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Home Sports Perspective | A short to-do list for Commanders owner Josh Harris

Perspective | A short to-do list for Commanders owner Josh Harris

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(Davide Barco/For The Washington Post)

Josh Harris has not asked for my advice about how he should run the Washington Commanders. He’s going to get it anyway.

There is no aspect of Washington’s upcoming NFL season more important than the it’s-still-jaw-dropping reality that Daniel Snyder is no longer the owner and Harris is. Not the new quarterback. Not the new play caller. Not the old head coach. None of it is close.

Even if all of those characters prove themselves worthy, they’ll almost certainly be gone in a decade. Harris will remain. You get one chance to make a first impression, Josh. The 2023 season is yours. All of this is said with a firm handshake and a pat on the back of encouragement. You take it from here.

1. Be willing to listen, learn — and articulate specifics

Snyder’s arrogance and tone-deafness were apparent early in his tenure. Charging fans $10 to attend training camp and $10 to park when those experiences were free across the league gave the feeling that the owner was trying to bilk the fans out of every penny and set an early tenor of mistrust.

Simply by not being Snyder, Harris has some level of trust. But he could further that by committing to hearing fans out on what they like and don’t like about … well, anything about the franchise. That could be on uniforms or parking. It could be on concessions or concerts. One thing it can’t be on: football.

This should be easy, but it can’t be left unsaid: Given that Snyder began picking players early in his tenure (Jeff George, Bruce Smith, etc.) and never really stopped (Donovan McNabb, Dwayne Haskins, etc.), Harris needs to say he will leave the football decisions to the football people. And he must carry that out in practice.

This franchise has seemed directionless for most of this century. The new leader would do well to explain how he’ll do things, then melt into the background.

2. Get a stadium deal done

Snyder didn’t build FedEx Field, but his reign of error is closely associated with it. It stinks, and everyone knows it.

So this is obvious. The three most important elements holding this franchise back, for years, have been the nefarious owner, the baked-in uncertainty at quarterback and the awful stadium. Harris has solved the ownership problem, and point No. 1 clearly articulates we want him nowhere near the quarterback decision. But the stadium has to be a priority.

In this process, he should present himself as a partner with the jurisdiction he ultimately chooses. That means not only developing a facility that ranks among the best in the sport but making sure he’s not just going to go with whichever among the District, Maryland and Virginia he can most readily fleece. Committing his own funds would reinforce the idea that he’s doing this with and for the community, not merely to make money off it.

3. Invest in the fan experience

This is most obvious at FedEx Field, because that is the source of so much ire and so many bad memories. But it’s a problem that is more all-encompassing, one that should be dealt with swiftly and directly.

Start with the stadium — and the $40 million of upgrades the team announced at the end of August is a good start. If there haven’t been inspectors in there every day between the last preseason game and Sunday’s opener against Arizona, then something’s wrong. What are the chances a pipe could burst and flood fans with sewer water? The answer has to be: zero. What percentage of the beers meet their freshness date? The answer has to be: 100. For this franchise, eliminating obvious embarrassments would mean progress.

But more than that, Harris should be creative. Would knocking $5 to $10 off parking materially limit the franchise’s revenue? Probably not. Would it be noticed by the fan base? Absolutely. It’s a one-mile walk from the Morgan Boulevard Metro stop to the nearest gate at FedEx. Could there be free, prompt and efficient shuttles?

What does outreach into the community away from the stadium look like? Snyder suffered from his reluctance to speak publicly and his stumbling when he did. Harris could earn loyalty by explaining that he understands what the fan base has endured not just in the win-loss record but off the field — and that he will fix it.

How Josh Harris’s Washington roots inspired him to buy the Commanders

4. Hire someone to oversee all football decisions

Ron Rivera will determine his own fate as head coach: Either the 2023 season will be a success — making the playoffs and maybe even winning a game — or it won’t be. The coach either will earn a contract extension or will be shown the door with a year left on his original deal.

But even if Rivera impresses his new boss to the extent he sticks around — not a bet I’d be taking to Vegas — the structure of the football operation has to change. Snyder decided he liked a “coach-centric” model because he thought it worked in New England and Kansas City. He plucked Rivera as a veteran coach who happened to be available, then wedged him into a personnel role that he had never performed. Weird process. No wonder it has led to (thus far) decidedly mediocre results.

That has to change. Even if Rivera is overseeing game-planning and the locker room, he can no longer have final say on the roster. That has to go to a progressive, modern football professional who doesn’t have to worry about assistant coaches and offensive schemes. The current model, which includes General Manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president Marty Hurney, has not yet been a success. This will remain a collaborative process, of course. But it needs a singular voice on top — who isn’t the head coach.

This is not a priority for me. I was on the record as preferring to keep “Washington Football Team,” and I don’t mind “Commanders.” But it would be foolish to deny that a significant segment of the fan base seems to dislike the current moniker.

To be clear, the Commanders are not going back to the old name, so drop that. But it’s on Harris to articulate what he thinks of the new one and to say — soon — whether he would consider switching it in the near term or in the future. Beyond that, he would have to lay out a process that was different from the last — one that felt more inclusive to fans.

Or he could just say: “We’re the Commanders, we’re proud to be the Commanders, and we’re not changing it.” But failing to say anything decisive amounts to a tease. Either changing the name again is on the table, or it isn’t. Tell us which one.

That’s a start. We know this is a work in progress and not everything can be fixed on the first day or in the first season. But Josh, we also hope you’re listening. Owning your hometown football team is, to be sure, owning a business. You’re welcome to make money. But it’s also a civic entity. Embrace that aspect of your $6 billion purchase, and you’ll be embraced right back.





POST AUTHOR: Barry Svrluga

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