July 19, 2024

Josh Harris brings measured approach to Commanders ownership


When Josh Harris purchased the Washington Commanders for $6.05 billion last summer, he said he would take the season to evaluate the football operation.

With the season ending Sunday, the time to make defining decisions is now.

After Washington’s finale against the Dallas Cowboys (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), Harris is expected to make sweeping changes with coach Ron Rivera and his staff as well as the front office.

According to multiple team sources, the changes have been anticipated.

The team is 4-12 and hasn’t posted a winning season since 2016. But now the onus is on Harris to begin shaping a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season and last won 11 regular-season games in 1991.

Harris, who also owns the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, said in 2015, “Your most important hire as an owner is your general manager and then your coach.”

With the 76ers, he hired a president of basketball operations (Daryl Morey), an executive vice president and general manager. With the Devils, Tom Fitzgerald serves a dual role as an executive vice president of hockey and general manager. Martin Brodeur also has an executive vice president title.

Under previous Commanders owner Dan Snyder, Rivera had final say in football matters. When he came aboard in 2020, he hired general manager Martin Mayhew and brought a lot of the staff from his time with the Carolina Panthers.

One league source said there’s a sense Harris wants to think “outside the box”, bringing an approach used in the NBA and/or the NHL to the NFL.

Some who have dealt with Harris said he can be “socially awkward” at times, though those who know him say it could be about staying out of the public eye. Others call the former collegiate wrestler an intense competitor — which can sometimes rub others the wrong way.

Regardless, Harris will be judged by his football decisions in the days and weeks following Sunday’s game. While he’s new to the NFL, he’s not new to hiring. He’s hired four general managers and three coaches with the 76ers. With New Jersey, he’s hired three full-time coaches.

“I don’t think these things happen overnight,” Harris said in September.

In addition to the reorganization at the top, Washington must also decide if it wants to draft a quarterback and what to do with $90 million in cap space. The way Harris has handled such decisions with his other professional teams might provide a blueprint for how he’ll proceed in Washington.

ACCORDING TO MULTIPLE sources who have worked for both Harris and Snyder, his method of running a franchise differs greatly from what Washington experienced under its former owner.

One former coach during Snyder’s tenure described his process as “chaotic.” Sometimes he’d ask questions, the source said, but other times he would simply tell staffers to “get it done.”

In 2022, Snyder pushed the front office to finalize a deal for quarterback Carson Wentz. Multiple team sources said that pressure resulted in them overpaying for Wentz — sending two third-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts for a player Indy no longer wanted.

Before the 2019 draft, multiple sources said Snyder pushed for his scouts to move Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins from the third round to the first round on their draft board. When Haskins was available at No. 15, Snyder told them to “take the quarterback.”

“I’m in the draft room in the NBA and would expect to be in the draft room in the NFL,” Harris said in September. “You want to understand the process. You’re not picking players. When we went to 53 [players during final roster cuts] I asked to be briefed on some of the harder decisions but I didn’t want to be in the room because I don’t want the process to be altered.”

Jay Gruden, who coached under Snyder from 2014-2019, said Snyder often passed along his wishes through team president Bruce Allen, who would relay it to the football staff. He said it often led to the coaches and front office not being in accord on players.

Gruden said there were times Snyder and Allen would pursue and sign free agents with little regard to how they fit Washington’s scheme.

It was a difficult way to build sustained success and contrasts with how sources say Harris has operated with his other teams.

Harris has said although he might be in the draft room, he would not be making any decisions on players. He’s considered an involved owner, but not a meddler. He typically meets or talks to his management teams once a week.

“It’s just a lot of listening,” Morey said, “and it’s a lot of like him saying, ‘Hey, you know what? I think that’s a good plan.’ He will say, ‘Hey, I know you’re thinking about doing that, but did you consider this other alternate path?’ And if you aren’t giving him a good answer in that, he’s going to say, ‘Hey, dig into that a little more.’ He just wants to feel like the diligence, the work, has been put in.”

Tad Brown, the chief executive officer of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment — the company founded by Harris and David Blitzer that owns and operates Harris’ teams — said many of Harris’ decisions stem from curiosity. He also noted, echoing what Harris has said previously, owning a team for him is not about ego.

“You have to make it about winning,” Harris said.

With the Commanders, Harris speaks often with Rivera and members of the front office, including Mayhew and assistant general manager Marty Hurney. Multiple sources said the chats have given Harris insight into the organization, their decision-making process and what steps need to follow.

“For someone as successful and as just driven as he is, he’s really coachable because he wants to learn,” Brown said, “and he wants to know what the people who work for him, what their thoughts are, because he knows that, as I said, he tries to surround himself with the best people in every situation. … It’s always about the idea, the collaboration, the information so that you get to the right outcome.”

Others say Harris won’t be swayed by outside sentiments. This season, while many fans called for Rivera’s firing, Harris resisted.

“It’s easy to be swayed by public opinion or media or what you see on social media,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “He’s very good at keeping his bearings; sometimes it’s rough.

“If people start judging him on the basis of this season or next they’re making a mistake. He knows how to build a franchise and being patient to do it the right way takes time.”

THE HARRIS GROUP will move fast when they want to make a hire. The 76ers had an agreement to hire Doc Rivers as head coach three days after the Los Angeles Clippers fired him in October 2020.

Less than a month later, Harris pursued Morey. Again.

Harris first attempted to lure Morey away from the Houston Rockets in 2018, when the team changed owners. Morey rejected the overtures. When he resigned two years later, Harris pounced.

