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Monday, June 24, 2024

The Downward Spiral of the Washington Commanders

  • More than three decades after its last Super Bowl appearance, the franchise is struggling on multiple levels.
  • Dan Snyder is "the common denominator" among issues since he bought the team in 1999.
Dan Snyder
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

Months after Washington’s NFL franchise won its last Super Bowl in 1992, the team moved its headquarters to Ashburn, Virginia.

Thirty years and two name changes later, a few hopeful fans gathered at nearby Ashburn Pub Thursday night to watch the Commanders face the Chicago Bears — roughly a dozen hours after the latest bombshell report on owner Dan Snyder.

“Every year it seems like when they win the first game, everybody gets excited and thinks they’re going to the Super Bowl,” bar owner Kevin Bednarz said. “And then reality sets in after a few losses. I can’t say anything negative about the fans. They are diehard and just want to be happy, but there hasn’t been a lot of that over the recent years.”

The Commanders’ rare primetime victory — a virtually unwatchable game — was the team’s first win since Week 1. Washington (2-4) has an estimated 8% chance to make the playoffs, something the team has done only six times since Snyder took over as owner in 1999.

Meanwhile, Snyder and the Commanders are the subject of five current investigations. Washington’s efforts to replace outdated FedEx Field with a $3 billion domed stadium have stalled.

The slide hasn’t gone unnoticed by fans — or by NFL owners and team executives interviewed by Front Office Sports in recent weeks.

Diminishing Returns

In 1998, the season before Snyder took over, the Washington market ranked fifth (23.9 rating) in local NFL TV viewership.

Last season, Washington — which has only dropped one spot in market size (9th) since 1998 — averaged a 16.4 rating for NFL games, a 30% drop since 1998. Meanwhile, average TV NFL regular-season viewership climbed about 6% between 1999 and 2021.

In Snyder’s first season as owner (1999), the Commanders ranked third in home attendance with an average of 77,468 fans per game.

  • The team was 31st in 2021 with an average 52,751 per game — a drop of 31% since 1999.
  • Overall, league attendance has increased about 11% during that span.

The Commanders, once a primetime staple, aren’t much of one these days. Part of the reason could be that the team is 26-45 in that slot since 1999.

The capacity of FedExField has dropped from around 80,000 in 1999 to between 62,000-63,000, about a 20% reduction.

“The team is in a terrible state with its revenue streams, plus zero prospect of a new stadium and consistently bad teams,” one NFL exec told FOS. “It is now making the costs to other owners more obvious.”

The Snyder Saga

While ESPN was the latest outlet to report Snyder’s potentially questionable grasp on the team, there won’t be a vote for removal at Tuesday’s owners meetings in New York.

There have long been indications that Snyder won’t go quietly, and it’d take 24 owners to vote in favor of removal.

Thursday’s ESPN story also detailed how Snyder has prepared for the possibility that he could be pushed out by allegedly sending investigators to compile “dirt” on at least six owners — including longtime ally Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys — as well as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. 

A Commanders spokesperson called those allegations “simply ridiculous and utterly false.”

While all the blame for the team’s struggles can’t be laid entirely on Snyder, longtime Washington radio reporter and host Chris Russell called him “the common denominator.”

“There’s a lot more apathy within the fanbase,” said Russell, a host on The Team 980. “I hear that from callers and see that in tweets. After a disheartening loss, you still feel the passion. But I see more of that from fans living outside the area than within the DMV.”

  • The team’s front office — including the 2020 hire of Jason Wright, the first Black team president in NFL history — has completely changed from when the NFL launched its first investigation into toxic workplace allegations.
  • That investigation concluded in July 2021 with a $10 million team fine and Snyder’s agreement to cede day-to-day operational duties to his wife Tanya.
  • The team is on its 10th head coach since Snyder took over.
  • There have been eight different people in charge of player personnel — including three coaches who were the de facto GM — under Snyder, who has inserted himself in player personnel decisions. 

“As an owner, you can only hire people to do jobs,” retired Commanders player Fred Smoot said. “You can say he hired the wrong people. As an owner you can say, ‘Yes, I hired the wrong people, but I didn’t know they were the wrong people when I hired them.’ He hired them, got out of the way, and that wasn’t enough. When those people didn’t work out, [Snyder] intervened.

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The people hired to do the job should take more responsibility.”

Allen’s Role

Snyder’s attorneys have blamed former team president Bruce Allen for failing to address the culture that existed during a decade-long tenure that ended with his firing in December 2019.

“It is widely acknowledged that the single most significant step the team took to remedy its toxic workplace was to rid itself of Mr. Allen,” former congressman and current Snyder attorney Tom Davis wrote to the House Oversight Committee on Oct. 5. “The fraternity-house culture that Mr. Allen instilled in the Commanders organization is the principal reason that the Commanders came under investigation in the first place.”

The leak of Allen’s email exchanges with Jon Gruden — correspondence that contained racist, misogynist, and homophobic language — led to Gruden’s abrupt resignation as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders last October.

  • The source of the leaked emails published by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal is still unknown. 
  • Snyder and the NFL have denied they were the source.

But those emails not only cost Gruden his job — they also spurred the Oversight Committee to launch its own investigation days later. That investigation remains ongoing, as is a second outside investigation into the team led by former SEC chair Mary Jo White.

The On-Field Product

The Commanders’ coaching and executive carousel has spun around more than many other NFL franchises, but there are problems on the field, as well. 

“Quarterback,” third-year coach Ron Rivera said when asked why the team hasn’t progressed like NFC East rivals like the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants — referencing Carson Wentz, the team’s major offseason acquisition.

Rivera backed off those statements and apologized to the team and Wentz. He then backed up Wentz following Thursday’s game after ESPN reported that Snyder was behind the decision to trade for Wentz.

“Everybody wants to say I had nothing to do with Carson,” Rivera said. “Well, bull—. I’m the f—–g guy that pulled out the sheets of paper, looked at the analytics, and watched the tape.”

Like the owner, the quarterback is one position that attracts as much praise as blame. Snyder, however, has never had an elite quarterback.

QB Stumbles and Beyond

Robert Griffin III led the team to the playoffs in his rookie season in 2012 after being drafted second overall.

Griffin had been nursing a knee injury for the latter part of the season before his knee buckled in the Wild Card game against the Seattle Seahawks. The injury required reconstructive surgery, the second on the same knee he originally injured in college.

Kirk Cousins, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent after the 2017 season, has started the most games since 1999 (57), going 26-30-1.

“Let’s be honest,” Smoot said. “It’s all about the quarterback in the NFL. During Dan’s reign, he hasn’t had the luck of the draw. Maybe with some foresight, you take Justin Herbert.”

  • The Los Angeles Chargers selected Herbert with the sixth overall pick in 2020. 
  • The Commanders used their No. 2 overall pick that year on defensive end Chase Young.
  • Young was a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie but hasn’t played since tearing his ACL last November.

Snyder’s 158-216-1 record as owner would turn off most fanbases. That 42% winning percentage is nearly identical to that of New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, who acquired that franchise a year after Snyder’s purchase of the Commanders was approved.

But for Snyder and the Commanders, the last several years have gone beyond wins and losses.

“The team — both the one on the field and off the field — is focused on improving the product and the organization,” the Commanders said in a statement to FOS.

“While it’s hard for our employees to see negative headlines, the people here today are living in our new ways of working and seeing the progress it is producing. They are looking to the future — when the public fully understands the pride they have in working here today.”

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