When the Washington Football Team gets national attention, it’s usually for a controversy or a playoff run.
This time, it’s both.
On Sunday night in Philadelphia, a Washington victory would mean an NFC East title, and the team’s third home playoff game since 1999.
Not coincidentally, that’s the year owner Dan Snyder purchased the franchise. Snyder, whose family owns about 60% of the team, has been feeling heat this season as he continues to battle in court with the three men who own minority stakes.
They’ve accused him of mismanaging the team’s finances, refusing to allow them to sell their shares, and hiring private investigators to intimidate people willing to speak out.
In response, Snyder has accused minority owner Dwight Schar, the founder of Ryan Homes, of orchestrating a smear campaign against him to try to force him out. In court filings, Snyder said phone records show a Schar associate attempting to gather negative information for a series of Washington Post exposés that ran over the summer.
That series led to an NFL-commissioned investigation of the team, which will almost certainly be the biggest event of the upcoming off-season, and could determine whether Snyder is forced to sell the team.
And yet, while the courtroom attacks continue, Washington has quietly become one of the league’s success stories, and has provided feel-good moments in a year that has desperately needed them.
Coach Ron Rivera promised to instill a new culture of accountability and results when he was hired at the end of 2019, and has been largely successful in doing so.
Rivera insisted on continuing to coach the team even as he was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in his lymph nodes. During the season’s opening weeks, he sat in a golf cart at practices, too drained of energy by the chemotherapy to run around. He said he would often go home and go to bed at 5 p.m., after a dinner of pancakes or Taco Bell, the only foods he said he could stomach.
His quarterback is no less of a medical miracle. Alex Smith fractured his leg in a 2018 game, but the wound became infected, and Smith went septic — a potentially life-threatening condition.
Doctors considered amputating the leg, but Smith instead opted for a series of 17 surgeries, beginning a remarkable comeback that led to him returning to the field this season.
In his return, he took over a 2-5 team and has led them to the verge of a playoff berth — Washington would be the first team in NFL history to start 2-5 and make the postseason.
The team’s initial starting quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, was released last week after Rivera finally lost patience with the immaturity of the former first-round draft pick, who is the only NFL player to violate the league’s COVID-19 protocols twice.
To replace Haskins, the team has brought in former Old Dominion star Taylor Heinicke, who after a brief and unmemorable NFL career had returned to school to finish his math degree when he got the call from Washington.
All that stands between Washington and a playoff spot is the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been eliminated from contention but might be the division’s hottest team over the past month.
Philadelphia benched quarterback Carson Wentz for rookie Jalen Hurts, and Hurts has led the team on a late-season tear that has many proclaiming he is on track for NFL stardom.
The Eagles have insisted they won’t be taking the game lightly, with coach Jim Schwartz saying the team has instituted a “no-hat policy,” referring to the commemorative gear Washington will receive if it wins.
First, at 1 p.m., the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will face off in an equally critical game. The winner of that matchup will make the playoffs if Washington loses.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy was brought in to lift a talented team to the Super Bowl, but instead struggled in the season’s opening weeks, leading to reports that players didn’t think he knew what he was doing.
The team marks the turning point as a mid-November game against the Vikings, when McCarthy smashed watermelons, in the style of the comedian Gallagher, during a Saturday night team meeting.
McCarthy brought the stunt back last week for a must-win game against the Eagles. He hasn’t tipped his hand on what this week will bring.
It’s shaping up to be a wild day of football, something Rivera noted is an appropriate finish to the season.
“I don’t think anything’s been normal this year,” he said. “There’s been a lot up in the air. We’ve dealt with it. We’ve tried to keep our heads above water more than anything else.”
By doing so, they’re now on the verge of wearing championship hats as one of the most unlikely winners in league history.