You have witnessed the soft launch of another new era for the Washington Redskins this offseason. As usual, it comes with no guarantees for success, and if certain holdovers don’t prove themselves essential, the transition over the next year could be rife with turmoil and discomfort. Nevertheless, Revision No. 749 of owner Daniel Snyder’s tenure has begun, and for all the foul-ups and mishaps of the past, it has the appeal to pull your weary heart toward hope again.
No one knows better than Snyder about how change can make a fan base enthusiastic — or at least intrigued — and even though he has gone to this well many times, it’s impossible not to be curious. This time, the pivot just might have a little more substance to it.
On the field, you see it with new quarterback Alex Smith, who is under contract for the next five years and already commands respect with his presence and winning character. He hasn’t played a game here yet. And I have been quite skeptical of whether this roster, which is largely unproven on defense, in the running game and in the passing game, can accentuate his strengths. But as Washington prepares for judgment this fall, Smith has impressed with his leadership, experience, professionalism and evolving talent. He’s not some 34-year-old version of Kirk Cousins. Because he came to the franchise with a contract extension in hand and no uncertainty about how he’s valued, there is a better chance for synergy in this quarterback marriage.
Off the field, you’re starting to see the impact of Brian Lafemina, the recently hired president of business operations and chief operating officer. Snyder wants the franchise to become more transparent and connected to fans who are starting to stray because the team has been irrelevant for so long, the game-day experience is lackluster, and there have been too many embarrassing controversies. Lafemina’s role reduces the responsibilities of Bruce Allen, the team president, who is back to more football-focused duties. He also gives Washington a fresh face with extreme credibility and without loads of burgundy-and-gold baggage.
Lafemina, who had worked in the league office for eight years before coming here, arrives with an honest approach and fresh ideas. On Wednesday, he was front and center when the team announced new efforts to appeal to fans, including the concession that there is no season ticket waiting list, which had become unintentional comedy because the team used it to claim preposterous levels of interest.
When Lafemina talks, you can sense humility and ambition. There’s no constant pointing to the team’s history and implying, “We’re Washington. Hail us.” The tone is more like, “We’re Washington. We need to live up to it.” That’s refreshing. That’s a tone that could bring some people back. The on-field product must get better, absolutely, but when you’re trying to revive a fan base that has suffered this much, it requires your best efforts in many areas. Lafemina has the potential to lead such an outreach.
“This is one of the biggest sleeping giants of an organization, in any league,” said Lafemina, who worked 22 years for the Madison Square Garden Company before joining the NFL. “The market that we get to work and live in. The fan base that we have. The brand that is the Washington Redskins. The fact that we’re on a path to go build a new stadium. When you get a chance to do those things in this business, you grab them.”
It’s interesting that Lafemina mentioned Snyder’s new stadium aspirations. So much of this new movement is about that. No matter the progress this franchise believes it has made politically on a new stadium, the public will spur most of the momentum or deem the project unnecessary. Snyder knows he can’t keep trotting out bad-to-mediocre football teams. He definitely knows he can’t keep trotting out bad-to-mediocre football teams that have a knack for dysfunction off the field. The nonsense needs to stop, for the stadium pursuit and for the brand in general.
Lafemina didn’t leave a cushy NFL job without feeling he has the power and the commitment to make that happen. It is in the league’s best interest for Washington to be relevant and act professional again. It is in the best interest of Snyder’s bank account, too.
But it takes more than a new quarterback and business executive to turn around a franchise. That’s why the next year will be so intriguing. If this is about doing everything possible so that Lafemina can help the franchise, there’s no way to avoid further change. Some of it could be subtle: shifts in responsibilities or firings of lesser-known staffers. Some of it could grab headlines: Where does a seemingly minimized Allen, after all his blunders, fit into the big picture? Coach Jay Gruden has a 28-35-1 record and one playoff appearance in four years. Could he really survive another year without a postseason berth? And wait a minute: Do you really think this is a bona fide playoff team in 2018?
In its quest for sustained success, Washington is a misaligned franchise. The ideal scenario is for everyone to be relatively new at the same time. When there is misalignment, you want it to be strategic, not the result of failings. Because the team fired Scot McCloughan, because it developed Cousins and then watched him walk, because it now has a new face of the team (Smith) and the operation (Lafemina), the franchise is no longer growing up together. But does that mean it needs to grow apart?
Gruden, a realist, knows that performance will dictate whether harmony can exist. In a sense, he’s starting over because he has a new quarterback, but he knows that doesn’t buy him much time. He needs Smith to have an immediate impact. He needs the team around him — which is developing, albeit slowly — to take a significant jump this season.
“He has got to get it down by the first game,” Gruden said of Smith learning his offense. “So I think he is already close to having it down for the most part. Each game plan is going to change with different concepts depending on who we play from time to time. But he needs to get it down, and he will get it down. That’s why we got him here. . . .
“We are not in here to build the team around him. The team is built, and he has to lead it, like, right now. This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process, and we have got to win right away.”
Gruden must think this way because it’s the only way for a competitor to think. Take a step back, however, and you can see the need for a process. Can the coach and quarterback expedite it? The future of an ever-transitioning franchise rests on the answer.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.