A while back, I sat with a bunch of other sports media types—bloggers, writers, ex-players, and so on—to tape a pilot of a potential D.C.-centric sportstalk yapfest.
The project was not picked up and is now dead, and I thank god for that every single day.
Not just because I am terrible on TV (I am), nor because I wish any ill on the people involved (I don’t), but because during the taping I claimed that Randy Wittman was the key to the Wizards’ success. On camera! For posterity!
In late 2014, the Wizards were off to a hot start, probably somewhere around 9–5 or so at the time of taping. My argument, as I recall it, had something to do with him getting guys to buy into his approach and convincing them to play tough on D while also getting the most out of John Wall.
At the time, it was just barely defensible. Even then, I was probably subconsciously doing the stupid TV thing of taking a hot-take stance just to make the segment more interesting—six random people all agreeing that Wall was the secret of the Wiz’s success would’ve been spectacularly dull no matter how carefully it was edited. Now, it looms alongside “Kirk Cousins is demonstrably terrible” and “The trade for RG3 is great, because what’s the worst that can happen?” as a monument to my enduring idiocy.
Because at this point, there is no one left on Earth who believes that Randy Wittman should still be employed by the Wizards after this abysmal season finally wraps up. In fact, a quick scan of #WizardsTwitter shows a lot of folks who feel that Wittman has been around for at least a year too long already.
Similarly, it’s well past time for minimally successful General Manager Ernie Grunfeld to go. A piece on Wizards blog Bullets Forever makes that case and as of press time has more than 400 comments, nearly all of them in full agreement. That would seem pretty significant, except that an article three years ago on the same site, making a similar argument, has 100-plus comments, most of them agreeing, too.
The fans have been fed up with Wittman for a couple years and Grunfeld for more, but owner Ted Leonsis has remained loyal. It would be easy to say “admirably loyal,” except that there’s an awful lot of evidence pointing to the idea that, in professional sports, loyalty isn’t necessarily a winning strategy.
Leonsis has already arguably been on the wrong side of this debate once, with former Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who assembled the nucleus of the revitalized Caps roster but was ultimately unable to get it to the next level of success. Fans and pundits were openly clamoring for change to be made for more than three years before Leonsis finally made a move. In a 2011 column defending McPhee’s continued employment, the Washington Post’s Mike Wise even tried to tie Leonsis’ loyalty to his Greek heritage. McPhee would last until 2014; ironically, one of the final knocks against him was his own fierce loyalty to certain players.
That unwillingness to move on can be career suicide in professional sports. It leads to keeping players past their prime, rewarding players for past results with future contracts, or re-signing poor scheme fits out of nostalgia or fondness.
It seems significant that Bill Belichick’s Patriots team—a gold standard for success in the NFL—heartlessly cut productive veterans before they were fully used up, and that the Pittsburgh Steelers would regularly let their successful linebackers leave, counting on their productive system to produce a replacement.
Leonsis’ loyalty here more closely resembles the local football team than either of those examples. There are multiple instances over the years when Dan Snyder has chosen loyalty to his trusted lieutenants (Vinny Cerrato) or favored players (late-career Clinton Portis, possibly Robert Griffin III) rather than making the harder decision that would more quickly translate to on-field success.
In a 2011 interview on 106.7 The Fan—about sticking with Grunfeld, coincidentally enough—Leonsis appeared to cite loyalty as a virtue. “You guys know me long enough, I am pretty loyal. I believe we’re in it together,” he said. “And as long as we are on the same page, I think that there’s harmony in the organization.”
Sure, loyalty is laudable, but it’s equally important to understand when it stands in the way of progress. It seems clear that the Wizards have reached that point with Grunfeld; the question is if Leonsis still believes that harmony is more important than taking emotionally tough steps to improve the team.
Photo of Randy Wittman by Keith Allison / Flickr C.C.