“I had convinced my wife it would be a hiatus year,” Morey said. “I honestly felt like the grind had gotten to me.”

Instead, Morey said Harris phoned within 24 hours — and flew Morey and his wife, Ellen, to the Hamptons. The aggressive pitch eventually helped change Morey’s mind.

Morey recalls the pitch from Harris centering around consistency, something Washington’s organization has lacked. Morey said Harris told him, “Sometimes you do the right things and you don’t get the outcome you want, but you still have taken the right approach. It’s still the right thing to hit on 11, even if you get a two in blackjack.”

Later, Harris explained tactics that likely will be on display as the Commanders rebuild their football organization.

There may not be many candidates of similar stature to a Morey or Rivers on the Commanders’ radar during the NFL hiring cycle. But there will be some, like Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson or San Francisco assistant general manager Adam Peters, who require a more aggressive pursuit.

Harris already met with some potential GM candidates through the accelerator program at the owners meetings last month in Dallas. According to multiple sources, he met with a few participants, including Chicago assistant general manager Ian Cunningham and Las Vegas interim general manager Champ Kelly.

Harris also has talked with other owners and has a strong relationship with New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft and owner Bob Kraft. Harris can lean on advice from his limited partners, who have constructed successful businesses — namely Mitchell Rales, Mark Ein and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. While none of them has been involved with football, all have been part of hiring leaders or evaluating them for their businesses. Harris also hired Eugene Shen as a senior vice president of football strategy. He has worked in both Baltimore and Miami’s front office.

But the Morey pursuit could shape his approach this offseason.

“Talent like Daryl rarely becomes available,” Harris said, “so we moved quickly and aggressively to bring him here.”

In the case of firing Rivers, making a decision required having conversations. Morey said he and Harris wanted to make a quick decision. So, after losing to the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals last May, Morey and Harris spent three to four hours talking one night. They followed that by meeting for multiple hours the next day.

“That was a lot of conversation because Doc Rivers did a very good job for us,” Morey said. “That was a very good example of Josh shining where I was showing all the different angles and things we should consider. And it was not an easy choice because Doc had taken us on a very successful run.”

Moving on from Rivera and this front office won’t be as difficult a decision as it was when he fired Rivers, who led the 76ers to three consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference semifinals in his three seasons. Under Rivera, Washington is 26-39-1.

THIS OFFSEASON, WASHINGTON will have at least $90 million in salary cap space, with the ability to create more. The Commanders also currently own the second overall draft pick plus five selections in the first 100. They have a chance to overhaul their roster if they want to be aggressive; they also can build with patience via the draft.

Although Harris will open Washington’s offseason with a dozen years’ experience running sports teams, as multiple league sources have said, the dynamics vary from one sport to the next.

“I’ve seen in our conversations that his mindset toward the Commanders is very informed by the last decade of his experiences in Philadelphia and New Jersey and even in the Premier Soccer League,” Ein said. “He has never meddled. His business strategy is to hire great people and empower them.”

When the Devils, in the midst of a rebuild in 2021, wanted to improve defensively, Fitzgerald received the go-ahead to pursue free agent defenseman Doug Hamilton — even though the team was a year or two from being a legitimate playoff contender.

“We want to be a playoff team. How do we get there with what we have already?” Fitzgerald recalled Harris asking. “And I — we said we need a right-shot defenseman. We need a big mobile defenseman who can drive offense. ‘Who is that?’ That’s Dougie Hamilton for the Carolina Hurricanes, and he’s going to have a lot of teams on him because these guys don’t grow on trees. ‘OK.’ Bang. That’s how it started.”

Hamilton could have signed with a contender; instead a team that knew it was still a year or so away handed him a seven-year, $63 million deal. It’s an approach Washington could employ when it wants a player that can help bridge the gap from rebuilding to contending.

“You give him the data, you give him the information, you give him the scouting, and they’d go, ‘Oh, yeah, OK, great. You think we can get him?’ I do. I think we can get him,” Fitzgerald said. “And it starts from there.

“I can tell you there are teams around our league that I look and go, ‘Oh, all they need is one Dougie Hamilton, all they need is one. All they need is ownership to say, ‘Hmm, let’s push this thing forward.'”

That’s the goal for Washington this offseason: pushing forward as an organization. The Commanders have a chance to do so via sweeping changes — with the coaches, front office and roster. The organization will look dramatically different a few months from now than it did only one year earlier.

Of course, not every move Harris made in the past worked out. The Devils missed the playoffs eight times in his first 10 seasons. The 76ers have not advanced to the conference finals since the 2000-01 season, and one of Harris’ biggest moves one year into his ownership in Philly was a four-team deal in which the Sixers gave up All-Star forward Andre Iguodala, among others, for center Andrew Bynum and wing Jason Richardson. The trade occurred one year after losing in the conference semifinals and was a disappointment. Bynum, who had issues with his knees before the trade, never played for the 76ers while Richardson played only 52 games. Harris has said it’s one move he regrets.

“You learn, you get beat up, and then you learn more,” Harris said about being a sports owner.

Before the 2023 NFL season began, Harris was a popular man around town. He spoke to a couple thousand fans at a pep rally in Washington, D.C., two days before the opener. Fans gave him high-fives at an event following his first news conference at FedEx Field. At training camp, fans chanted “Thank you, Josh!” whenever he attended. He has signed autographs and taken pictures.

But even then he knew what lay ahead; it will shape how he approaches the future.

“Once we get through all this,” Harris said in September, “we want to start to keep the focus on the team and winning football games.”

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