When the Washington Commanders kick off the 2023 NFL season at FedEx Field this Sunday, it will be the franchise’s first regular season game in 24 years without reviled former owner Dan Snyder in charge. Following a $6 billion sale, the Commanders will instead be led by new owner Josh Harris.
Whether Harris and the rest of the team’s top brass can usher in a new and better era by rebuilding the franchise’s winning tradition on the field—and its once-booming popularity throughout the region—remains to be seen. But so far, early returns have been promising. Here are five things to know about the upcoming season:
The Vibes Are Good
After more than two decades of on-field misery and off-the-field drama, the ownership change has injected an optimistic buzz into a long-suffering fanbase. “There’s a really strong sense among fans that they got their team back,” says NBC Sports Washington‘s Commanders beat reporter JP Finlay.
The increased enthusiasm has been apparent since training camp, when ten thousand fans arrived at the team’s facility to watch the players practice. “I hadn’t seen anything like that many since [training camp was in] Richmond [with] RGIII,” says Finlay, referring to former Commanders quarterback and former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III, whose tenure with the team was marred by inconsistency and a devastating knee injury.
Finlay, who also serves as host of BMitch & Finlay on 106.7 The Fan, says he can sense the buzz from the fans who call into his radio show as well as from the increased number of people he sees wearing Commanders hats, T-shirts, and jerseys in the DMV. “You don’t want to sound too crazy or hyperbolic,” Finlay says, “but it’s kind of like a rebirth for the franchise.”
The Roster Has Question Marks
Despite the good feelings, the team itself has some key question marks, according to Ben Standig, a senior NFL writer at The Athletic who focuses on the Commanders. First and foremost, the team’s starting quarterback will be Sam Howell, a former fifth-round draft pick who’s only played in a single NFL game. There’s plenty to like about Howell. “He’s got a big arm, he’s confident,” Standing says. “But he’s also inexperienced.” That means Howell will be learning on the job—not exactly ideal, given that quarterback is the most important job in the sport.
Washington had a respectable defense last year: after a slow start, a unit anchored by Pro Bowl defensive tackles tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne finished No. 3 in the league in yards allowed per game and No. 8 in fewest points allowed per game. On the other side of the ball, a rebuilt offensive line has yet to prove itself. It’s also unclear if players will thrive under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who comes to Washington with a sterling reputation following a successful stint guiding explosive units in Kansas City—but also comes without Chiefs quarterback and perennial MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes.
Beyond internal uncertainty, the Commanders will face the additional challenge of playing in the extremely competitive NFC East division, where Dallas and Philadelphia are popular preseason picks to make the playoffs. Ultimately, Standig says, the Commanders are likely to muddle through another middle-of-the-pack campaign. Yet because of the new ownership, he adds, “a lot of fans, no matter what, will finish the season with a smile on their face.”
The Stadium Experience May Be Improved
Though the franchise has long been criticized for providing fans with an awful gameday experience, the Commanders have announced $40 million in upgrades to aging FedEx Field that may make things more pleasant this season. These include everything from maintenance repairs to a new Arcade-themed suite, where fans can play air hockey or PacMan while they cheer on the team.
In addition, fans will be able to choose from a dozen new food sellers, such as Hill Country BBQ, Fuku by David Chang, DC Half Smokes, and DMV Crab Rolls. “We have the best fans in football—and they deserve the best gameday experience,” Trista Langdon, the Commanders Senior Vice President of Operations and Guest Experience, said in an August 31 press release announcing the new amenities. “These upgrades to FedExField represent an immediate and tangible step to improve that experience, something our ownership group considers a top priority.”
The New Owner Is Local—and Betting Long on the Franchise
Like Snyder (yikes!), Harris is a local kid: he grew up in Chevy Chase and attended The Field School in DC. Thankfully, that’s where the biographical similarities seem to end. Harris was a high school and college wrestler, and says that the lessons he learned on the mat helped him turn B and C grades into A grades in high school, graduate summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, and later excel in the financial world. “When I first started wrestling at a more competitive level, I wasn’t running, I wasn’t training as hard, I would lose badly,” he says. “You lose in wrestling, you’re literally physically dominated. That was a real lesson for life that hard work and grit and tenacity led to more positive outcomes.”
A co-founder of the private equity firm Apollo Global Management, Harris made headlines with a restructuring deal involving a Dutch chemical company that generated $10 billion in profits on a $2 billion investment, one of the most profitable PE deals ever. In the Wall Street Journal, former Apollo employees described Harris as a workaholic, while Harris told the newspaper that “Some people play golf. Some people play tennis. I work.”
Harris and business partner David Blitzer own the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers and the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils. With both franchises, Harris has mirrored his approach to wrestling and business—building playoff teams by eschewing quick fixes in favor of the slow, sometimes painful process of drafting and developing talent. Harris and Blitzer acquired the Devils in 2011 and the 76ers in 2013; in 2018, both clubs made the postseason for the first time since 2011-12. “All these teams we started with a long-range plan and a real strategy about what we wanted to accomplish,” Harris told the Associated Press that year. “We knew it would take several years to get there. We inherited situations that were not set up as well as we would have liked.”
Speaking of long-range plans and, uh, inherited situations, a 43-page prospectus prepared by Harris earlier this year for potential Commanders minority owners predicts big things for the team off the field. Simply by removing Snyder, the document states, the franchise will sell more tickets, attract more sponsorships, and possibly receive an absolutely astronomical amount of money for a new stadium from taxpayers in Virginia, Maryland, or DC.
The Team’s Name Could Be Changing Again … Soon-ish
Last year, a Washington Post poll found that nearly half of Washington’s residents either “dislike” or “hate” the name Commanders—and only five percent “love” it. This isn’t particularly surprising: “Commanders” somehow manages to be sound more generic than the weirdly-charming, really-grows-on-you “Washington Football Team,” and mostly serves as a perpetual reminder of Snyder’s disappointing, scandal-ridden reign of error. While a return to the team’s previous and much-debated name isn’t in the cards—new Commanders co-owner Mitchell Rales said “that ship has sailed” earlier this week—there are signs that the franchise will dump its current name for something different and better, perhaps as soon as next offseason. Harris recently appeared on “Monday Night Football” wearing a team-colored polo shirt … with no team name or branding on it. During a preseason game, play-by-play announcer Chick Hernandez conspicuously used the term “burgundy and gold” to refer to the team instead of “Commanders” for an entire quarter. More to the point, new Commanders minority owner Magic Johnson said this summer that “everything’s on the table” when it comes to ditching the moniker. According to ESPN, NFL rules require teams to wait five years following a name change before they can change again—however, there’s an exception for new owners. Let’s hope Harris and company take advantage!