slaughter along with his doomed boss, Jay Gruden. It largely felt like Manusky had been retained because nobody else wanted the job, and that O’Connell may have taken over as OC for much the same reason.
Hopefully, the days of the run-offense being designed by one person while the passing attack is designed by another are over. Bullock’s analysis gives me hope that the offensive scheme will be integrated, systematic and a challenge for defenses, even if Turner is forced to utilize the scheme to cover some roster deficiencies.
Other coaching changes
From the departure of Mike Shanahan to the hiring of Ron Rivera, I have consistently had the impression that the coordinators and position coaches that made up Jay Gruden’s staff were an ill-matched set that represented compromises between the desires of Gruden and the demands of his boss, Bruce Allen.
Once again, the commitment to the one-voice, coach-centric philosophy announced by Dan Snyder and Ron Rivera at the latter’s introductory press conference give me a lot of hope and confidence that the current group will at least all be marching to the beat of the same drummer, which is a very different feeling than I got during the six years of Jay Gruden’s tenure under Bruce Allen.
While a huge amount of change for the Redskins has been driven by personnel in the organization being replaced, the situation is very different at quarterback, where Dwayne Haskins returns for his second season as a pro.
This time last year, few people seriously considered Haskins to be the likely starter before mid-season. We didn’t yet realize quite how horrible things were with Alex Smith’s leg, and some fans held out hope that he might be able to play in 2019. In June, there was speculation that Colt McCoy could start the season for Jay Gruden (we weren’t really clear that his leg wasn’t fully healed either).
Redskins fans a year ago were being warned again and again that patience would be needed with Haskins, who was young (22 years old) and had started only one season in college. He was talented but raw, and would need time to develop. There was a lot of talk about 2019 as a ‘red shirt season’, and, while a lot of people agitated for Haskins to start right away, those people mostly argued that he would only get better by playing in games.
2019 turned out to be a horrible mismatch between Jay Guden coaching for his job and the needs of a rookie quarterback to be developed and taught how to succeed in the NFL.
Things are completely different for Haskins this season. He is the presumed starter — the job is his to lose. He’s had a year as a pro, and this is his second off-season in which to condition his body and develop his understanding of the game. He should have the complete support of a head coach and offensive coordinator who have the full backing and confidence of the owner. In short, Haskins isn’t driving on his learner’s permit any more; he’s got his license, he’s got the keys to the car and he’ll be allowed to drive it.
Last year, it was clear that Haskins wasn’t going to start for at least half a season, and a number of people didn’t think he would see the field at all; expectations weren’t so much “low” as almost “non-existent” for 2019, though it’s fair to say that hopes and expectations for the long-term were and continue to be very high.
This year, Haskins is expected to develop dramatically in his physical conditioning, his understanding of the game, and his on-field performance. No one expects him to win the super bowl in 2020, but he is expected to take the next step and show that he is able to progress rapidly as NFL quarterback if he wants to keep the keys to the car.
There may be no bigger change from a roster standpoint than at the tight end position. This time last year, Jay Gruden was saying that Jordan Reed appeared to be in the best shape of his life and was set for a career year. Vernon Davis, who is 10th on the all-time career leaders in yards among tight ends and 6th all time in touchdowns, was Reed’s backup.
The motley collection of players the Redskins have at the position at the moment features a converted quarterback, a veteran with only one catch for 7 yards in the past two seasons, a 5th round draft pick who disappointed last year, and a collection of undrafted free agents.
The highest level of fan passion for a tight end on the current roster is probably for Thaddeus Moss, and primarily for his skill as a blocker. Things have definitely changed at this position in the past 12 months.
McLaurin represents change because of what he accomplished last season. When he was drafted, the coaches stressed his value as a special teams gunner, minimizing his role as an offensive weapon. He was largely held out of pre-season, which was the first indication that the Redskins expected him to play a large role in the passing game.
Terry exploded on the scene, setting records for a rookie receiver in his first five games. He went on to put up impressive numbers in 14 games, missing two with injury.
Expectations for Scary Terry are now sky-high. He is talked about as the team’s clear #1 receiver, and some are touting him as being among the best in the NFL.
Chase Young represents the most significant roster addition of the year. It is arguable that the Redskins defensive front four will compete with teams like the 49ers for recongnition as ‘best in the NFL’. While the Redskins have done a good job adding talent to the defensive front over recent years, Young is expected to bring true game-changing potential, and to develop quickly into the kind of player that teams have to game-plan for — in other words, a game-wrecker.
He hasn’t played a snap for the Redskins yet, but Chase Young gives Jack Del Rio a potential weapon that can be deployed to haunt opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators, and give them nightmares.
Many observers have pointed at the Redskins young wide receiver corps and questionable tight end group and asked where the weapons are that will allow Dwayne Haskins to succeed.
I’ve become convinced over the past few weeks that, in addition to the Redskins young receiving group, who are being badly under-estimated and under-valued by the national media, the answer to that question is Antonio Gibson. He’s big; he’s fast; and he’s still raw and getting better.
Scott Turner has indicated that Gibson will have a significant (if possibly limited) role in the offense, and Rivera has implied that the rookie running back/offensive weapon will have as much value as a decoy who can be used to scheme other players open as he will when he actually touches the ball.
Antonio Gibson represents the type of hybrid offensive player that is part running back, part wide receiver. He can line up as an H-back, a slot receiver, a wide receiver or as a runner in a one or two-back set.
Drafting Gibson in April represented a commitment by the Redskins to a new type of offense that will stress defenses in ways that will be very different from what we saw with Jay Gruden.
Which of the following comes closest to describing your feelings about the 2020 Redskins and the long term future of the franchise?
This poll is closed
All this change will start to pay off right away — the Redskins will increase their win total this season and be set for success moving forward.
2020 is likely to hurt a lot more than people think it will. This season will be more about establishing culture than about getting wins. Redskins fans who wanna see winning football will need to wait until 2021 and beyond.
Nothing has really changed as long as Dan Snyder still owns the team!