The Washington Commanders Played A Football Game And Dan Snyder Had Nothing To Do With It
12:05 PM EDT on September 11, 2023
The Washington Commanders opened their regular season Sunday with a narrow, ugly win at home over the dopey, self-sabotaging Arizona Cardinals. In many ways it was a typical Landover performance for this bozo franchise. Washington's offense, coordinated by ballyhooed assistant head coach Eric Bieniemy and led by rectangular second-year placeholder quarterback Sam Howell, was sloppy, easily flustered, and irritatingly low-wattage. A series of bad turnovers quieted the home crowd to a grumbly nervous murmur and kept the undermanned Cardinals in the game, including an excruciating second-quarter strip-sack for a defensive touchdown. Washington's only real scoring drive of the game, a 91-yarder in the first quarter, was aided by a whopping 67 yards of defensive penalties.
A good team would've beaten the shit out of the Cardinals. Even a messy good team, even one with a goober of a 23-year-old quarterback making just his second regular-season start, would've had some eye-popping big plays and worked itself into fitful rhythms and strung together some encouraging drives. The Commanders looked like honest peers of the Cardinals, like a toilet team in a battle of toilet teams, but the lucky one that got its nose over the line in a contest that requires a winner. What a win like this portends in Washington, by tradition, is a frustrating season of stupid ugly football and lots of bad feelings. It's far too early to predict anything, but the product on the field Sunday looked very much like a seamless continuation of the same lousy product that this franchise has put onto its miserable shaggy field for the better part of 25 years.
But this time the vibes were different, for obvious reasons. For starters, the team's far-flung hellhole of a stadium was reasonably filled up with fans—a healthy 96 percent of capacity, according to game-day reporting—a larger than usual percentage of whom appeared to be supporting the home team. This is a welcome and notable change: Last season's home opener, a six-point win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, had a reported game-day attendance of just over 58,000, an 86 percent turnout that, for reference, would've been a hair over the threshold for the NFL's notorious former blackout policy. Their Week 1 game in 2021 set a new low mark for home opener attendance in the stadium's 20-plus years of operation, and that was for a team coming off of a divisional crown and a (brief and disappointing) playoff berth. The home team was jeered by a pro-Cowboys home crowd during an opening day loss in 2019, and in 2018 was viciously booed by a sparse and hostile then-all-time-low opening-day crowd of 57,000. Getting asses into seats was a humiliating long-term vexation under former owner Dan Snyder and an ongoing referendum on his disastrous stewardship of the franchise; after a while the organization stopped even daring to hope that a majority of those asses would be attached to fans of the burgundy and gold. A 2023 home-opener with a voluminous and partisan pro-Commanders crowd is itself a marker of a new era.
The Commanders invited back a bunch of alumni for the occasion, on the implicit understanding that for the first time in a very long time people might proactively choose to be associated with this franchise. Robert Griffin III, whose misuse and flameout as Washington's last great hope was one of the ugliest, most dispiriting turns in recent WFT history, was on hand, telling anyone who'd listen about how the team's entrenched dysfunction flowed down from the top. Champ Bailey, who was swapped to the Denver Broncos in 2004 for Clinton Portis in a rare star-for-star trade, agreed to serve as designated Legend of the Game after declining the honor under Snyder's regime. Bailey, who alluded to Snyder's management style as the cause of some resentments that kept him away from the team, said he "would love to be a part of the organization" under its new ownership. Old-timers John Riggins, Sonny Jurgensen, and Billy Kilmer, who'd taken to avoiding the Commanders during the latter stages of Snyder's ownership, were collected via private jet and brought enthusiastically to the stadium to inaugurate the Josh Harris era.
Even the experience of watching Sunday's game on television had a different, refreshing feeling. Washington's football team was an ongoing disgrace for whole entire generations, until first rooting for them and then even just watching them on television felt like an act of weird racist defiance, or of extremely willful ignorance, or of indulgent self-hatred. Finally dumping their slur of a nickname before the 2020 season might've helped, except that it was never possible to forget that that change was forced against the expressed wishes of Snyder, who for decades engaged in the most deranged stunts and insulting public-relations campaigns in order to resist the long-overdue makeover. The change was finally made only when Snyder needed cover for the series of brewing controversies that ultimately forced him to sell the team, related to the insanely toxic corporate culture he'd fomented and encouraged over his decades in charge. Jumping back on the bandwagon after the hasty rebranding of 2020 would've felt like giving active cover to one of the worst and most abusive piece-of-shit owners in the history of professional sports; it was impossible to watch WFT home games, even after the name change, without feeling some measure of disgusted contempt for the poor addled dipshits up there in the half-empty stands not actively rooting for the team's demise.
Sunday I sort of reflexively cycled through the various reasons to hate this team—beyond the usual and perfectly sound reasons to hate the entire NFL and recoil from the culture of football—and found myself weirdly disoriented to discover that, for the first time since I was a teenager, the Commanders exist in my mind as just, you know, a football team. The on-field product was shoddy, but then so was the on-field product of their opponent, and that of the New York Giants, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Houston Texans. Unlike those other bullcrap teams, the Commanders won! It was not a win to feel particularly good about, but for the first time in my entire adult life, it also was not a win to feel particularly bad about. It did not reward or spite a man who made himself a villain to an entire fanbase and region and nation and continent and species; it was just a lousy football team pratfalling its way through a dopey game against another lousy football team, and winning. It meant nothing at all, except to fans for whom a change in ownership finally stripped away a lot of painful and humiliating context from their experience of an autumn Sunday.
Magic Johnson, who is now a part-owner of this franchise, spoke with Commanders players this week, hoping to motivate them for the start of a new regime. Johnson is a goober, but a lovable one, and this dopey leadership exercise for sure beats the hell out of anything beyond a misspent paycheck that anyone got out of Snyder's ownership. The message was about more than Championship Secrets of the Truly Successful: "This is what I told them," recounted Johnson, who by his own retelling was a hit with his employees. "I said: 'You don’t have to worry about no problems from this ownership group. You just have to concentrate on Sundays, playing football. You ain’t going to read no headlines. You’re not going to have to worry about nothing. No questions from [media] about stuff off the field. Your job is just to concentrate on doing your job and having fun every Sunday, every Thursday or every Monday. That’s it.'"
This is an unfamiliar state of affairs for everyone involved, like emerging into bright sunlight after hiding for years in a dark cave. The Commanders can win or lose, they can make you grind your teeth to powder with shitty football, but they can no longer put you into any sort of relationship with Dan freaking Snyder. For now, for the first time in forever, and for however long it lasts, the Commanders are just playing football.