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On Sunday, Washington lost a lot more than just a football game

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Washington Football Team v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Break the glass, press the button

It’s time for the Washington Football Team owners, executives and coaches to panic. The Week 6 debacle that took place on and off the field has broken the fragile trust that had begun to re-form between the stewards of the organization and the team’s fans, and the level of tone-deafness to what is going on is astonishing.

Last year-this year

Let’s focus first on what’s been happening on the field and with the coaches. The Washington football team played inspiring football in 2020 behind a coach battling cancer, a mid-season comeback by Alex Smith from what should have been a career-ending leg injury in 2018, and a Cinderella-story replacement quarterback named Taylor Heinicke from Old Dominion University who started the wildcard playoff game against the eventual world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and gave the champs the toughest game they would get in the playoffs.

In the 2021 offseason, the front office re-worked the roster under the guidance of Head Coach Ron Rivera, and should have, presumably, come into this season with an improved roster. The team returned two key players from injury in SS Landon Collins and DT Matt Ioannidis. They made conscious decisions to create roster turnover by saying goodbye to DEs Ryan Anderson and Ryan Kerrigan, LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, CBs Ronald Darby, Fabian Moreau and Jimmy Moreland, RT Morgan Moses, LS Nick Sundberg, and veteran quarterback Alex Smith. The front office used veteran free agency to acquire CB William Jackson, S Bobby McCain, WR Curtis Samuel, OG Ereck Flowers, OT Charles Leno, TE Ricky Seals-Jones, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Add ten draft picks and two undrafted free agents into the mix, and Ron Rivera should have entered the 2021 season with a top-5 defense and a more explosive offense in defense of its NFC East crown.

The results on offense have been mixed, but the performance of the defense has been head-scratching, with the total performance being far FAR less than the sum of its parts.

Six weeks of disappointing game play

Prior to the Week 6 home game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington’s defense was giving up the 2nd most points per game in the NFL. After surrendering 31 points to the Chiefs while scoring only 13 points on offense, the Football Team has now fallen into dead last in scoring defense.

Taylor Heinicke, whose pedigree as an undrafted free agent who was out of the NFL entirely in 2019 and most of 2020, offers an inspirational story, and led two game-winning drives against two of the NFL’s weaker teams, the Giants and Falcons, who have a combined record of 3-8 this season. But Heinicke, who is often described as a “scrappy gamer” with an inspiring story who shows “moxie”, simply hasn’t been able to get it done over the past two weeks against the Saints and Chiefs.

Playing New Orleans, who boasted one of the NFL’s better defenses, it wasn’t hard to be forgiving of the young quarterback’s issues, despite the fact that he threw two ugly interceptions that were instrumental in the loss. It would, his head coach said, be a learning experience for the young man.

This week, against the Kansas City Chiefs, who came into the Week 6 contest as the worst-ranked defense in the NFL as measured by both traditional and advanced metrics, the inability to connect with his receivers or to sustain scoring drives is much harder to rationalize or overlook, especially given the fact that the Washington defense put together their best 30-minutes of football of the 2021 season in the first half against the Chiefs, gifting the Washington offense three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble recovery) and great field position late in the half on a shanked punt. The fact that the offense was able to generate just 13 points from all those gifts was disappointing, yet, somehow, Washington managed to take a 3-point lead to the locker room at halftime.

Wounded and salted

Getting shut out in the second half simply rubbed salt in the wound as Kansas City’s offense found its rhythm and scored touchdowns on three consecutive scoring drives of 68, 45, and 96 yards before running the ball four times for 3 yards in a clock-burning effort on the Chiefs’ final series of the game.

This is not the 2019 KC Chiefs

Had this simply been a loss to one of the NFL’s better teams, the result wouldn’t have been so hard to take. After all, Kansas City has been the AFC representative at the two most recent Super Bowls, and won the Lombardi Trophy in 2019. Patrick Mahomes is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and already has a league MVP award on his shelf at the still-tender age of 26.

