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Built for prime time

Washington should be lots of fun in 2021

Note: this is a 5,000 word article that could take quite a while to read. If you don’t have the time or interest for it, feel free to give it a miss.


My experience of Batman on film dates back to my childhood in the ‘60s when Adam West and Burt Ward showed up once or twice a week on the small screen in our living room as Batman & Robin. The TV series was very different from today’s typical Batman experience. The TV show tried to translate a comic book for kids onto the small screen, including the “Pows!”, “Oofs!” and “Whams!!” that became iconic.

When Batman was translated to the big screen, it became more adult, perhaps a bit more complex, and it began to explore the dark side of the title character that was always hinted at in the comic books of my youth.

With each successive installment, the franchise seemed to dig deeper into this darker side of the famous DC Comics world until all sense of the whimsical and light-hearted characters portrayed in the mid-20th century TV series had been erased.

Certain characters from the early days have been popular on the big screen. Catwoman, for example, has had a number of incarnations, though her character hasn’t evolved much from the sexy and only slightly bad seductress in black leather. But the character that I’ve found most interesting through nearly 6 decades of TV and film is the Joker. He has been portrayed many times, by a number of accomplished actors who have explored the depths of his character as though he were one of Shakespeare’s creations — Hamlet or Lady Macbeth.

The Joker

I was 6 years old when Cesar Romero brought the Joker to life as a smiling but often inept criminal.

More a harmless grifter with a clown fetish than a true menace to Gotham City, on both the Batman TV series and its movie spin-off, Romero oozed a childlike sense of mischief.

In 1988, Batman came to the big screen in a Tim Burton “reimagining” of the Batman story. Jack Nicholson took over the role, and the character’s backstory was an integral part of the film. Nicholson played the Joker as unabashedly cruel but never anything less than hilarious and even seductively likable. For modern audiences, Jack’s Joker could be viewed as every bit the showman as Romero, but when I saw him on screen in the movie house, his performance was electric with it’s departure from the entirely comical character I’d grown up with.

Heath Ledger took the leap from Romero to Nicholson and made the next jump exponential. He went to a whole new universe. Ledger’s take on the clown is immortal.

Heath Ledger admitted to taking inspiration from the likes of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the punk rocker turned murderer Sid Vicious. By his own admission, he soon went far afield, locking himself in a hotel room for a month honing both a voice that sounded nothing like previous Jokers and a nihilistic psychology singular from any monster ever put on film. He kept a diary for that month written in the Joker’s hand. It included anecdotes, such as things that would make his Joker laugh—like AIDS and blind babies.

The most recent iteration of the Joker has been that of Joaquin Phoenix.

His Joker depicts the character as a mentally ill and isolated man suffering from debilitating loneliness and an unhealthy relationship with his mother. He, in short, feels like the profile of many a serial killer and lone wolf mass murderer, which he is. Joker follows Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, as he comes out of his shell and embraces his misanthropic ideas that result in a series of brutal killings culminating with “the Joker’ becoming something of a national boogeyman that drives Gotham City to the edge. I found Phoenix’s portrayal personally unnerving to watch, and, having seen the movie once in the cinema, feel no desire to re-watch it, though it was some pretty masterful film-making.

But I can hear you asking yourself: What’s the point of this rambling discourse on the Joker? What does this have to do with football?

Well...nothing...and everything.

Today’s themes

There are two themes I’d like to explore today:

  1. The concept that different people can interpret the identical role in entirely different ways, and that each of them can be successful. Of the four Jokers I mentioned above, my personal favorite was Heath Ledger, though some people old enough to remember Cesar Romero from back in the day will swear that he was the greatest, and I imagine that a lot of today’s younger moviegoers would fight to the bitter end to prove that Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal was the greatest work of genius in the genre.
  2. The idea that football is not just a competitive sport; it is entertainment. Winning isn’t “the only thing” despite what Vince Lombardi had to say on the issue. Style counts. Like Maximus in the arena in the movie Gladiator, the crowd doesn’t just want victory — it wants victory on the crowd’s terms. It wants to be entertained.

