The Washington Football Team has a chance to be one of the feel-good stories of the 2020 season.
For an NFL franchise, owned by Daniel Snyder, and only bearing that name due to him being forced, kicking and screaming, to remove their previous racially insulting nickname, it seems unlikely, but it is true.
We obviously should not get ahead of ourselves, the organisation is still a mess, but the actual football team that is now playing under the new, accurate description actually has a few elements to it that even fans of rival teams can get behind.
If Washington are able to stagger into the playoffs they might offer a silver lining to the most historically trash division, in one of the most historically messy football seasons, like a phoenix rising from the flames of an explosion at a sewage treatment plant.Embed from Getty Images
They currently hold a one-game lead at the top of the NFC East and can clinch the division with a win this week over the Carolina Panthers.
The fact that they have reached this position in their first season after the name change, behind a quarterback who suffered an injury two years ago so bad it became life-threatening, and under a head coach (one of only five current minority head coaches, for what it is worth) who himself has undergone treatment for cancer during the season, represents the kind of moral victory that Hollywood sports movies specialise in.
Quarterback Alex Smith suffered a spiral and compound fracture to his leg in November 2018, before flesh-eating bacteria led to sepsis, endangering his life, and almost led to having the leg amputated. A total of 17 surgeries saw him miraculously recover to the extent that he was able to resume playing in the NFL this season, after nearly two years out.Embed from Getty Images
After opening day starter Dwayne Haskins was benched, and replacement Kyle Allen ended up on injured reserve, Smith started four of the team’s six victories this season, including the Week 13 upset over the then-unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers, which would have been unthinkable at times over the last two years.
Head coach Ron Rivera, in his first year with the team, was diagnosed with cancer in a lymph node of his neck before the season, which although discovered early and treated during the season, is clearly a worrying distraction during a public health crisis.
And in a year where racial injustice has rightly been at the forefront of so much, it would at least be symbolic if the team was to win the division, terrible as it is, in the first year no longer playing under the banner of a derogatory term about skin colour.Embed from Getty Images
Of course, this is not Hollywood, so things are not that simple. Washington is still a relatively bad team in the grand scheme of things, despite a strong defense that includes promising young players like ends, Chase Young and Montez Sweat, and safety Kamren Curl.
Even Haskins, benched after Week 4 in a move that seems to happen that much quicker to Black quarterbacks, seemed like he was writing a redemptive story when leading a comeback that fell short against Seattle this week, while Smith was out with a calf strain.
However, that story-arch may have been cut short when pictures emerged yesterday of him having broken Covid-19 protocols in a strip club following the game, for which punishment has not yet been announced.
The spectre at the feast in all this is Snyder who remains the owner, although with the Washington Post reporting today that he paid $1.6 million to settle a 2009 allegation of sexual misconduct it remains to be seen for how much longer.
This latest report continues a story that broke before the season regarding a culture of sexual harassment among the executive level of the organisation.
Add that to Snyder’s defiance in the face of criticism of the former team name and logo on the grounds that it was offensive to Native Americans, only to finally change it this past offseason after pressure from shareholders and sponsors threatened his bottom line, and it is worth questioning how he still owns it now.
Not to mention the lack of success under his ownership that has led to falling popularity among fans. Since Snyder bought the team in 1999 they have won two playoff games, none since the 2005 season, and the image below is from the 2017 season, long before Coronavirus explained empty seats at FedEx Field. Snyder, and the negative attention he brings, is just one more obstacle that this team has had to overcome.Embed from Getty Images
So, while winning the NFC East may mean being the best of a bad bunch, when you consider what it has taken to be in with a chance of that, maybe it is not so bad after all.