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Despite quick playoff exit, Washington fans believe in the future; NFC East rival fans not so much

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Vince Lombardi famously said that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”. Well, the Washington Football Team didn’t do a lot of winning this season; they finished 7-9, but at the top of the NFC East, and were bounced from the playoffs on the first Saturday of play. But fans have responded to the team and its direction. Ron Rivera and Alex Smith have provided ‘feel good’ stories through their respective battles against the coach’s early-summer diagnosis of cancer and the quarterback’s 2018 leg injury and subsequent infections that required a reported 17 surgeries. Watching the team mount a comeback in Week 1 against an Eagles team that was expected to compete for a playoff spot promoted early optimism that soon faded as the losses mounted, but by mid-season, with a couple of quarterback changes, there was a sense that the team was turning a corner. When Alex Smith was able to guide the team to a 4-game winning streak and set up the opportunity to hang a division championship banner, fan optimism surged.

Of course, the team didn’t finish the season strong. Back-to-back losses against Seattle and Carolina with Dwayne Haskins at QB while Smith was sidelined by a calf injury put the likelihood of a trip to the playoffs in jeopardy, but the team stayed alive as the losses also mounted for New York and Philadelphia.

Of course, the team did make the playoffs, and there was a collective optimism that the Football Team had a chance at home against the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers because either Alex Smith, the team’s proven winner, would start, or Taylor Heinicke would do so in his stead. The team was in good hands.

Only fans of Washington and Old Dominion University (and a few hard-core Vikings , Patriots, Texans, St. Louis Battlehawks & Carolina Panthers fans) would have had any reason to know who Heinicke was prior to Saturday’s wildcard game at FedEx Field.

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Heinicke had come into the game for the final nine minutes against the Panthers in Week 16. While the comeback attempt ultimately fell short, the effort itself was valiant, and Heinicke moved the offense more effectively than any quarterback had since Kirk Cousins had under Jay Gruden.

So it was that fans believed Washington had a chance in the playoffs with the former 2015 undrafted free agent with only one career start on his resume under center. Similar to Rivera and Smith’s battles with adversity, Heinicke offered a Cindarella-like story. Undersized for the position, released by four NFL teams, signed as an XFL backup quarterback and out of the NFL for all of 2019 and most of 2020, Heinicke had been at home studying for his final exams to complete his degree at ODU when his phone rang in early December inviting him to join the WFT as its “quarantine quarterback”. Basically, he would be on the practice squad, but would be kept separate from the other team QBs, and would collect a check every week to be ready to be activated if there were a COVID breakout in the QB group similar to the one that impacted the Broncos this season. It was unlikely that Heinicke would ever see the field — he was merely long-shot COVID insurance.

But an incredible sequence of events transpired with Dwayne Haskins that saw him go from the team’s presumptive quarterback-of-the-future and starting quarterback versus the Seattle Seahawks in Week 15 to being waived by Ron Rivera eight days later. Heinicke was called up from the practice squad and installed as Smith’s backup ahead of fellow practice squad QB Steven Montez, who had spent the entire season with the team.

Smith’s injury kept him off the field when Haskins was benched late in the Week 16 game against the Panthers, creating the opportunity for Heinicke to get on the field for his two late-game offensive drives, which led directly to him being named the starter for the Football Team’s playoff game against Tampa Bay when Alex Smith was unable to go.

In that game, Heinicke looked like the best player on the field. He was fiery, driven and effective — the embodiment of everything that head coach Ron Rivera has told fans he would bring to Washington.

The coach has told fans that the Football Team might not always win, but that they would never quit. Delivering on that promise seems to have fueled belief in the coach and in the future of the franchise.

The contrast with where the fans stood relative to the franchise in December of 2019 is stark, and is a testament to the commitment to genuine change that has been manifest since the first day of 2020.

Bruce Allen, the deeply unpoplular decade-long team president was fired on NYE just over a year ago. This was the first of a huge number of changes aimed at changing the organizational culture on and off the field.

