• Washington Post

Josh Harris Just Took a Smart Step Away from the Commanders’ Sorry Past

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post
Commanders owner Josh Harris, speaking after his dismissal of coach Ron Rivera, recognizes the challenge of managing a front office and preparing game plans and intends to separate the two tasks.

Josh Harris spoke rather flatly, and someone from another town who roots for another team might have taken his address about the future as, well, boring. But Harris is from Washington. He owns the Washington Commanders. And in Washington, where it concerns the local NFL franchise, he might as well have donned a top hat, twirled a cane in the air and jigged across the stage in Ashburn as he sang his answers. The tune is just that different.

Monday was about moving on from Ron Rivera as coach and chief football decision-maker, because that was a silly setup from day one. But much more than that, Monday was about Harris further distancing himself – in style, substance, word and deed – from his predecessor, he who shall not be named (yet). Before Harris makes the hires that will determine whether his group is a success with the Commanders, jump for joy at that. It’s encouraged and allowed.

Where to start? How about this, by way of the hiring process that will lead to a revamped organizational structure:

“My desire is to have the head of football operations in place and then to listen very hard to what that person wants to do in terms of the coaching staff,” Harris said Monday at the Commanders’ Ashburn headquarters. “In other words, I think those two things have to work together.

“And obviously, as I’ve said before, I want to get the best talent here and then hold them accountable and work with them, right? So what that person wants to do or not do is really important in our decision process. Doesn’t mean that you are not involved in it, but it means that to a large extent you’re relying on that person to bring a series of candidates to the table.”

Anywhere else, that is just the normal state of affairs for a stable, well-run franchise. Breaking news: This hasn’t, for years and decades, been a stable, well-run franchise. So in Washington, the above articulation of a structure – an orderly chain of command – is a sea change.

You’re telling me that the owner is going to diligently and thoughtfully work to hire a chief football executive – that there will even be a chief football executive, with no responsibilities on the business side, the stadium side or the marketing side? And that person will be responsible for vetting coaching candidates? And those people will be accountable for doing their jobs, but the owner won’t meddle in those duties?

Knock me over with a feather.

Josh, continue, please. What else? What else?

“Being the head of football operations, being in essence in that lead role, that’s an 80-hour-a-week job,” Harris said. “Being a head coach, that’s an 80-hour-a-week job. I think there are two roles there. …

“There are certainly individuals that control everything. It’s increasingly hard, so my orientation is not to do that. But on the other hand, I’m going to be somewhat flexible around talent.”

Again, in most places, a nothingburger. In Washington, a godsend. The owner recognizes the enormity of assembling a roster and managing a front office and the parallel colossus of overseeing a coaching staff, preparing game plans and motivating players – and will separate the two. It’s not Rivera’s fault that he who shall not be named (pssssst, Daniel Snyder) bestowed upon Rivera two jobs that were too big for most men and certainly for the man he chose. But it is on Harris to fix that mess, and even without knowing whom he hires, we know the setup should be better from now going forward.

Harris spoke for nearly 19 minutes Monday. It’s hard to find something to nitpick about his approach and his articulation of it. Maybe it’s overthinking things to bring in longtime NBA executive and agent Bob Myers to help him identify candidates and build a front office, and maybe career NFL front-office man Rick Spielman isn’t a home run of a hire to advise on the football side of the process. Maybe.

But their presence reveals two things about that process: Harris knows he doesn’t know everything about what he’s undertaking – both from organizational and football standpoints – and he isn’t afraid to ask smart people for help. That’s a long way from Snyder making Jim Zorn dress in a suit for endless hours of interviews at his mansion overlooking the Potomac.

Yes, the bar in Ashburn concerning ownership is so low you couldn’t slide a single-ply piece of tissue under it. But it’s almost as if Harris – a Washington NFL fan his whole life – considered what Snyder did and how Snyder acted and actively decided to do the opposite. If so, smart messaging. If this is just who he is and how he goes about things, even better.

Look at the two quotes above. In the first, Harris uses a word that was anathema to his predecessor: Listen. In the second, he lays out what he believes is a proper organizational structure – but allows that he is open to interviewing a talented individual who might make things work differently and then adjusting to those talents. What a world.

There is work to be done, and timing matters. It’s possible that the competition for an attractive coaching candidate heats up before a head of football operations is hired. That could get sticky and throw off Harris’s desired workflow. He knows that and is willing to improvise if necessary.

But he also knows he has taken a job that was truly attractive only to desperados and retreads and made it something that could be downright desirable. Unfortunately, that’s first and foremost because of who he isn’t. We’re still learning who he is and who he will be.

Monday showed, though, that the honeymoon is still on. Harris and his partners took ownership in July. Removing Rivera and replacing him with serious, promising, forward-thinking football executives will be his group’s first major, lasting stamp on the franchise.

“It’s important that I do this personally,” he said, “and get this right.”

That’s right. But it’s also important that he clearly explain how he envisions the result, that he acknowledges that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and that he delegates to talented and capable people. That might be the normal course of business in other NFL cities. It’s transformative in Washington.

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post
Commanders quarterback Sam Howell begins the process of packing up at team headquarters in Ashburn, Va., a few hours after the team fired coach Ron Rivera following a disappointing 4-13 season.