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As the new year begins, Washington fans excited about future despite loss to Carolina, QB concerns, and the league’s worst owner

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Carolina Panthers v Washington Football Team Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Happy new year!!

The results for SB Nation’s weekly Reacts poll are in, and as we prepare for the 17th and final week of the regular season, Washington fans are the most positive about their franchise’s future among the four teams that comprise the NFC East.

With the confidence level of Eagles, Cowboys and Giants fans at 10%, 43%, and 64% respectively, Week 17 marks the 6th consecutive week in which Washington Football Team fan confidence has been at 89% or higher, and the 5th week in a row above 90%.

This level of confidence seems almost incredible in the context of what’s happened recently.

Quarterback

Firstly, Dwayne Haskins was waived on Monday. This poll was conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday. Fans were fully aware that the organization had just cut loose the team’s 2019 first round pick, drafted 15th overall — a guy who had gone to high school locally and had been expected to be the franchise quarterback for the decade of the 20’s. Far from causing a deterioration of confidence, it seems that the relatively swift action, taken before Haskins had finished his second season in Washington, may have actually boosted fan belief that the “football people” are in charge at Ashburn and able to make tough decisions quickly.

Of course, all is not well when considering the future of the team’s most important position. Washington is left with Alex Smith, Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, and, I guess, Steven Montez.

Alex Smith was 6-4 as a starter in 2018 and is 4-1 as a starter so far this season. That 10-5 record is consistent with his history over the past decade or so as the starting quarterback for the 49ers and Chiefs, where he averaged about 11 wins per 16 starts. While fans often complain about the manner in which he accomplishes it, Alex leads teams to wins.

But Alex Smith is 36 years old and playing on a reconstructed leg. His NFL future is probably being counted in games, not seasons at this point. He might have one game left or forty, but there’s little chance that he’ll be playing in the NFL beyond the time that Montez Sweat’s rookie contract comes to an end, and his retirement as a player could come much sooner than that.

Taylor Heinicke has 9 minutes of exciting game tape that could end up being the highlight film for his career. He was out of the league in 2019, and managed just one start in the four years previous to that — a 3-interception outing for Carolina in ‘18 that was cut short by an elbow injury and injured reserve. It’s probably only the surreal bad-Hollywood-movie-script season that Washington has endured that could really have culminated in Heinicke’s return to an NFL playing field with a chance to lead his team to the playoffs in Christmas week when he’d been a full time student studying for exams at the start of the month. If ODU’s Taylor Heinicke ends up playing for the Football Team again this season, it will be a Cinderella-like story; the possibility that he could be the team’s future at the position, however, seems so beyond the pale as to be about as likely as a fairy tale ending was for the team’s last late-season Cinderella QB, Josh Johnson.

Steven Montez, with no apologies to his fan, seems to have the makings of a career practice squad quarterback whose upside is “potential backup”.

That seemingly leaves the future of the franchise in the hands of Kyle Allen, who led the Football Team to a 1-3 record in his four starts this year prior to dislocating and breaking his ankle. While Allen seems to enjoy the full confidence of Ron Rivera and Scott Turner, I suspect that the number of fans who see him as capable of leading the team to a super bowl at any point in his career is very low.

For a franchise hungry for sustained success, then, the future of the quarterback position looks...well, pick your adjective:

  • uncertain
  • grim
  • dismal
  • stark

Which makes the current fan confidence that much more surprising. It must be based in faith that the people in charge (read that as Ron Rivera and Kyle Smith) will figure something out.

At some point, whether via that draft, free agency or trade, the franchise needs to find the answer that hasn’t been provided by Rich Gannon, Gary Conklin, Heath Shuler, John Friesz, Gus Frerotte, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Green, Brad Johnson, Jeff George, Tony Banks, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell, Jason Campbell, Todd Collins, Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman, John Beck, Robert Griffin, Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy, Josh Johnson, Mark Sanchez, Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, or any of the quarterbacks currently on the roster.

Washington, to have a future, needs to find stability at the quarterback position, and they may well have to do it without picking in the top half of the draft.

Fans may have felt that releasing Dwayne Haskins was a case of “addition by subtraction”, but at some point soon, improvement by addition will be needed at the most important position in professional sports in order for the franchise to continue on an upward track.

Losing streak

Losing often shakes fan confidence. The loss to Seattle in Week 15 was not a surprise, especially given the number of key players — Alex Smith, Antonio Gibson, Cole Holcomb, Kevin Pierre-Louis — who were out for the game, so it was not really shocking to see fan confidence hold up in the wake of that game.

