NFC East Reporter
For years, the Washington Commanders has been a destination to avoid, a last resort for coaches, free agents or anyone who wasn’t out of other options. The combination of bad working conditions, bad facilities and a meddling, tyrannical boss made the organization something to avoid.
Five months into Josh Harris’ tenure as the new owner, none of that is still true.
In fact, the Commanders head coaching job might actually be the most attractive one available this offseason, based on interviews with several NFL sources and agents of head coaching candidates. It’s not just that they have the No. 2 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, a decent base of young talent, and a ton of cap space to use in the offseason.
The biggest selling point is that they have an owner who seems intent on doing things right.
The 59-year-old Harris has shown that in everything he’s done since purchasing the Commanders for $6.05 billion over the summer. He showed his patience by giving Ron Rivera an entire season before firing him on Monday morning, just as he promised to do, and despite calls from a restless fanbase to do it sooner. He has taken steps to upgrade the dilapidated facilities — including FedEx Field — while beginning the search for new ones.
And he showed again on Monday that he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, and that he’s willing to put his own ego aside to rely on experienced experts. That’s what he did by hiring two-time NBA Executive of the Year Bob Myers to lead his search for a new head coach and head of football operations, and by adding former Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman to his advisory committee. Myers has experience building a championship team. Spielman has 30 years of NFL experience.
Putting them in charge is a heck of a lot smarter than doing it himself, and just searching for the biggest name or shiniest new object. And it’s a sign that the Commanders are going to be built on intelligence, experience and research, and not just be subject to a billionaire’s whims.
Don’t underestimate the importance of that when the top candidates with multiple options — like, for example, Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, among the assistant coaches the Commanders have already requested to interview — consider their next job. Coaches don’t generally mind working for owners that are involved and attentive. In many cases, they welcome the input.
But what they generally don’t want are owners who think they are football experts when they are not. They don’t need owners dictating whom the organization should draft — as Synder famously did several times throughout his years. Coaches want control of what happens on the field and which players they bring in — something general managers obviously want, too. They don’t mind being questioned — sometimes even on a daily basis — as long as their bosses, in the end, allow the football people to do their jobs.
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And, just as importantly, coaches generally want stability — or at least the belief that they have it. That’s true of even first-time head coaches, desperate for their first big job. It’s uncomfortable to go to work for an organization that fires coaches every two seasons or for an owner that makes changes based on whims, or on which famous person happened to give him advice that day. They want a boss who is thoughtful, deliberative, patient and willing to evaluate a complete body of work and not overreact to a bad game or one down year.
That’s what Harris did for Rivera. He gave him time. Even though everyone knew it was inevitable that Harris would make sweeping changes once he bought the franchise, he promised the coach he inherited a full season to make his case to stay and he didn’t go back on his word.
You better believe that coaches and agents around the NFL took notice of that.
It doesn’t hurt that the rest of the Commanders package is attractive too. Thanks to their dismal, 4-13 season the next coach and general manager will pick second in the NFL Draft — a draft that just happens to have several potential franchise quarterbacks sitting atop everyone’s lists. They’ll have a shot at either USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye or LSU’s Jayden Daniels, and the financial flexibility that comes with having a quarterback on a rookie contract for the next four years.
They also have, if they want him, a potential quarterback in place, thanks to the way Rivera and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy developed Sam Howell this season. The former fifth-round pick tailed off in the second half and led the NFL with 21 interceptions, but he did also throw for 3,946 and has 17 games of starting experience. Even if the new regime doesn’t want to build around him, he could bring something back in a trade.
There are other key pieces in-house and under contract, too — like receivers Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson, defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, and running back Brian Robinson Jr. The organization is not overflowing with talent and needs overhauls in key areas like in the secondary and along the offensive line, but their cupboard isn’t completely bare, either.
It will also help that they are projected to have nearly $80 million in salary cap space available to spend in the offseason — one of largest war chests in the NFL, according to OverTheCap.com. And the presumption around the league is that Harris is willing to spend big to rebuild quickly, while not just spending wildly and recklessly in a clueless effort to load up on big names.
All that is good. And quite frankly, for the football team in Washington, it’s different. So is the fact that Harris is shopping for new practice facilities and a new stadium — though the searches are in their infancy and neither are likely to be ready any time soon. And so is the fact that Harris appears willing to address any concerns his players have and meet the needs of his coaches and executives.
He’s attentive and involved, but not intrusive. He reacts to issues, but isn’t reactionary. He seems willing and able to do whatever it takes to fix a franchise that, under Snyder, suffered years of neglect.
“To deliver upon our ultimate goal of becoming an elite franchise and consistently competing for the Super Bowl, there is a lot to do,” Harris said in a statement on Monday. “And first we must establish a strong organizational infrastructure led by the industry’s best and most talented individuals.”
“Stewarding this franchise,” he added, “is a responsibility we don’t take lightly.”
That was just a statement issued through a PR department, but around the NFL, people believe it. There’s a strong feeling that the Washington Commanders are finally in good hands and slowly but surely headed in the right direction.
For a change, that makes Washington a very good and attractive place to be.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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