My last defense of Alex Smith

Alex Smith is no longer a Washington Football Squadder, so I don’t really plan to talk about him going forward, just like I no longer spend much time discussing Robert Griffin or Kirk Cousins. But today’s article needs a bit of Alex Smith background, in my opinion.

I know all the arguments about how wins are not a quarterback stat, how Alex was Mr. Checkdown, and how Washington was lucky to win games with him at quarterback.

My view is diametrically opposed to that.

Alex Smith understands football, and he knows how games are won and lost. What a lot of people saw as bad quarterback play from Alex was actually smart football. Washington won games with Alex because of his style of play, not despite it.

Washington Football Team v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The only statistic that really matters in football is the score, but there are some measurable statistics that are stronger indicators than others of which team will win on any given Sunday. In my opinion, the two most critical, in order of importance, are:

a. turnovers

b. starting field position per drive

If you win the turnover battle, you will win much more than half the time. If you can consistently force your opponent to start drives inside its own 20 yard line, that opponent will find it significantly more difficult to put together scoring drives — especially ones that end with touchdowns.

These numbers matter more than sacks, quarterback rating, completion percentage, yards per carry, third down conversion percentage or average air yards.

Faced with a 3rd and 15 at your own 35 yard line, the ability to get a 10-yard gain, allowing a punt from your 45 yard line can be considered a “win” — two wins really. First, the QB didn’t throw an interception and, second, he gives the punter an opportunity to pin the opponent around their own 10 yard line. This kind of complementary football — allowing the special teams to do their job and setting the defense up for success — is winning football, even if it’s not the kind of high powered offensive aerial football that modern fans like to watch.

I’ve seen a number of fans point to Alex’s interception numbers for 2020 and say that he’s not as careful with the ball as his reputation says he is. The fact is, he is careful with the ball, but he is prone to suffering interceptions in bunches, and when that happens, the team typically loses (due to the importance of turnovers in the outcome of games). For example, He threw 3 interceptions when he came off the bench against the Giants in Week 9. He threw two more in the Week 17 game against the Eagles when he was as immobile as a statue. In his 5 other 2020 starts, he threw just 3 interceptions, and he didn’t lose a fumble in any of the eight games he appeared in during his final season in DC.

In 2018, he had three INTs and one lost fumble in his first 9 games, but had thrown two against the Texans before, of course, getting his leg broken in a Week 11 home loss.

It’s well-known that Alex was 6-4 as a starter in 2018 and 5-1 as a starter in 2020, for a handy 11-5 record as a Washington Redskin and Footballer.

His record as a starter from 2011-2017 was 69-31-1 as a 49er and Chief, which is effectively 11-5 per 16 games played.

In effect, over the last decade (‘11-’20), Alex has averaged an 11-5 record across three franchises, four head coaches and numerous offensive coordinators. In those ten years, he’s never had a losing record as a starter in any given single season. Alex Smith is a winner.

If winning was all that mattered, Alex Smith, if not quite praised as a hero, would certainly be recognized universally as the superior quarterback that he is. Any doubt about that should have been erased when he led the team to a 5-1 record playing on a robotic leg with almost no mobility whatsoever. Instead, people focus on the wrong things like quarterback rating or air yards in determining his value, largely because leadership, intelligence and strategic and tactical understanding are hard to quantify, but mostly — as with Maximus Decimus Meridius — the crowd doesn’t just want victory . . . it wants to be entertained.

For most fans, winning isn’t the only thing

Me? I’d rather win ugly than lose pretty anytime.

But I’ve learned over the past decade that most fans value offense over defense, and that they care about style. There was more enthusiasm for the Washington Redskins in Robert Griffin’s first 9 games in 2012 when the ‘Skins were 3-6 than there was for Alex’s first nine games in 2018 when they were 6-3.

Form over function.

Style over results.

Entertainment over victory.

I realize that most of you don’t agree with me; many will either feel anger or pity towards me for my views about Alex Smith, but I stand firm. Alex didn’t throw for a lot of yards; he didn’t throw a lot of touchdowns; he isn’t the kind of guy to throw a ‘no look’ pass, but he is good at not making the wrong play to create problems for his team, and he’s the type who inspires confidence in his teammates in the huddle.