But this Chiefs team entered the game 2-3, the same as Washington, and had been playing bad football in recent weeks. Mahomes has been throwing interceptions (13 INTs in 14 starts prior to Week 6), the KC offense had given away 4 turnovers against the Bills and the Chargers, and the KC defense was literally the worst in the NFL through 5 weeks. Circling the Chiefs game and marking it down as a loss prior to the start of the season may have been automatic, but by the time this game arrived, Ron Rivera and his team should have been licking their chops at the thought of catching Andy Reid’s squad at a vulnerable moment.

But the Washington Football Team itself has been vulnerable all season. Seeing a struggling Kansas City team – 2-3 and in last place in the AFC West – come into Landover as 6.5-point favorites and leave with an 18-point margin of victory was simply the latest indignity in a season of indignities.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way

What really hurts is that, with the firing of Bruce Allen and the hiring of Ron Rivera at the start of 2020, the franchise was supposed to have turned a corner. Ron Rivera was supposed to implement the “damned good culture” that his predecessor Bruce Allen had turned into a punch line. The subsequent hiring of Jason Wright as President was supposed to solve the communication issues, improve the professionalism and eliminate the outright gaffes that had plagued the franchise for nearly all of Dan Snyder’s two-decade reign of error. This was supposed to be the new and improved Washington franchise – the one that had signaled a total reboot by jettisoning the Redskins moniker that the team had proudly hailed for over 80 years, cleaning house at the executive level through a series of firings and forced resignations, and re-making key chunks of the football operations by, for example, hiring a GM and quasi-GM in Martin Mayhew and Marty Hurney, and by re-tooling the Training and Conditioning team by firing longtime Head Trainer Larry Hess and bringing in Ron Rivera’s hand-picked replacement, Ryan Vermillion.

Despite a number of challenges, the new leadership team came out of the 2020 season with a lot of support, and there was a feeling among the fan base that maybe – just maybe – this time it would be different.

Losing on and off the field

But 2021, in many ways, has unfolded like a recurring bad dream for the fan base, with the executives in the building who are supposed to ensure that things run professionally making a series of rookie mistakes.

For example, Jason Wright’s side of the business seemed to misread the fan base by releasing a teaser video about the new team name in the week before the season started, reigniting a fruitless discussion about the name just as real football was about to be played. In a series of poorly managed statements immediately after, the message of whether 8 names in the teaser video were “finalists” or simply random selections became the primary headline surrounding the franchise for what felt like weeks. Had this happened in, say, June, it might have been defensible, but at the start of September it was an unnecessary distraction and actually served to divide the fan base instead of bringing it together, and caused a number of people to publicly question whether the team was prepared to manage the rebranding effort that is lined up for 2022.

But it wasn’t just Jason Wright’s side of things that was raising eyebrows. Washington’s defensive secondary has gotten toasted on a weekly basis since the start of the season. The coaches seem to have no clue how to correct what’s wrong. The busted coverages and poor tackling that have become routine seem to be the fault of several of the highest paid players on the defensive side of the ball. In the style of an old-fashioned vinyl record with a scratch in it, Ron Rivera’s press conferences from week to week sounded identical. The problem, he said, was players not doing their jobs, or trying to do too much. It was, he repeated weekly, “a lot of little things that we’ll get corrected”.

The Week 5 Monday morning Zoom press conference was a bit of a watershed moment, with Rivera growing defensive and hostile at repeated questions about the defensive secondary. The coaches were tinkering with snap counts and schemes, but it wasn’t working. Ron Rivera, instead of sounding confident that he had a team that was ready to compete with anyone, talked about games like the ones against Buffalo and Kansas City as “measuring sticks”, which, in my mind, is on par with participation trophies when it comes to inspiring greatness.

Just too much bad news, old and new

The avalanche of negative headlines that followed the Saints loss and Rivera’s comments about “two plays” that led to the loss made it clear that the new Rivera-Wright-Mayhew-Hurney power structure hasn’t really solved the issues that they were hired to solve.

