WWE is undergoing a major behind-the-scenes shakeup, with "Raw" head writer Ed Koskey replacing Ryan Ward as "SmackDown" lead writer under executive director Eric Bischoff, an individual with knowledge of the plans told TheWrap.
Jonathan Baeckstrom, the former lead writer of "205 Live," is backfilling Koskey's lofty "Raw" role under executive director Paul Heyman. The changes have been in the works for weeks and follow what the insider called a "botched" summer storyline involving a doppelgänger for bad guy Erick Rowan.
Ward will be taking a "short-term leave of absence," the insider said, declining to specify the reason for his leave. Should he return to WWE from that leave, Ward will likely join the "home team" -- or the company's non-traveling group of writers. That would be considered a major step down for Ward, who reassumed his position as "SmackDown" head writer earlier this year.
Recently, Ward had shared the lead writer role with Steve Guerrieri, whom the WWE insider said was fired several months ago. (Guerrieri did not respond back to requests for comment.) Before that, D-Generation X wrestler-turned-backstage heavyweight "Road Dogg" Brian James stepped down from the gig at what is sometimes referred to as WWE's "B show." Those changes both predate Bischoff, a former WCW president who stepped in to oversee "SmackDown" in June.
"Raw," WWE's flagship show, has had more consistency. Koskey has served as the longest-running lead writer of "Raw" and has 20 years of experience with the company.
A month ago, Baeckstrom was moved "way up the ladder" at "Raw," the insider said. Chad Barbash is the new lead writer of the cruiserweights show "205 Live." There are approximately 25 writers across WWE. That staff is now being split among the two brands, "Raw" and "SmackDown."
A rep for WWE issued this response to our questions for this story: "We don't comment on employee matters."
The WWE insider said the shuffle of executives is due to a perceived lack of direction at "SmackDown," which is four weeks ahead of its big move from USA Network to Fox's broadcast channel. The billion-dollar deal puts a lot of pressure on the "SmackDown" creative team.
A rep for Fox Sports did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new "SmackDown" changes.
The "SmackDown" moves also come amid growing questions about Bischoff's leadership of the show. The insider cited Bischoff's decision to hire Stevie Long, a former "Sons of Anarchy" writer who was found asleep in the writers room by longtime producer Michael P.S. Hayes on his first day on the road with WWE. (Long is still with WWE.)
Bischoff declined to comment; Long's manager was unable to provide a comment from his client by the time of publication.
Bischoff and his "SmackDown" creative team have also come under scrutiny for this summer's Erick Rowan doppelgänger storyline, in which an unknown attacker drop heavy backstage scaffolding on top of Roman Reigns, "injuring" the company's No. 1 star.
According to the WWE insider, the storyline was "botched so bad" that "explaining to anyone what it was supposed to be wouldn't make any sense at all."
Watch the initial "attack" unfold here:
The following week, Reigns' car was hit by another car in the arena parking lot.
The whodunit played out over several weeks, with prime suspects and bad guys Erick Rowan and Daniel Bryan claiming to have found the person responsible.
At the end of the next "SmackDown" episode, they pulled the hood off of an unknown man who looked just like Rowan, revealing who Bryan called "the culprit" to Reigns.
Watch that via the video below.
A week later, an unconvinced Reigns shared "found" grainy video footage of a man who looked just like Rowan in pants and a pulled-over hoodie walking away from the assault. That apparently proved that Rowan himself was the attacker -- to Reigns and Bryan, at least.
Watch that video below.
The lookalike, who certainly could have been the man in Reigns' video, has not been mentioned since, and there are numerous wrestling blog posts and Reddit threads trying to figure out what happened -- in real life.
Rowan viciously attacked both Bryan and Reigns at the end of Tuesday's "SmackDown Live." See the video below.
Rowan and Reigns are set to face off at WWE's next pay-per-view event, Sept. 15's "Clash of Champions." There is still one "SmackDown" episode before it, so if there will be any real -- and really, retroactive -- storyline payoff to the lookalike angle, it would have to be on Tuesday.
In late June, WWE handed the "Raw" TV reins to ECW founder Heyman, while WCW alum Bischoff got "SmackDown Live."
"SmackDown" will move from USA to Fox's broadcast network on Friday, Oct. 4, when it will celebrate 20 year's of the blue brand. Back in May 2018, TheWrap broke the news of Fox's "SmackDown" acquisition and its shift from Tuesdays to Fridays. We were also first to report that the show would remain live.
USA Network will keep WWE's flagship series "Monday Night Raw." It also gets the pro-wrestling promotion's minor-league "NXT" show from WWE Network. That one is set to compete head-to-head with TNT's upcoming AEW series, which will launch on Wednesday, Oct. 2.