In short, Alex wins, but he’s boring.

I’ve never found winning boring, so I love Alex Smith. But I’m in pretty thin company.

Big plays matter

Sports fans love the spectacular. NASCAR fans love the car crashes; baseball fans cherish grand slam home runs; basketball fans love three pointers and slam dunks, and football fans love explosive runs, sacks and downfield passing. Technicians are boring. We love competitors that take risks! That’s what professional sport is all about.

Networks know this. Owners know this. That’s why offensive coaches get promoted to head coaching positions faster than defensive guys do, and why Patrick Mahomes sells more jerseys than Aaron Donald, and why every one of the top-10 best selling jerseys of 2020 belonged to offensive players.

I guess I must be a throwback, or simply out-of-step with the world; I love to watch a great field position game with skilled punting and strong defense.

In 2018, the Chiefs and Rams played a 54-51 game that many people hailed as one of the greatest games ever. It seemed to me more of an abomination; it was an abandonment of defense, and, let’s be clear, defense is what makes football great. It’s true, and it’s one of the reasons I love what has been happening with the burgundy & gold lately. The only other sport that comes close to involving as much active physical defense as the NFL is ice hockey, and that’s why it is the second-greatest sport.

Great defense is great football.

But people’s fascination with offense, scoring and big plays is widely recognized, understood and rewarded. The NFL has spent decades tilting the rules in favor of the offense, and the most popular teams are the ones that score the most.

I’ve got good news for you

The Washington Football Team is in transition. It is becoming what most fans want to see.

In 2020, the team was a defense with an offensive division attached. So far this off-season, it’s apparent that the front office is committed to developing the offense in a new direction, and it will be built around a quarterback who is as different from Alex Smith as Joaquin Phoenix is from Cesar Romero.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Fitzpatrick is just as smart as Alex Smith, but his strategy and tactics are almost diametrically opposite. Fitzpatrick is a risk taker and a gunslinger. He throws the long ball; he pushes the ball into tight coverage; he often eschews the ‘safe’ play in favor of giving his receiver a chance. Of course, he’s a bit Jekyll & Hyde. Some days most of the risks pay off, the offense is explosive and people are celebrating Fitzmagic. Other days, the opposing defense makes some plays, the offense sputters and it’s Fitztragic time. With Fitzpatrick, fans get used to the longstanding philosophy: “Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you”.

Fitzpatrick has lost more than he’s won in his career. His overall record is 59-86-1, and he actually only has three seasons (out of 14 with games started) above .500.

But Fitzy is exciting! When he loses, he loses while throwing downfield, often for big yards.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is fun to watch.

Ryan Fitzpatrick gets style points! This is what Washington fans have been clamoring for. Don’t just win — entertain us!

Ryan Fitzpatrick should give you everything that Alex Smith never did.

But there’s more!

Washington made two big moves in free agency on offense. In addition to our new gunslinger quarterback, the team added Curtis Samuel to the receiver room.

You thought Terry McLaurin was fast? Samuel is faster!

Playing for Rivera two years ago, Samuel lined up wide more often than not. Last season, playing for a different coaching staff, Curtis Samuel played the majority of his snaps out of the slot and saw a number of plays that utilized him from the backfield. During interviews last week, he said that his primary consideration in picking a team was to go a place where his skills would match the offense — clearly he thinks that he and Scott Turner will be on the same page.

The signing of Adam Humphries this week — a true slot receiver — is an indication that Samuel will likely be lined up all over the field: out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, in motion...

