ASHBURN — “Hail to the Redskins” doesn’t play anymore after touchdowns. “Chief Zee,” the superfan who dressed up in faux Indian garb at home games in the franchise’s golden years, died more than four years back. The old logo and nickname are gone, too.
So much has changed for Washington’s NFL team in the past year — new nickname, new coaches, new executives — that Saturday night’s wild-card game at FedEx Field can sometimes feel like the club’s first-ever trip to the playoffs. At the very least, the matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers represents a changing of the guard. A new chapter for an organization that has been scrambling to distance itself from mistakes of the past.
Goodbye, Redskins. Hello, Washington Football Team.
Breaking with the past
When coach Ron Rivera was hired a year ago, he knew coming in that decades of dysfunction and losing had eaten away at what was once one of the most devoted fanbases in all of sports — and he wanted his players to help win them back.
“The biggest thing more so than anything else is that we’re a resilient bunch, we’re a bunch of fighters, we work until the end,” Rivera said. “That’s what I want more so than anything else. I want the fans to know that we’re going to play hard. We’re going to give them everything we can. We’re going to play hard, and we’re going to play until the end. You just never know.
“That’s what we’re trying to create is that around here.”
Over the last decade, Washington totaled the fourth-worst record in football and had just two playoff appearances. Discouraged by a poor on-field product and a number of controversies, fan attendance plummeted by 21.3% in that span — one of the biggest declines in the NFL.
For Rivera and the Washington Football Team, though, things were destined to get worse before they got better.
The franchise experienced more turmoil in 2020 than most NFL teams do in a decade or two. Beyond the pandemic, there was the name change in July, followed by the launch of an investigation into the team’s workplace misconduct after a slew of former employees said they were sexually harassed while working for the team. Owner Dan Snyder battled with his minority partners behind the scenes, and Rivera disclosed he had cancer.
That was just the offseason
The season itself was just as unpredictable. A 1-5 start put hope on life support. Rivera shuffled quarterbacks, eventually turning to veteran Alex Smith — whose improbable comeback from a life-threatening leg injury added to the drama. With a young core and some veteran leadership, Washington unexpectedly turned things around — finishing 7-9 to win the division and return to the postseason for the first time since 2015.
“I don’t think anything’s been normal this year,” Rivera said.
Many players credit Rivera’s positive attitude and steady demeanor for helping to keep the season on track. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, for instance, said Rivera’s cancer battle served as motivation to practice harder. If Rivera, he said, could be coaching after undergoing treatment, then players knew they had no reason to complain.
Mike Richman, a self-branded Redskins historian, said the one coach in the franchise’s history has had a similar type of impact that Rivera has had in his first year: George Allen. In 1971, Allen took over a 6-8 squad still reeling from the death of coach Vince Lombardi, who suddenly stepped down after the 1969 season and died in 1970.
Allen went 9-4-1 that season and ended a 25-year playoff drought.
“Allen put his fingerprints totally on the team with massive trades he made for the veterans and started the over-the-hill gang,” Mr. Richman said. “That’s probably the greatest correlation that I can think of to what’s happened this season. But this is really, really — I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Despite a sub-.500 record, making the postseason can overshadow existing problems or recent controversies. On Saturday, for instance, the NBC broadcast won’t spend too much time on Washington’s name change or sexual harassment investigation, aside from a brief mention at the top of the broadcast, “Sunday Night Football” producer Fred Gaudelli said. Gaudelli said the topics don’t “warrant deep inspection” since most happened over the summer.
Play-by-play man Mike Tirico will weave the storylines together, but said he’ll mostly just call the action.
“Here you are at a playoff game, which is one of the most significant moments of the season,” Tirico said on a conference call Wednesday. “You want to keep your focus on the game.”
Washington could have easily folded after a rocky start. After all, the team held the same record in 2019 and finished 3-13. That had become a staple in recent years — once Washington started to slip, the season often spiraled out of control.
But Rivera credits his players for not pointing fingers and staying focused. Washington didn’t let the gravity of the off-the-field issues sink the season.
Wide receiver Terry McLaurin said the team “never made excuses” despite the challenges.
“We owned the good and the bad,” McLaurin said. “That’s what helps growth: When you’re honest with yourself as an individual, when you’re honest with yourself as a team. Coach Rivera spearheads that. You know where you stand with him.”
Rivera provided a fresh start for the players, McLaurin said. The 25-year-old remembered the impact Rivera made during his first address to the team — even though it was done over a computer due to the coronavirus restrictions that prevented them from meeting in person. Rivera “set the tone” by clearly laying expectations in a concise manner. “You knew he meant business,” he said.
Washington, though, had the right mix of youthful energy, veteran leadership and overall talent to start winning games. Rookies like Chase Young, Antonio Gibson and Kamren Curl made major contributions — none more so than Young, who was voted a team captain late in the year and earned the NFC defensive player of the month on Thursday.
As the second-longest tenured Washington player, edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan said 2020 was different, in part, because the team knew the NFC East was up for grabs with the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants unable to take a commanding lead for first.
This will be just the third playoff trip of Kerrigan’s career, and the 30-year-old experienced similar strong finishes in each of those seasons (2012, 2015). The team’s confidence is “really, really high,” he said.
“We’re really feeling good about ourselves,” Kerrigan said. “And I know with a lot of the youth we have on the team, it feels sustainable in that sense.”
Building a foundation
The true test for Rivera will be if he can sustain success. Mike Shanahan and Jay Gruden each had playoff seasons — even climbing out of a midseason hole like Rivera’s squad — only to not make it again.
The main difference, of course, is that Rivera made the playoffs in the first year after being hired, with a roster seen as less talented than those previous years.
Rivera, too, seems to have control in a way that Shanahan and Gruden did not. Over the course of the year, he made moves that demonstrated his power. Rivera traded tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Quinton Dunbar. He cut Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson. And in the most noteworthy move of all, he released Dwayne Haskins — the once-promised quarterback of the future who flamed out after multiple off-the-field incidents and poor play.
Last year, Snyder said Washington would be a “coach-centric” organization with Rivera in charge — a claim met with plenty of skepticism. So far, that appears to be happening. Will that continue when the NFL investigation settles or the ownership dispute ends?
“He understands that there are some things that have to be done,” Rivera said of Snyder.
But if Washington has truly buried its troubled history, the upcoming offseason will be pivotal.
The NFL’s investigation of sexual misconduct allegations is ongoing. There’s a decision in the offing about whether the nickname remains “the Football Team” or something else. There’s the matter of who is Rivera’s quarterback.
Before any of those questions can be answered, a showdown with Tampa Bay awaits. Washington is a heavy underdog, but after a year that was so unexpected, Rivera is ready to embrace the unpredictable once more.
“This experience ranks up as the most different one I’ve had,” Rivera said. “Not just the playoff experience, but the whole year. This will be a memorable one.”
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