Looking back — hindsight provides such clarity — there was one eerily pleasant moment last season that signaled the end of stability for the Washington Redskins. It hinted that the entire organization, not just the players, had trouble handling mere droplets of success. And with the team seemingly back on solid footing this summer, it provides caution as a new season approaches.
The eerily pleasant moment came Nov. 20, the night Washington won a rare prime-time game, 42-24 over the Green Bay Packers. The evening couldn’t have been more glorious, a high that only made the ensuing downfall more dreadful.
Late in the game, the House of Pain song “Jump Around” boomed through FedEx Field, and cameras caught Daniel Snyder doing something that resembled dancing. Chants of “We want Dallas!” also filled the air, an optimistic allusion to the upcoming Thanksgiving Day showdown against the Cowboys. Afterward, Kirk Cousins celebrated a 375-yard performance by shouting infamously, “How do you like me now?” to Scot McCloughan before hugging his now-former general manager.
They were feeling good about themselves. Too good. And if it’s darkest before dawn for everyone else, perhaps it’s sunniest before the storm for this franchise.
You know what happened next: a late-season collapse that included four losses in the final six games, including two lackluster performances at home; the long, strange and controversial dismissal of McCloughan; and another round of “Why Is This Franchise So Bad?” queries.
Since then, Washington has bounced back, made a deeper commitment to Coach Jay Gruden, acquired legitimate talent in the offseason, restructured the personnel department by promoting one of its legends and even celebrated a Supreme Court ruling in favor of disparaging trademarks, which the franchise considers a victory in the fight to keep its name.
“I am THRILLED,” Snyder said in a statement June 19 about the ruling. “Hail to the Redskins.”
Chests are starting to poke out again. It’s mostly subtle, but there’s a premature “I told you so” vibe from team President Bruce Allen, Snyder and a few others about how well the organization has functioned and the team it has built (on paper) the past few months. It’s possible that I already have become one of those people so accustomed to doom that I won’t allow for much joy, even if it’s justified. But I have this feeling again that Washington thinks it has accomplished more than it really has, that it doesn’t yet appreciate how difficult the end of this building process will be and that it fails to recognize that this high should be treated more as a medium achievement.
Why does this matter? Why should you be slightly alarmed? Because patience is still a key to finishing this job. In fact, after the McCloughan mess, it’s more important than ever that the franchise keeps a long-term vision, sticks to the plan and lets this revised football operations staff work through some inevitable disappointment without feeling the pressure of further change.
On the surface, it seems that Allen and Snyder understand this. Gruden was given a two-year contract extension, which means Washington owes him money through the 2020 season. Doug Williams is now the senior vice president of personnel, which should mean that he and his staff have several years to build upon the success McCloughan had. But with Snyder, security is always open to interpretation. The future is a hazy forecast until we see the 2017 results and the franchise’s reaction to them.
Although Washington’s roster continues to look healthier, the team isn’t likely to experience meteoric improvement. It figures to continue the same methodical pace of McCloughan’s two years. If all goes right, Washington could win 10 or 11 games this season, maybe even capture the NFC East. But Dallas and the New York Giants still look better. Washington appears to be a more balanced version of the team that has finished 9-7 and 8-7-1 the past two seasons.
That would mean another season of inconsistency and frustration, another season in which promise and sobering reality engage in another bout of tug of war. But that’s okay as long as Washington gets Cousins to sign a long-term contract (good luck with that), the defense improves (up is the only place it can go) and the roster continues to develop.
No one wants to hear about limitations in June. But Washington has to prepare for that possibility. For another year, it has to keep measuring this team a little differently than perennial playoff squads do.
When Allen introduced Williams as the team’s top personnel executive (except when Allen chooses to get involved), he talked about losing that season finale against the Giants, which cost Washington a wild-card playoff spot.
“We should not have lost the last game of the season, and from that Giant game on, the direction of this organization was, ‘We have to get better,’ ” Allen said. “We have to find out ways to win that game when we have that opportunity. So when Doug brought his plan in, that’s what started the discussions.”
Allen’s words were honest and introspective. But the disappointment of 2016 was greater than that last game.
It was about the entire final six weeks, the inability of the defense to simply be decent and the offense’s struggles in key situations. Washington was only one game away, but professional sports are decided by such small margins that you can lose perspective fixating on single performances. It’s better to consider the whole and realize that, over four months and 16 games, Washington had a deflating habit of coming up short. It wasn’t just the last game. It was a part of the team’s identity. It means that the solution is much more involved than playing better for a quarter or two simply to make the playoffs. It means that, if the goal is to compete regularly for division crowns and the Super Bowl, there’s quite a bit to fix, to let grow, to develop.
Snyder and Allen must keep judging that process. This season can’t be about justifying why they fired McCloughan. It can’t carry the expectation that rookie defensive end Jonathan Allen, a new coordinator and better depth will lift the defense to the top half of the NFL. When they extended Gruden and promoted Williams, it should have started a new clock for the reconfigured leadership. It shouldn’t mean added pressure for Gruden. And the lack of someone carrying the “general manager” label shouldn’t mean that Williams has to worry about a high-profile addition to his staff if Washington misses the playoffs this season.
There are scenarios in which change could be justified if the season ends at 8-8 or 9-7. But change shouldn’t occur simply for the lack of perceived progress. The evaluation should have depth and nuance.
As Washington prepares for training camp in late July, as it makes one final push to sign Cousins long term before the July 17 franchise-tag deadline, it has reason to feel good about its direction again. There’s nothing wrong with that. But this is only June success, and much like November success, it’s not worthy of excessive dancing and shouting.
How do you like me now? It’s not even worth an answer.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.