Fitzpatrick has a history of throwing 120 times or more to the same receiver in a season, meaning that Terry McLaurin is probably in for a breakout year, and that Samuel should be the beneficiary of a more creative and wide open offense in 2021 — not because of a huge change in design, but because of more and better receiving weapons (and we haven’t seen the draft yet!) and a quarterback with a different philosophy from the conservative Alex Smith:

“I think my style of play, I’m going to give my guys chances. I’m not a guy that’s going to sit there and be afraid to throw the ball down the field. I’m going to try to make the right plays. If I’ve got a chance and I’ve got my guy one-on-one,I’m going to give them a chance. I think guys like playing with me because of that. I’m able to instill confidence in guys because I give them opportunities. Just kind of playing with that absence of fear, I think, goes a long way. It’s one of the reasons I still play, too, because I love doing it. I love giving guys chances. That style of play at quarterback is going away a little bit.”

What if it’s not Fitzpatrick?

Of course, Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn’t been named the starter, and he’s got a history of being benched in favor of younger quarterbacks. As it stands right now, if Fitzpatrick weren’t the starter, or if he had to be replaced in a game, the most likely ‘next man up’ would be Taylor Heinicke. If you need any reminders of how much fun it is to watch him play, just go back and re-watch the playoff game against Tampa Bay and listen to Tony Dungy absolutely crush on Taylor for three hours. The kid is every bit as exciting as Fitzmagic.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

So, if Heath Ledger’s Joker isn’t able to show up on any given Sunday, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker can step right in without missing a beat.

In Washington, even the defense is exciting

It isn’t just the offense that’ll be adding excitement this year. Jack Del Rio’s defense will be back and hopefully even better than it was a season ago.

Of course, we all know about Chase Young. In just his rookie year, established himself as a captain and leader of the defense — and the head cheerleader for the offense.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Kamren Curl, taken in the same draft as Young, but in the 7th round, was probably the second-best rookie defensive player in the NFL last season.

With Sweat, Allen, Ioannidis, Payne, Settle and Young causing havoc for opposing offenses, there are sacks, tackles for loss, fumble recoveries, interceptions and batted passes.

Washington is returning every defensive starter from the 2020 roster except Ronald Darby, and the team has arguably upgraded that position with the signing of William Jackson III.

Jackson has the reputation of being a press-man corner and following the opposing team’s best receiver, but those impressions are not fully borne out by the numbers. Last year, in Cincinnati, the Bengals played more zone than man cover, and WJ3 lined up on the right side of the defense more than 80% of the time. Discussion of him possibly being a poor fit for how the Washington defense plays may be overblown.

Another possibility, of course, is that — with the addition of Jackson’s skills — Del Rio may choose to play more press man cover. So far this coaching staff seems to be pretty good at adapting scheme to the players available.

Ready for Prime Time

Back in 2013, following a playoff season, and in anticipation of RG3’s return to health, the NFL and TV networks scheduled the Redskins for five prime time games, which was basically the maximum possible. The team, of course, went 3-13, Mike Shanahan was shown the door and Robert Griffin III became a dead man walking as far as being the Redskins quarterback was concerned.

By last year’s 2020 season, Washington had fallen so far in the estimation of the networks and the league that the Football Team was not scheduled to play in any prime time slots at all, with its only national audience game coming on Thanksgiving in Dallas. You had to go back to 1982 to find the last time the Redskins hadn’t been scheduled for a prime time game.

CBS Sports offered several reasons why this happened last year:

Lack of star power

There just isn’t much to sell with the Redskins outside of their defensive front, even though teams should be terrified of Young, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, Montez Sweat, Matthew Ioannidis and Ryan Kerrigan. Adrian Peterson isn’t at his MVP level anymore and Terry McLaurin isn’t established enough to be a feature on a primetime telecast

Dwayne Haskins

He did improve as the Redskins season went on, but struggled for the majority of his rookie campaign. Haskins completed 58.6% of his passes and threw for 1,365 yards, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions and finished with a 76.1 rating.

The Redskins pass offense was one of the worst in the NFL, averaging 175.8 yards a game (last in the league) and 5.9 yards per pass (29th). Washington was last in points per game (16.6) and 31st in yards (274.7), which spoke to Haskins’ struggles early in the year. It’s not just Haskins, but he didn’t exactly make the Redskins offense better either.