Ryan Vermillion and the DEA

Nine days ago, the news broke that Ron Rivera’s hand-picked Head Trainer, Ryan Vermillion, had been placed on administrative leave because he was allegedly under investigation by the DEA (yes, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency). News reports said that search warrants had been carried out at the Ashburn headquarters and at Vermillion’s home. Later reports said that a second member of the training staff had also been placed on leave.

This is the sort of scandal that would keep most NFL fanbases occupied for months. In Washington, it was hardly a blip on the radar.

Bruce Allen’s emails

The Wilkerson investigation into the Washington franchise’s history of sexual harassment and “toxic workplace” issues was completed months ago, but this week emails became public that had been exchanged between Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen. Gruden was forced to resign, with the news going public during the broadcast of Monday Night Football. Subsequent email leaks this week have threatened at least one other person who seemed to share an unsavory relationship with Bruce Allen, and some people predict that the reported treasure trove of 650,000 emails will continue to nip at the heels of Allen’s correspondents for months or even years to come.

“Hush money”

There wasn’t really enough room on the front page on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday as at least one of the victims of the alleged sexual harassment in Washington reported that she and other women had been offered cash settlements conditioned on their silence going forward. While such arrangements are hardly uncommon, given last year’s reporting on Dan Snyder’s liberal use and heavy-handed enforcement of non-disclosure agreements, the idea that this was still going on under the new regime was unsettling to many.

By this time, Houston fans were starting to feel sympathetic for the level of dysfunction Washington fans were suffering. They had gotten rid of Bill O’Brien only to get saddled with Jack Easterby and Nick Caserio. Washington had been through that with the transition from Vinny Cerrato to Bruce Allen. The newest regime change was supposed to exorcise the demons of our past.

The Sean Taylor debacle

Instead, the Washington fan base this week had to suffer what is perhaps the indignity that cut the deepest for many. On Thursday, the team announced that it would be retiring the “21” jersey number of Washington’s great safety, the late Sean Taylor, who was tragically murdered in his home in 2007.

People getting long in the tooth (like me) have memories of great teams and super bowl wins at the foundation of their Washington fandom. For younger fans who were born too late to experience those great teams, Sean Taylor is often the one great player that they all hold dear, with his tragic death elevating him to a special untouchable status.

Fans have long supported the idea of retiring Taylor’s number; it has, in fact, never been worn in a game by any player since the young safety’s death, so the concept of retiring Taylor’s number wasn’t a problem.

The problem was the timing – and that took two forms.

The first timing issue was that the team released the news in a week when the headlines were full of negative press about Dan Snyder and the Washington franchise. The sudden announcement smelled of a attempt to deflect attention away from the bad news by announcing something that would be very popular with the fan base. This was the instant reaction on social media, forcing the team to stress via beat reporters that the plans had been underway for several weeks.

But that raised the second timing issue. How could the team wait until Thursday, just three days before the game and the number retirement ceremony, to announce it? Didn’t they realize that fans would want to make plans to attend? Things weren’t made better by the comparison to the announcement of the Bobby Mitchell number retirement earlier this season, or by the fact that Jason Wright tweeted out an announcement about a Cold Play concert on the same day as the Sean Taylor announcement, with the concert announced 7 months in advance.

The team was either sneaky or incompetent and out of touch. Neither alternative was attractive.

This was exacerbated by several ancillary issues. For example, the team announced that it would hand out 10,000 special commemorative towels to people who arrived early to the game. Why, it was asked, wouldn’t the team simply give a towel to everyone who attended? Also, it turned out that Coach Joe Gibbs, who had a special relationship with Taylor, wouldn’t be present at the game since he was in the midst of his team’s NASCAR racing season. Social media and talk radio exploded with indignation that the franchise had dropped the ball so badly on the one thing that any first-year marketing student could have parlayed into the biggest fan event in the Dan Snyder era — the franchise honoring the late, great Sean Taylor and officially retiring his number.