New York Giants v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Ron Rivera was not only hired to coach the team, but was, in effect, put in charge of the entire organization, with a mandate to remake it in his image.

NFL: Washington Redskins-Head Coach Ron Rivera Press Conference Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Front office executives, most with VP or Senior VP titles were unceremoniously fired and replaced. Entire departments of the organization were reorganized, with a number of people, Kyle Smith (now Vice President of Personnel) chief among them, rewarded with promotions. The front office got much younger and more media-savvy with the hiring of people like Jason Wright as the new team president and Julie Donaldson as Senior VP of Media & Content. Even the broadcast team in the radio booth on Sundays was totally reconstituted with a younger, fresher feel, and includes Donaldson in the mix.

A huge number of issues have been a part of the makeover — none more headline-grabbing than the decision to change the name of the team.

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Known as the Washington Redskins since the early 1930s, the team announced its intention to change the name just weeks after Rivera was hired, and the re-branding was a major focus of the off-season. Ultimately, the team decided to play the 2020 season as “The Washington Football Team - established in 1932”, keeping its iconic burgundy and gold uniforms. The clean classic uniforms with the numbered helmets have actually ended up a feature of the team’s 2020 season.

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Washington Football Team Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Changes wrought under Ron Rivera included the firing of most of the coaching staff and some of the training staff. The three key coordinator positions were filled by a curious blend of individuals. The Special Teams Coordinator, Nate Kaczor, was retained from Jay Gruden’s coaching staff. Young Scott Turner came (back) to Washington as a first-time offensive coordinator after having worked with Rivera in Carolina. Scott’s father, of course, is Norv Turner, the one-time head coach of the Washington Redskins at the end of the last millennium; he was the first head coach fired by owner Dan Snyder. For the Defensive Coordinator role, Ron Rivera surprised almost everyone by tapping former head coach and TV broadcaster Jack Del Rio. This was a surprising move because the two had no history of ever working or playing together.

Del Rio was one of the exceptions, however. Like most coaches and business people hired to force organizational change, Rivera brought along a lot of people he had worked with before who understood how he worked and who could help him spread his messages quickly. He brought a large part of his coaching staff from Carolina; he replaced the Washington salary cap guy with the Carolina salary cap guy, and the infusion of Panthers personnel extended even to the football field when he signed 37-year-old Thomas Davis to join the WFT as a linebacker.

Changes included some players leaving as well. Rivera traded two talented players, Trent Williams and Quinton Dunbar, for draft picks.

However, in this year’s draft, the team seems to have done very well. DE Chase Young has been everything the #2 overall pick should be, and maybe more. Antonio Gibson, the 3rd round running back, has been one of the best-performing rookies in the league this season, and 7th round safety Kamren Curl stepped up when Landon Collins was injured and, if anything, outplayed the former Pro Bowl and All-Pro safety.

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It all adds up to a young and improving team that fans seem to be excited about as 2021 begins.

In the final Reacts poll of Hogs Haven fan confidence related to the 2020 season, 95% of Washington fans who responded to the survey expressed confidence in the direction of the franchise; this was the highest confidence level expressed by Hogs Haven readers since the inception of the surveys in 2018.

The incredibly high confidence of Washington fans is in contrast to that of its NFC East rival fanbases, whose confidence levels cascade in a reflection of the final season standings:

  • Washington 95%
  • New York 76%
  • Dallas 22%
  • Philadelphia 11%

New York fans saw their team limp to a 6-10 finish, losing three of the season’s final four games, yet tried to blame Doug Pederson, the Eagle’s coach, for the Giants’ failure to make the playoffs.

In Dallas, after the Cowboys defense gave up nearly 30 points per game this season, first-year Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan was fired, while first-year head coach Mike McCarthy was retained. Of course, nothing can be done about the real albatross around the neck of the franchise, owner Jerry Jones, who, after more than a quarter-century of playoff futility, still believes he can build a super bowl roster, blaming bad luck, injuries and bad coaching for his failures as a general manager. With Dak Prescott not currently under contract for 2021 and the Cowboys estimated to have only about $22m in cap space for the coming season, the Dallas fan base should be treated to another tumultuous off-season with plenty of soundbites from the GM/owner of the Cowboys franchise.