Losing back-to-back games, especially when the second one is at home against a 4-10 team and a win-an-in scenario is at play, typically devastates fan confidence. When the opponents take a 20-3 lead and win by a touchdown in a game that is never really close, this is the sort of loss that usually has fans screaming for blood. For these reasons, it is surprising that fan confidence has held up so well this week.

It could be that the swift action to cut Dwayne Haskins just hours after the game had a lot to do with maintaining fan confidence.

I suspect that the legacy of Washington’s 2020 season may be shaped by the outcome of the Week 17 game. Win, and the Football Team goes to the playoffs against all reasonable expectations — the Little Engine that Could. A loss, on the other hand, will mean finishing the season with a 3-game losing streak, and demonstrating the inability to win a crucial game, not once, but twice, in back-to-back weeks, against 4-win teams. That’s not a narrative that fans want to live with for an entire off-season, though the resulting good draft position would take a bit of the sting out of it, I suppose.

Philadelphia is injured. They have benched Carson Wentz in favor of Jalen Hurts, who is 1-2 as a starter. They are eliminated from post-season contention and have nothing to play for except to spoil Washington’s playoff hopes. A loss under these circumstances would likely shake the confidence of Washington fans, despite a 6-10 record being near the top-end of most people’s 2020 preseason expectations.

Ownership battle

If there’s one overriding reason for Washington fans to lack confidence in the future, it has a name — Dan Snyder.

There were unprecedented organizational changes that took place in 2020. The listing below touches on only a few of the highlights, and these, alone, would have represented seismic shifts for most NFL teams. Bruce Allen was fired; Ron Rivera was put in charge of everything football; the team announced a name change; Jason Wright was hired as team president for everything non-football; the entire media department was overhauled; Eric Shaffer was replaced; the personnel section of the front office was shaken up with firings and promotions.

All of this was needed. It was akin to ripping out years of uncontrolled weeds and undergrowth in a neglected garden. These were all welcome steps forward for a franchise that had seemed to be marching in place or slowly drifting backward for more than two decades.

But the architect of the dysfunctional franchise — the neglectful gardner, if you will — is still in place, and Snyder’s past and his presence continue to cast a dark shadow over whatever sunshine fans hope for in the future that lies ahead.

The newspapers were littered with stories in the off-season about the horrible employment practices with regard to women in the Redskins organization under Snyder. The owner instigated an investigation that was eventually taken over by the NFL in an effort to portray it as fully independent and unimpeded.

Yet, recently, Snyder’s lawyers have been seeking to block information from becoming public. Despite the guarantee of a full and transparent investigation, the team’s majority owner has been in court trying, and so far mostly succeeding, in keeping some things hidden. A bit of information has leaked out, such as reports that $1.6m was paid to a former female employee in a negotiated agreement, but a lot of details remain murky behind legal blinds that have been erected to keep Snyder’s business private.

His minority shareholders have not been happy, and the reporting on the shareholder fight has been developing week by week as the regular season has rolled along. The details are tedious and documented, so I won’t enumerate them here, but at the heart of things is the fact that three minority shareholders have sought to sell their stake in the team, and that has resulted in a lot of ugly infighting and attempts to leverage or strongarm the other side in what has appeared to have deteriorated into the business equivalent of a bar brawl.

Fans can hope that enough bad news about Snyder could lead to his exit as owner of the Washington franchise, though that seems unlikely, and this week’s news that the disagreement between minority shareholders and Dan Snyder will leave the public forum of the court system to be resolved in the more private confines of arbitration seems to be a “win” for Danny.

As long as Dan Snyder remains, there will always be a certain pall cast over the organization. Fans have learned to live with it the way an arthritic learns to live with joint pain. It isn’t pleasant, and you’d rather not have it, but it isn’t going away, so you learn to deal with it and get on with things.

There was unrestrained joy last January when Bruce Allen was fired. There would likely be a party in the streets of DC if it were ever announced that Dan Snyder was selling the team.

Bottom line

A fan base starved for success has had a tumultuous year, both with respect to the Football Team and — for most people — in their personal and professional lives as well. With the global pandemic forcing so many changes upon us, 2020 felt like a crazy year that might never end, and yet it has.

Perhaps that can be a metaphor for the Washington fan experience. Are there better days ahead for Washington fans? 91% of people surveyed seem to think so. Despite disappointing losses on the field, despite an unclear quarterback situation for this week and beyond, and despite being saddled with the most embarrassing owner in the NFL, fans are optimistic.

A win on Sunday in Philadelphia would go a long way towards cementing that optimism and setting the stage for a successful RivEra in 2021 and beyond.

#httft


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