Had it been handled correctly, the number retirement would have been announced in the middle of the off-season and planned for a special home game when the logistics worked out well. There could have been video memories posted weekly through the season, fan contests, radio and TV specials counting down to the number retirement, interviews with fans and family members, and, on game day, every player and fan could have been wearing No. 21 prior to the game, the halftime ceremony would have been on an elevated stage and supported by special multimedia show.

But it wasn’t handled correctly. It was botched.

The apology that didn’t work

The man who had been hired to make sure that the team never again botched something like this, Team President Jason Wright, immediately felt compelled to issue a written apology to fans.

But even the apology raised hackles among fans. One of the most poorly considered sentences in Wright’s missive read,

We didn’t realize that so many of you wanted to make a trip to FedExField to be present for this moment — a true lack of understanding of what you, the lifeblood of this franchise, needed to mourn our collective loss and celebrate Sean’s legacy.”

I won’t rehash here all of the negative responses this generated; you can Google it. A large portion of fans also felt that the team compounded the mistake by not, in the wake of the fan outcry, simply rescheduling it, though there were at least some reports that the family didn’t want that. One other decision – to sell the commemorative towels for a price of $21 with the proceeds supporting charity – was seen positively by some fans and negatively by others.

All of this bad feeling towards the franchise, its owners, executives and coaches poured out via social media, newspapers, and talk radio from Thursday to Sunday, and was carried into the game amidst calls from many fans not to let the issues take away from the celebration of Sean Taylor on Sunday.

The execution of what should have been the greatest moment of celebration and togetherness that Washington fans have experienced in over two decades fell flat. It looked like a thrown-together amateur event.

Being eventually blown out on the scoreboard by the Chiefs was simply the rancid icing on a very crappy cake.

Post-game fan reaction

The fan reaction has been interesting to see, and from what I can garner, seems to fall into three really broad categories. The diehard optimists are now looking at the schedule in an effort to map out a path to a wildcard playoff berth, which is not completely improbable in the current 14-team playoff format. A second chunk of fans have written off the current season as lost already, and have now turned their attention fully to the question of which quarterback to target in the 2022 draft.

But – and this should be troubling to Jason Wright, Ron Rivera and the Snyders – a significant number of fans (and only true fans are still left after the last 25 years) simply don’t care anymore.

Washington had already been suffering the lowest attendance figures in the NFL. I have to imagine that when the team plays its next home game against the World Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on November 14th, following two road games and a bye week, there will be many more empty seats than there will seats with butts in them. Of course, it’s almost a certainty that Bucs fans will outnumber Washington fans in the stands that day.

Sunday, and its loss to the Chiefs, was much more than just another mark in the loss column on the season. Sunday’s failure to properly honor the only 21st century legend that this team has produced was an insult to fans and a catastrophic series of mistakes by the people in charge.

The Sean Taylor number retirement should have been a slam dunk for Jason Wright and his team. It’s hard to imagine that Dan Snyder (who was present at the family ceremony on Saturday) could have allowed this whole thing to have been mishandled.

What does this mean for the all-important rebranding?

Beyond the lasting wound to the fan base, Sunday’s failure calls into question the ability of the front office — and Jason Wright, in particular — to handle what is coming in early 2022. Until now, it was easy to feel that the team would manage the rebranding effort professionally, despite the bad judgement call with the video teaser in September. There was hope that 2022 would bring a genuine ‘new era’ of professionalism and on-field success for the Washington franchise and its fans.

But if they can’t execute a Sean Taylor memorial the right way — if they can be so massively unaware of what it would mean to the Washington fan base — how can they possibly get the hugely complex and nuanced rebranding effort right?

Honestly, it may not matter. At the pace this season is unraveling on and off the field, there may not be any Washington fans left who are passionate enough to care what the new name is by the time it’s announced.