Yogi Berra famously said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.” That sums up two-and-one-half decades of the Washington professional football franchise. Directionless, rudderless, and clueless are all attributes of the Dan Snyder era. So, it was with some measure of contained glee that newly hired Dan Quinn hit the exactly correct note at one point during his introductory presser. Nearly two-thirds of the way into the hour-long affair he was asked about a “Rebuild.” He shrugged off the word: “…this is a recalibrate, you know, finding our North again…” For a ship languishing and long lost in the open ocean it all starts with finding Polaris.
When Josh Harris and his posse of very rich co-investors bought the team there were uncontrollable cries of joy. For the fanbase it was cathartic to lose the demon who had possessed the body of the franchise for so long. The first game in September started with the fervor from the assembled that would rival a playoff atmosphere. It had the feeling, in miniature, of the celebrations that marked the end of World War II. Everything was there except the confetti. The author Leon Uris described those heady days. He had carried a bottle of champagne around for months. When the Victory Day came he pulled the cork only to discover the drink had spoiled. When the hangovers abated the realization struck that a new war had already started. This one was called “Cold,” but felt just as ominous as the last one.
By the end of the first game some realizations hit that this team was not very good. Arizona was a team in such flux that the starting Quarterback had not been on the roster for two weeks. That Cardinals team pushed the WFT to the end. There was nothing reassuring about the narrow victory. It would turn out to be the only home win of the year. And, it ended up being one-quarter of the total wins during a dismal season.
Josh Harris probably had his mind made up to jettison Ron Rivera early on. We don’t know that for certain. But, there are reports that he pressured Ron to trade away the two Edge rushers mid-season. Rivera was a man awaiting the escort to the parking lot from that day forward. The team lost all of its remaining games.
Predictably, Harris pulled the trigger shortly after daybreak on “Black Monday,” the day after the season finale. He had organized a Search Committee that included Golden State Warriors ex-GM Bob Myers and ex-GM of the Minnesota Vikings Rick Spielman. How far back the planning went for this is not clear. But, it was hardly spur-of-the-moment.
The first order of business was to hire a General Manager…a real one. Sitting all shiny on the showroom floor was Adam Peters of San Francisco. He was out the door and in the garage in no time. There was universal praise of the hire. That’s when things got, well, a bit weird.
In an effort to hire more minorities as coaches the NFL has instituted a Byzantine series of restrictions for interviews. The solution in search of a problem was to keep coaches on teams still in the playoffs from being poached. Targeted coaches are then supposedly freed to give undivided attention to the upcoming game. Zoom interviews were still allowed, however. Some of these lasted three hours or more. Not all forms of torture require physical abuse. Three-hours on a Zoom call would crack a coconut. Regardless, by the time the Conference Championship games came the Jetsons interviews had loosely cemented choices. These leak, of course as agents and teams can get their version of things out with a simple text to one or more of the gossip columnists.
The mortal lock was supposedly Ben Johnson, the Offensive Coordinator of the Detroit Lions. He’s young, brilliant, and a bit of mad scientist when it comes to offense. Mike MacDonald was the other “Hot Runner.” Also young, brilliant, and very well-spoken during interviews MacDonald was seen as a solid hire. In the end the team would get neither.
Harris proved during the season that he could keep things close to the vest. During the search that continued. The noise that Johnson was the lead pipe cinch came from outside. It then got amplified by any media tuned in to the League. On Monday, the first day they could do so, the committee extended an offer to MacDonald. He and his agent used that as leverage on Seattle to get a longer and more lucrative contract. While in the air on the way to Detroit to meet with Johnson, his agent texted to inform them Johnson was staying put. Oh, Snap!
That left Dan Quinn, the former Falcons’ Head Coach, the current Dallas Defensive Coordinator, and NFL lifer as the last man standing. The reactions were predictable. Real football people praised the hire. Falcons’ nation spit venom at their former coach. The WFT fanbase simply melted with an outpouring of angst and despair. Living in toxicity has its price. This fanbase has been in toxic space so long that such a reaction is merely conditioned response. The lazy simply typed, “Ron Rivera 2.0.” The energetic typed missives saturated with invectives and pejoratives. Wearing his ball cap backwards was apparently disqualifying. Who knew? All of that was predictable. The other shiny toy in the showroom was not coming home. Instead, here came a “retread.”
There is a common thread in the League now that has a disdain for age. This year two legendary coaches were involuntarily retired. One had on-field results that justified the move. The other was simply guilty of being over seventy. His teams had been to the playoffs some 10 out of 14 years. And, he was coming off of a winning season. When iconic Casey Stengel was fired by the Yankees he said, “I’ll never make the mistake of turning seventy again.” So, an older guy, Quinn is 53, and a former Head Coach was a package that this long-suffering fanbase didn’t want. “Retreads” don’t always fail, by the way. Belichick, Carroll, and some guy named Andy Reid are all retreads that went on to win Super Bowls on their second go. Sometimes failure is debilitating. Other times it is a learning experience that facilitates success in subsequent attempts.
Despite the laughing emojis and dismissal as a “Gang that couldn’t shoot straight” it says here the Search Committee got this one right. Washington is putting a more traditional organization in play. A young General Manager is being tasked to assemble a winner. His success depends on a reliable Head Coach that will work with him. Longtime NFL Analyst Pat Kirwan describes Quinn as completely trustworthy and loyal. He went to say that Quinn will never backstab the young GM. One name never considered by the committee was Mike Vrabel. He and the newly-minted GM in Tennessee clashed from the onset. Avoiding that type of situation was paramount. Rick Spielman is being quoted as saying the relationship between Quinn and Peters was notably positive. It was also a prime consideration.
Pairing experience with a newbie is a good strategy. How the team arrived at it is less important than that they ended in a good place.
Quinn talked openly about his failure in Atlanta and what he had learned from it. He had spread himself too thin, focused too much on Defense, and a number of other learnings. He found his North again. Now he’ll attempt to help a lost franchise do the same.