There’s no guarantee Haskins is going to be the starting quarterback in Washington. Are networks going to take that risk and broadcast a primetime game if Kyle Allen is starting? Highly doubt it

The Redskins just haven’t been good

Looking back at the past two decades, it’s amazing how the Redskins actually won three Super Bowls. That was before Daniel Snyder bought the team and sentenced them to oblivion. Washington has 12 losing seasons, only three NFC East titles, and just two playoff victories (the Redskins haven’t won a playoff game since 2005) since Snyder bought the team in 1999.

[T]heir rivalries with the Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants in the NFC East was an easy draw for primetime, but these matchups have been one sided over the past few years. The Redskins haven’t beaten the Eagles since 2016 and are 1-7 against the Cowboys in their last eight meetings, making it hard to pin them against the division’s best in a primetime slot.

Doesn’t help the Redskins are 1-7 in their last eight primetime contests either, being outscored 232-134.

We had become the Cesar Romero version of the Joker — one that no one wanted to see anymore. Remember that, at the time the schedule was released, no one had an inkling that Alex Smith would ever see the field again. It was gonna be the Dwayne Haskins year for Washington. Of course, if networks had realized they could be airing the greatest comeback in NFL history, there might’ve been a bit more love from the powers that be, as we saw late in the season when Washington games were shifted into some nationally televised time slots.

The one nationally televised game that had been on Washington’s schedule from the beginning was the Thanksgiving day game in Dallas. When the Football Team romped over America’s team with the entire nation watching (it was the most-watched game of the season to that point), NFL fans across the nation started talking about how much fun it was to watch this young team.

When the Steelers game got shifted to an early Monday game with no other games in the same time slot, a lot of Americans got to see the upstart Washington team knock off the previously undefeated Steelers, and they were impressed.

The Week 17 game against the Eagles got shifted to prime time Sunday night. It was, unfortunately, not a pretty game, but it sealed the division championship and a trip to the playoffs for Washington — its third division title in nine years.

A week later, the team lost to the eventual super bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it was one of the most entertaining games of the playoffs. Washington had the ball late in the 4th quarter with a chance to tie the game, and ended up losing by 8 points. Taylor Heinicke burst into the national NFL consciousness with every play and every word that came from Tony Dungy’s mouth.

The young man was exciting. He was good!

He also targeted Cam Sims 13 times.

Heinicke threw for over 300 yards; he ran for another 46. He scored two touchdowns — one of them on an incredible scramble and dive for the pylon that should make highlight films for decades to come!

NFL fans saw a fun team! They saw an exciting offense run by a different kind of quarterback!

Washington lost the game, but they won the hearts of fans across America.

They showed that they were ready for prime time.

Twenty starters returning + offensive & defensive upgrades

The 2020 NFC East division champions are showing up in 2021 with the starting lineups virtually intact.

On defense, every starter from last year’s top-5 unit returns with only one exception — Ronald Darby has moved on, but he has been replaced by William Jackson III, whom many observers see as an upgrade. At least two significant players will return from injury as well, with DT Matt Ioannidis and SS Landon Collins returning after missing much of last season.

As discussed above, Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Kendall Fuller and Kam Curl all turned in exciting performances in 2020. Once we add another young player or two in the draft, Washington’s defense has the chance to be the statistical leader in the NFL in 2020, and the individual players are likely to be a lot of fun to watch.

On offense, every starter from the end of the 2020 season returns, with only one major change — Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith are gone, replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke.

In recent years, Fitz has proven to be a crowd-pleaser and a locker room favorite. Even with no other changes, adding him to the roster would have likely made last year’s checkdown horizontal offense more of a downfield vertical attack, but the front office didn’t stop with the QB signing.

Enter Curtis Samuel, the veteran free agent who, for months, had been most widely tipped to be coming to DC. Samuel adds speed and positional flexibility to an offense that had a fair bit of both last season. This week’s signing of Adam Humphries helps to insure that the Football Team’s offense will be able to keep playmakers on the field.

Of course, like every team in the NFL, Washington still has the draft available for enhancing its roster. Targets for immediate roster upgrade seem to include LB, FS, OT, TE or WR. Assuming that Washington can get one top linebacker and one top TE/WR, the Football Team should be able to put on offensive and defensive shows weekly.

