Tampa Bay, who entered the playoffs as the top-seeded wildcard team after losing twice to the New Orleans Saints and finishing second in the NFC South, are favored by 8 points against the NFC East champion Washington Football Team.
Washington fans aren’t really worried about that.
After two decades of embarrassing Dan Snyder ownership and a decade of bumbling Bruce Allen “management”, there is a feeling, that came with the arrival of Ron Rivera, Jason Wright and others, that the franchise may have finally turned a corner by turning over the operation, both on and off the field, to capable football people.
Team President Jason Wright was a player for the Arizona Cardinals and has an impressive education and business background. At just 38 years of age, he is young for the role of President of the Washington Football Team franchise, but his youth and energy have been a delightfully welcome change from the curmudgeonly days of Bruce Allen, who was fired from the position of President on New Year’s Eve in 2019. Wright’s transparency and constant communication are a breath of fresh air for a franchise that badly needed the windows to be thrown open for a good Spring cleaning.
Prior to the start of the regular season, Wright was seen several times a week on television and online video platforms talking about the name change, the culture change, and everything else related to the WFT that anyone wanted to ask about. During the season, he has published “The President’s Weekly Brief” on the team’s website to maintain an open flow of communication with the fans. He is also active on Twitter and other social media platforms.
Here’s an example of the kind of conversationally-toned message that Jason Wright uses to keep the fan base informed of progress:
Though always pleasant, each of my interactions with coaches seemed more brief than usual. The coaches who tend to stay late into the night moved around the building with an urgent pace that is unusual for the late hours. In short, this staff seemed focused and locked in at another level heading into this game. It reminds me of what my former teammate Kurt Warner would say to his family heading into the playoffs: “I love you but I’ll see you in 4 weeks when this is over.”
Great leaders and high-performing organizations are able to raise their level of focus, attention to detail, pace of work, and overall intensity when the stakes demand it. Coaches Rivera, Del Rio, Turner and the rest are clearly building this characteristic on the football side of the house as they successfully navigated a “do-or-die” game week. And the game’s strong start, including the first opening-drive touchdown of the season, was an indicator that this ability to raise their game will be a hallmark of the football culture going forward.
Asked to comment on the franchise’s plans going forward, Wright talked about commitment to season ticket holders, and the “name change, rebrand, and rebirth of our identity.”
[W]e’ve received 12,000 suggestions, and we are using some industry leading third party analytic support to digest the submissions and understand what is important to our fan base.
We’ve also taken some other initial steps to more deeply understand what current and potential fans are looking for in an identity. We’ve engaged a few thousand current, lapsed and potential fans through surveys and focus groups, and we’re getting some powerful insights. One of those is something we already knew but has been strongly validated is establishing a connection to our history. Another is the importance of our efforts in the community in building meaningful emotional connections with our fans; there is a sense that the team’s brand should reinforce the image of positive community influence. There are many, many more insights that I won’t share here, but suffice to say we are hearing you and learning about your aspirations for the organization and the brand very quickly.
Now is the time for all the people in my Twitter mentions to let me know we haven’t spoken with them :). Yes, I am aware we have not gotten to you. We are unlikely to directly engage each of our several million fans across the world in this hands-on way, but we have more time and will engage many more thousands of you along the way.
This sort of “personal” touch in mass communication seems to be one of Jason Wright’s particular gifts, and it is a far cry from the smarmy and arrogant tones usually struck by Bruce Allen in his too-rare communications with the media or the fan base.
The effort to re-establish contact with the fan base hasn’t been Jason Wright’s alone; in fact, he isn’t even the person primarily responsible. Wright has worked closely with another recent addition to the franchise, Julie Donaldson, Senior Vice President of Media. Donaldson appears nearly everywhere in the media universe of the Washington Football Team. She is part of the radio booth broadcast team on game days, but throughout training camp and the regular season, she has appeared on camera in a seemingly endless stream of podcasts and videos devoted to telling WFT fans about the players and the team.
We also can’t ignore the incredible turnaround in the social media management. A couple of years ago, Washington’s social media engagement felt like a 49-year-old lawyer who tweeted on behalf of the team in his spare time.
With the hiring of Social Media Manager, Astasia Williams, the franchise’s social media presence and content vaulted into the 21st century and right to the top of the charts.
In a recent Fox Sports poll, Washington’s social media team was voted the best in the NFL — something that would have been unthinkable in the Bruce Allen era, and another small component of the re-branding and fan engagement that should help with the reinvigoration of the fan base.
This effort from the front office seems to be paying off, but only because the franchise has a new public face — that of head coach Ron Rivera.
Coach Rivera brought instant credibility with him when he joined the franchise in January 2020, but he wasn’t the first head coach to arrive in Washington with an impressive resume. Dan Snyder has had experienced coaches, a number of them with super bowl rings, come to Washington in the past. No one, to date, has really been successful.
This time, it appears as if two things may be different.
The first is that Rivera was hired with the understanding that Washington would become a “coach-centric” organization. Practically speaking, Rivera was put in charge. Aside from the owner himself, Rivera is the final word on what happens. He seems to have wielded that authority freely, taking early actions like trading away LT Trent Williams, and more recent actions like cutting last year’s first-round draft pick and presumed face-of-the-franchise quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
The second difference is the help that Rivera has been given in his mission to establish a new organizational culture — a phrase that has been repeated so often in the past year as to have become almost tiresome to hear, notwithstanding its essential importance. In addition to hiring Jason Wright and Julie Donaldson, the franchise spent much of the 2020 offseason reorganizing every aspect of the organization, including player personnel, training and medical staffs, and even the person responsible for salary cap and contracts. There have been reports recently that Rivera will hire a General Manager this off-season to further lighten the load of his (Rivera’s) off-field duties.
Of course, none of this would really matter to the fans if it wasn’t reflected in what happens on the field.
The team itself has given fans reason for optimism. The defense has been one of the top units in the league this season in most statistical categories. Also, after a poor start to the season in which the record at one point stood at 2-7, the WFT finished the season 5-2, with the two losses coming in the absence of starting QB Alex Smith due to injury.
With Washington’s first NFC East title and first playoff appearance since the 2015 season and subsequent playoffs, fans have something to cheer about, and the future looks bright.
In the weekly Reacts survey from SB Nation, 94% of Hogs Haven readers who responded said that they were confident in the direction of the franchise,
With a 7-9 season record and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers favored by 8 points in tomorrow’s super wildcard weekend matchup, the fan confidence seems to be based on the long term direction of the franchise rather than any short term success.
Fans seem to be expressing belief in Ron Rivera and front office executives like Jason Wright, Julie Donaldson, and Vice President of Player Personnel Kyle Smith. The fans seem to believe that the organization might have enough “good guys” in place to finally overwhelm the losing culture wrought by two decades under Dan Snyder’s stewardship.
There’s optimism surrounding the Washington Football Team as 2021 begins.