Washington’s NFL team is about to get a new name. A new identity? That’ll take a little longer.
Changing the team’s name and expecting a franchise rebirth is like calling week-old dog food “filet mignon.” Washington’s problems run so much deeper than a name, and it will require a previously unseen pivot from team owner Daniel Snyder to get the Warriors/Red Tails/whatever pointed toward anything approaching success.
Let’s be honest. The name is only the most visible of this team’s many problems. And fans who have stopped coming to games aren’t doing it because they hate the team’s name.
Numbers don’t lie: Washington has finished third or last in the NFC East 16 of the past 20 years. The team has won only one playoff game since the 1999 season. One! And you know what else also happened in 1999? Snyder bought the team. These three facts are not unrelated.
Under Snyder, Washington has gone from one of the NFL’s elite clubs to a half-remembered joke. Snyder has fielded a succession of increasingly irrelevant teams, throwing money at big-name coaches (Marty Schottenheimer, Joe Gibbs, Steve Spurrier) and past-their-prime stars while meddling all the way up and down the organizational structure. (Our Frank Schwab pegs them at No. 31 of 32 teams coming into this season.)
FedEx Field, meanwhile, ranks as one of the worst stadiums in the NFL, a cramped mausoleum more dedicated to preserving the long-ago legends of Joe Theismann and John Riggins than taking care of whatever current fans remain. Difficult to get to before games, impossible to leave afterward, it’s such a thoroughly fan-unfriendly place that it’s no surprise the few fans at a November Jets game started up a chant of “SELL THE TEAM!”
It’s a stunning shift from the way fans once embraced this franchise ... even though that love was commoditized and used against them. Remember the fabled Washington Season Ticket Waiting List? That, according to team lore, was a list so long that your grandkids couldn’t expect to get season tickets to games. The team was so popular it could sell out two stadiums, or so the legend went.
Like so much about Washington’s NFL team, the Mile-Long Waiting List was a sham. As for the depth of the team’s support in the DMV area? Yeah, take a look at this shot from just three minutes into that Jets game last November:
Plenty of good seats still available!
Snyder has also been a remarkably fan-hostile team owner, charging for practices, suing critical journalists and season-ticket holders, jacking up prices for everything from drinks to parking, crafting a stadium experience that’s like trudging through one of the circles of hell. The name was pretty much the only thing keeping much of the fan base in Snyder’s corner. When he made his all-caps declaration to “NEVER” change the name, he spoke right to the hardcores. You may not like me, he was saying, but I’m the only one still standing up for the name.
Well, at least until the sponsors started clearing their throats. (You’ll note that in its statement announcing the change, the team twice thanked sponsors before “fans and community.” Again: not a coincidence.) When FedEx, Amazon, Nike et. al. decided the name had to go, well, Snyder bum-rushed it right out the door.
So is there any hope for longtime Washington fans whose closets are full of now-disavowed team gear? Or should they just cash out, scoot an hour up Interstate 95, and jump on the Ravens’ bandwagon?
Maybe. Snyder has owned the team for more than 20 years, and he’s 55. Neither of those elements bodes well for having the stomach for a complete makeover. Even so, Snyder and Washington have a rare opportunity here: a chance to hit reset on an entire franchise.
Rebranding not just the name, but the identity of a team synonymous with failed promise and incompetent operation will take a long time. It’ll be difficult for Snyder to put distance between himself and the carnage of the past two decades, considering that carnage was almost entirely of his creation.
But if you’re still a Washington fan — well, first, our condolences — there is some hope. Snyder had the foresight to hire Ron Rivera to coach the team, and Rivera had the guts to take a swing at saddling up for the league’s most dysfunctional franchise.
“What [Washington has] needed is a culture change,” Snyder said when introducing Rivera. “Someone that can bring a winning culture to our organization. That starts and ends with our head coach.”
Rivera isn’t the kind of coach to put up with executive-level interference, and there’s evidence he’s already remaking the team in his own image. His roster sports generational talent in defensive end Chase Young and untapped potential in quarterback Dwayne Haskins. If he can wrestle this team into something resembling competency, there’s a chance Washington can come out of 2020 with not just a new name, but a new identity.
Either way, Washington fans will learn once and for all whether their true blood rival is the Dallas Cowboys … or the guy up in the home team owner’s box.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.
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