You will be entertained!

Defensive turnovers

Powerful running attack

Explosive passing attack

Building a new team for a new identity

The Redskins name was retired prior to the 2020 season; Washington will spend two seasons in the metaphorical desert as the branded Football Team before unfurling the new team name soon after the Super Bowl next year.

Yes, I know that Jason Wright just said that the franchise could just stick with the current branding, but that’s not gonna happen. Firstly, the team president’s message is that no decisions have been made, and that they are still actively seeking fan input. His comment was the equivalent of “we don’t comment on ongoing investigations”.

Secondly, Wright is smarter than most everyone else on Twitter. By dangling the possibility of sticking with the WFT brand, he knows what the headlines will say, and that it will lead to a burst of social media activity that will reignite passions in an issue that had been largely ignored since the start of regular season play last September.

Jason Wright has re-engaged the fan base; he suddenly owns their attention from now until training camp, and he did it without making any commitments with the exception of a promise to stick with the burgundy & gold color scheme. We will have the Washington Whatevers in 2022, and likely a new stadium after 2027.

This means that Ron Rivera has the 2021 season to get the product right on the field, and he is very close to having the roster he needs to do it.

Just like the choices that face an actor when he is given the opportunity to play the Joker, Ron Rivera, Jack Del Rio and Scott Turner have the opportunity in front of them to vary their interpretation of the game of football that we saw on the field in 2020 — tweaking it to be something a little bit different and more entertaining in 2021. I think we’re gonna see a more aggressive team offensively and defensively.

Del Rio has different skills at one of the key CB spots now. Might he choose to play more press man cover? The team has 4 draft picks in the top-100 of the April draft. Could they add an elite play-making linebacker to the defense?

Scott Turner has an offense that looked pretty exciting when Taylor Heinicke was given the keys to take it out for a spin for 5 quarters of the 2020 regular and post-seasons. It seems likely that last year’s careful field position offense piloted by Alex Smith will look completely different with the addition of Curtis Samuel’s speed and positional flexibility in combination with the fearless gunslinger, Ryan Fitzpatrick, as the passer. I suspect we’ll see opposing defenses under a lot more stress in the passing game in 2021, with many more big plays and much more offensive scoring. Terry McLaurin could be the leading receiver in the NFL in 2021!

WIth 6 games against teams in huge NFL media markets inside the division along with games against the defending super bowl champion Buccaneers, the Saints, Seahawks, Packers and Chiefs on the upcoming season’s schedule, this Washington Football Team seems to be built for prime time.

If Rivera can deliver exciting football on the field with his cadre of offensive and defensive playmakers, that should go a long way towards helping set up the 2022 re-branding effort being championed by team president Jason Wright.

As a franchise, the goal should be to create a connection to an exciting brand of football that will appeal to young fans in the NFL in an effort to re-build the crumbling and long-suffering fan base. With the new stadium likely to be just five years away, there is a ton of opportunity to use the 2021-2027 seasons to launch the franchise into it’s next half-century and beyond as something new and exciting.

We know that there’s a new 2021 Batman film in the works. The title character will be played by Robert Pattison (of Twilight fame), and the word is that Johnny Depp will be the next man up as the Joker. We don’t really know how Depp will be costumed or how he will re-interpret this iconic character to make it his own after following so many sterling and unique performances.

What we know, however, is that Johnny Depp has a history of bringing unique and enjoyable interpretations to movie characters.

With Depp and the Joker, it feels like we’re about to see a new interpretation of a classic that has been with us since the early 20th century.

Of course, now we’ve got our own former Buccaneer with a unique style.

It seems to me as if the recent free agent class, led by Ryan Fitzpatrick is set to do exactly the same thing with the Washington Football Team — reinterpret last year’s team into something new and different — something more fun and more exciting.

The 2021 iteration looks like it’ll be ready for prime time. This young team should be a lot of fun to watch. If it is, that should provide a powerful springboard for the new name and brand that will define the team starting in 2022, and it should carry us forward into an exciting new era of Washington football.

Roulez les bon temps!