But for one afternoon, when both the sun shone and the skies opened at FedEx Field, the vibe was decidedly optimistic and upbeat, even if the football was mostly ugly, a 20-16 victory over the pretty dreadful Arizona Cardinals. Aesthetics aside, this amounted to the exclamation point on the end of the sentence, “Daniel Snyder actually sold the team!” Everyone needed a victory to sustain the momentum and warm feelings the sale generated, however it looked.
Feel different, Kevin Durant?
“Yes, sir!” the Commanders’ tallest fan said as he walked toward his ride in a “W” bucket hat and Chase Young jersey. “A good win.”
This is sort of strange territory. The Commanders — who were last in the NFL in both total attendance and percent of capacity in 2022, Snyder’s final season — announced a sellout crowd of 64,693. These weren’t fans of the opponent. They wore burgundy and gold. They didn’t come to see new quarterback Sam Howell. They didn’t buy tickets because their team drafted Emmanuel Forbes to play cornerback.
No, at least some percentage of them came because Snyder sold and Harris bought — including, I’m guessing, the guy wearing the “I Survived the Snyder Era” T-shirt.
That’s what this felt like — group therapy for people who had collectively experienced trauma. Exiled stars returned and smiled. Both Champ Bailey and Robert Griffin III were introduced to the crowd, and Coach Ron Rivera said he was thrilled to see John Riggins in the stands. Those who fell out are now welcomed back in.
“I think there’s a reason that a lot of alumni stayed away, and we don’t have to talk about that anymore,” Griffin told reporters before the game. “But now it’s a fresh start.”
Fans of this team in recent years have felt as though they had to elbow supporters in opposing jerseys out of the way to be heard at their home games. They were often drowned out. On Sunday, when Howell burst through the line of scrimmage and scampered for the fourth-quarter touchdown that gave Washington the lead, the delirium in the stands surrounding the end zone where he scored felt both new and real.
“It was amazing,” star wideout Terry McLaurin said. “I got chills standing for the national anthem. … I’ve been here five years, and that was the loudest I’ve probably heard it.”
One-up him, Jonathan Allen.
“I haven’t had it feel like this in my seven years here,” the game-wrecking defensive tackle said. Was it different?
“One thousand percent,” Allen said.
It’s possible there is only one team the Commanders could have beaten the way they played Sunday — particularly on offense — and they happened to be playing that one team. There are plenty of reasons Rivera walked to the lectern to address the media afterward, thanked the fans in his opening remarks but looked downtrodden in adding, “We’ve got to be a better football team for them.”
Hard to shake three sloppy first-half turnovers and six debilitating sacks, huh?
“For us to make those kinds of mistakes, that was disappointing,” Rivera said. “I know we’re all disappointed. But we’re all thrilled. Believe me, I’m happy as hell we won.”
Because winning, even with new ownership, isn’t easy. The quarterback the Commanders faced Sunday was someone named Josh Dobbs, whom new Arizona coach Jonathan Gannon chose over a fella named Clayton Tune. The next three quarterbacks the Commanders play are Russell Wilson, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts. Yeah, Wilson isn’t what he once was. But if those games at Denver, at home against Buffalo and at Philadelphia are somehow close in the second half, Washington’s defense won’t as easily be able to just apply its will as it did on Dobbs and the Cardinals.
That’s what Montez Sweat did in forcing a Dobbs fumble in the waning seconds of the third quarter, then again with less than five minutes left in the game. (Side note: If the Commanders are indeed trying to create a competition between Sweat and fellow defensive end Young to see who more deserves a lucrative, long-term contract, we have an early and clear leader. Sweat’s stat line against Arizona: the two forced fumbles, four solo tackles — two for losses — and 1.5 sacks. Young: inactive as he gets over a stinger.)
“That’s what we pride ourselves on,” Sweat said. “Defense closing the game.”
As the Commanders were just about running out the clock, the fans in the seats below the owner’s box — on the home side of the field, right at the 50-yard line — turned away from the action to face Harris and his partners, who include local business titans Mitchell Rales and Mark Ein, not to mention basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. That’s the box where, since 1999, Snyder had mostly lurked in the shadows. He was just so reviled.
Harris, by this point, was on the field. But the crowd waved up to the suite anyway, chanting: “Thank you! Thank you!”
Thank you, to the owner. Who hasn’t done much — yet. This is the honeymoon period, without question. Honeymoons typically don’t last the first year of a marriage. The work has begun, but only that.
In the locker room afterward, Rivera presented Harris with a game ball and said the other owners would get their own.
“They got their first victory, their first one during the regular season, and it’s special,” Rivera said. “It really is.”
There’s only one first. In the rest of the life of the Washington Commanders, Sunday was that. The franchise has changed, as has the vibe in the stands. There’s so much more to do on the field and off. But for a team and a fan base that, for close to a quarter century, have been dragged through the mud, why not enjoy it for a day?