The day after Washington lost its Wildcard game to the Buccaneers on January 9th, Head Coach Ron Rivera declared his intentions to meet with owner Dan Snyder and discuss with him his two top priorities: Hiring a General Manager and getting the QB situation “established.”
Ron Rivera says QB is “one of the most important things that we need to get done and get established” going forward.
— Kyle Stackpole (@kylefstackpole) January 10, 2021
At the end of the day, these two priorities go hand in glove, and the general manager(s) expected to pursue the QB solution needs to be “on the same page” with Coach Rivera’s approach. The last several days have made it clear that a failure to “get on board” with that vision will be grounds for separation from the organization.
Late last year, as the season was winding down and free agency and the draft could be seen in the distance, the local press started asking Rivera questions about Vice President of Player Personnel Kyle Smith’s future with the team. After a series of tepid responses from Rivera, a narrative – which turned out to be accurate – built: Smith was not going to be the next GM, and his tenure with the team seemed to be coming to an end.
Nevermind the fact that the 36-year old had spearheaded two of the best drafts in the league over the past couple of years, something was amiss in the front office at Ashburn. After Week 14, when Rivera was asked about Smith and the front office by Rhiannon Walker of The Athletic. Rivera lauded virtually everyone in the building – including the security department – but failed to mention Smith. He did offer the following:
You know, I think the biggest thing when you look at what’s happened, more so than anything else I’ve talked about is you have to continue to collaborate. You know people have to work together.
Bringing in a new culture was a hallmark of Ron’s reign from the start, and in the lead up to the 2020 draft, as well as through the handling the situation with Trent Williams, the two men seemed to be in complete lockstep:
“Obviously, it’s been a long process, Kyle Smith said. “I think everybody is a little bit, you guys as well, think we’re all relieved that it’s over, that it’s done. From day one that we got into this, it’s a unique situation, where, a lot of different layers to it, and we did the best that we could. We wish him the best, and I think [Head] Coach [Ron Rivera] does as well, and we’re moving forward.”
So what went amiss in the period since last year’s draft, when we were getting glowing reports like those below?
Kyle Smith on the process with coach Ron Rivera: “It was easy, it was smooth. We were on the same page. I’ve been very happy with how easily we meshed. That’s what made the process very smooth.”
— John Keim (@john_keim) April 26, 2020
Ron Rivera on Kyle Smith: “I just want to say I really think Kyle did a great job.”
If somebody was trying out for the GM role, sounds like he did well
— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayNBCS) April 26, 2020
Well, among other things, the season began, with Dwayne Haskins given the starting QB role without much real competition in the off-season. Whether that path was chosen as a favor to the owner, a favor to the young QB, or because Coach Rivera genuinely believed it was the best option, by the end of the season, it was clearly a decision the coach regretted.
“The biggest thing I would have done is I would have created a few more opportunities mixing everybody around,” Rivera said on 106.7 The Fan’s Grant and Danny. ”As opposed to saying okay I’m going to stick with just the one guy and do that. I think now in retrospect, and again, hindsight in 2020, I would.”
“What I’m saying is I made a mistake and I’m owning up to it and that’s the truth,” Rivera said. ”To put it as simple as that, that’s what I’m saying. I’m just being honest.”
Rivera’s decision, and his regret about handing the keys to Haskins, were made all the more ironic given Smith’s reported visceral disgust at the drafting of Haskins in 2019 – details of which were made public at the end of the 2020 season:
“[N]ot only did the majority of the front office disagree with the idea of the franchise selecting Haskins, but Kyle Smith — then the director of college scouting and now the vice president of player personnel – vehemently opposed the idea of taking the OSU standout and pleaded his case for Washington to draft one of three other players.
What’s more is, Smith apparently waited and waited as the clock and picks started to inch closer to Washington’s choice … and then he started to take some command of the room.
Smith started to ask questions on what the choice was going to be. Sources described to us a tense silence. Smith asked the room specifically: Is the organization really thinking of taking Haskins?
At that point, one voice chimed in. It was the owner’s voice, confirming that Haskins was going to be the choice.
Whether Rivera was aware that this showdown had occurred, and disregarded it, or was willing to look past it, given Haskins’ mediocre play at the end of 2019 and his apparent re-dedication to his craft before the 2020 season, is unclear. What does seem to be clear is that given his self-professed strong belief in a chain of command and hierarchical control, he would have been aghast to witness such insubordination first hand, and likely even more upset to have the reports of it reach the press.
Given well-established reports of “Mr. Snyder’s” egomania, it’s something of a shock that Smith didn’t suffer more immediate organizational consequences for his affront, but that could be in large part due the apparent professional respect Smith has both within and outside the organization.
Perhaps both men – Rivera and Smith – had simply resolved to make the best of a bad situation with Haskins. Eventually, that bad situation reached a boiling point. After going 1-3 and losing to the Ravens, Haskins had the nerve to brag about his stat line in the loss. Haskins was yanked at QB, and Kyle Allen was inserted in, as Rivera saw both how good his defense was, but also that the NFC East was potentially weak enough that his team could win it. Allen played better than Haskins, but was only able to win one game before going down with injury in week 9.