Philly looks to be a hot mess at the moment. They have two quarterbacks, one locked in on a hugely expensive long term contract; both had losing records in 2020. Head Coach Doug Pederson was just fired after the team finished with a 4-11-1 record, despite three consecutive playoff appearances and a super bowl win from 2017 to 2019. Despite having fielded increasingly aging and expensive rosters over the past three seasons, and setting the Eagles to be over the 2021 salary cap by an estimated $51m, GM Howie Roseman retains both his job and the confidence of team owner Jeffrey Lurie, who described the road ahead as a difficult time that requires a new coach that is aligned with the Roseman’s vision. The hardest thing to understand here is what the 11% of Eagles fans who still believe in the direction of the team are optimistic about.

There is, of course, a lot of static surrounding the Washington Football team these days, with most of it generated by the owner(s) and past organizational culture. The off-season and regular season both were marred by repeated stories about harassment of women in the Ashburn headquarters of the franchise that persisted for decades. Further, a metaphorical brawl broke out between Dan Snyder and three of his minority partners early in the year as they positioned themselves to try to sell their minority stakes in the franchise. One of the three, Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx, is largely credited with arm-twisting Snyder into the decision to abandon the Redskins name and logo. In more recent weeks and months, there have been arguments, investigations, injunctions, court battles and arbitration that have been gleefully reported by the Washington Post and other media outlets that have embarrassed Dan Snyder, the team and the NFL. With Dan Snyder widely considered to be one of the worst team owners in the world of professional sports, fans can only cross their fingers and hope that all this noise eventually results in a sale of the team by Snyder, but that hope seems faint.

Still, a new day seems to have dawned in Washington on the 1st of January, 2020, when Ron Rivera was put in charge. There have been enough substantial changes to suggest, at least for the moment, that Dan Snyder may have been sidelined, and that the “football people” are making the decisions for the Washington franchise.

There are a lot of questions to be answered (like, Who is our quarterback?), and a lot of winning to be done if the team wants to retain the confidence of its fans, but there are opportuntities ahead as well. This off-season sees the front office armed with eight draft picks and a healthy salary cap postition that should allow it to continue the roster-building efforts. The name change also offers an opportunity to engage with and inspire the fan base, and with the lease on FedEx Field set to expire in 2027, the design and construction of a new stadium are potentially just beyond the near horizon.

The 2020 season for the Washington Football Team — like much of what has happeed in the world this year — has often been described as being beyond what would be believable in a Hollywood movie plot. Any one of a dozen storylines by itself — the front office scandal and reorganization, the name change drama, Ron Rivera’s fight against cancer, Alex Smith’s comeback against impossible odds, the signed-off-the-sofa-to-start-in-the-playoffs underdog story of Taylor Heinicke among others — would be entertaining or uplifting. Taken together they form one of the great stories of sports history, and one that is almost too unbelievable to be true.

From the first nationally televised game against Dallas on Thanksgiving to the final one on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the response of NFL fans across the nation has been mostly to cheer on this high-energy underdog team that has played hard — a team that won five of its final seven regular-season games. TV talking heads and blog commenters alike have described how exciting and how much fun it has been to watch this team in the second half of the season. Tony Dungy, who has been around professional football his entire life, was gushing in the broadcast booth as he watched Taylor Heinicke put on a show in the wildcard game against Tom Brady and the Bucs.

Unfortunately, the 2020 season didn’t have a fairy tale ending for the Washington Football Team. It was, ultimately, the story of an underdog that overachieved, but not the story of a champion who overcame. Can the Washington franchise build on Ron Rivera’s good first year and find a way to continue to retain and enhance fan confidence?

It will be fun watching this team over the coming months to find out the answer to that question.