Then, through the end of the season, Alex Smith was able to accomplish his remarkable comeback, ultimately leading the team to 5 more wins, largely by allowing the defense to do its thing, and keeping the ball out of the opponents’ hands. By the end of the season, however, Smith was sidelined with a bone bruise and Taylor Heinicke was called upon to start the playoff game against the Bucs. Heinicke fought valiantly, but eventually came up short, but not before injuring his shoulder on a heroic touchdown dive.
At the end of the season, and after having a witnessed a one touchdown loss to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, with a fourth string QB, it’s hardly a surprise that Rivera would: 1) Think his team is a piece or two (including a healthy, better than average QB) away from being very dangerous in the playoffs, and 2) That he has a tight “window” to strike before he starts losing stars on rookie deals, particularly on the defense.
My theory, is that these notions – and we saw them pop up in a less urgent form, with the starting of Allen in week 5 – were the crux of the friction between Rivera and Smith. And, despite some cautious reporting to the contrary, I do believe that there is a philosophical disagreement on how best to build a team between the two men.
What’s the root of that disagreement? Conceptually, I actually think it was captured really well in a local podcast this week. On a recent version of the Kevin Sheehan Show, Sheehan asked Chris Cooley [former Washington TE] if he would trade 3 first round picks, a second round pick, and Montez Sweat for Josh Allen. (For the record, Sheehan said he’d do it in a heartbeat.) I think Cooley’s response was illustrative, and the exact sort of answer Kyle Smith would give:
“[No]. You’re talking to somebody who thinks they know how to find players. Like every GM. Like I didn’t know on Josh Allen when he came out?”
For individuals in the business of evaluating talent, draft picks, and to a lesser extent, shots at underestimated free agents, are the mother’s milk of their craft. At the end of the day, self-respecting talent evaluators believe in their own ability to solve the personnel problems of the teams that they work for. They see trading away draft picks or recklessly squandering salary cap space as an attack on their ability to use their skills.
It’s pure speculation on my part, but I believe this to be at the root of the division between Rivera and Smith. I think Smith wanted to keeping building the team along the lines it had been built for the past 3 years – with the exception of the owner’s intervention in 2019 – while Rivera wants to strike while the iron is hot, pursuing a top end QB (perhaps a Stafford or Watson (though Watson is probably too expensive)), and at least one or two other top end free agents (like Amari Cooper last year).
At the end of the day, the decision is Rivera’s to be made – he is in absolute control of football operations – but I believe that the incongruity between his vision for building the team, and Smith’s was simply too deep a chasm to bridge. Smith, defeated, was likely asked to move on, unwilling to bend to Rivera’s orthodoxy. Replaced by more collaborative spirits.
Hearing the WFT has moved on from former top personnel exec Kyle Smith and is also making significant changes to its college scouting staff
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) January 23, 2021
Smith and the other scouting talent, Tim Gribble and Cole Spencer are among the other names likely on the way out, are being replaced with Rivera loyalists in the front office.
Ron Rivera is assembling a brain trust in Mayhew and Hurney for one primary goal this offseason: find a long-term answer at quarterback. Based on multiple things I’ve heard, they are preparing to take a huge swing at the big names that could be available
— WASHINGTON FOOTBALL (@HogsHaven) January 23, 2021
With all the discussion of “assembling a brain trust” of Marty Hurney and Martin Mayhew, it’s important to remember that Hurney was fired from Carolina (the first time) “in large part because he gave out above-market contracts to players who were loyal but either aging or playing in less valuable positions, thus crippling the team’s salary cap flexibility.”
The other half of the “brain trust?” Martin Mayhew, the Lions’ GM for 8 years, and a man who was unable to draft well enough to replenish his aging roster – populated with star players – nor win a playoff game in his tenure with the team.
Former Lions’ defensive lineman Lawrence Jackson had the following to offer after Team President, Tom Lewand – who reportedly couldn’t manage the cap – and GM Martin Mayhew were fired in 2015.
The concern is not for Kyle Smith’s future, as the reality is leaving this snakebitten organization is probably the best decision for his career. After all, he’s already being sought out by three of the best franchises in the league (and the Raiders), and will likely have a new position secured in weeks.
The concern is that having only relatively recently gotten set on a path of responsible team building, coincident with the end of Scot McCloughan’s tenure in 2016, the Washington Football team is prepared to cast aside the lessons learned over the past few years – building responsibly through the draft, minimizing flashy free agent spending – for immediate gratification because of a short-sighted notion that it can “win now.”
As Ron and his management team move forward, hand in hand, I hope they’ll consider one of my favorite quotes, and how it might be applicable to the Washington Football Team’s future:
“Heresy is the eternal dawn, the morning star, the glittering herald of the day. Heresy is the last and best thought. It is the perpetual New World, the unknown sea, toward which the brave all sail. It is the eternal horizon of progress.
Heresy extends the hospitalities of the brain to a new thought.
Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin.” – Robert G. Ingersoll
Do you think it was a good decision to hire Mayhew and Hurney and move on from the WFT’s core Personnel staff?
I’ll know in 3 years.
320 votes total