This is an odd season to be a fan of the Washington Redskins. No, it’s not because of the lockout that dragged on late into summer had fans around the country for months putting their fingers in their ears and singing, “La la la,” every time someone suggested that there might not be a season this year. And it’s not because the Redskins brought in a new big name coach or a slew of high profile players to change the proud franchise’s dismal fortunes. In fact, this season is so different for the opposite reason.
Heading into the 2011 season, this Redskins team is almost completely devoid of hype and intrigue. This puts the typical Redskins fan like me in a strange position. Since Dan Snyder took over the team in 1999, at the beginning of every season we had a reason to believe that things might be different for us this year. They never did anything to fulfill these grand prospects, with the exception of a couple playoff births, but every year I still had a reason to hope. Now, I’m not saying they were always the most rational or justified reasons; often they were quite unrealistic, but there was always something to hope for. This is not the typical August in Washington. The annual tradition of unrealistic expectations and talks of a return to the Super Bowl has disappeared or at least been taken behind the closed doors by the most optimistic.
To illustrate this phenomenon I will briefly show a few examples starting in 2000, Dan Snyder’s first full season in charge.
- 2000: After going to the second round of the playoffs in 1999, the Redskins added two high first round draft picks (Chris Samuels and Lavar Arrington) and signed several free agents including Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Jeff George. Coach Norv Turner was fired after the team started 7-6 and they eventually finished out of the playoffs at 8-8.
-2002: The big story was the signing of the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. After destroying the 49ers 38-7 in a preseason game played in Osaka, Japan, many ‘Skins fans were already checking the prices on January flights to San Diego. The team did not live up to its fast start, going 7-9.
-2004: This was supposed to be the year the glory years returned. Our new savior was our old one. Coach Gibbs, St. Joe, the man who had already brought three Lombardi trophies to D.C. They also added Clinton Portis and Mark Brunell through trade, as well as signing high priced free agents like Marcus Washington, Cornelius Griffin and Shawn Springs. The team went just 6-10 and missed the playoffs yet again.
-2006: The Redskins were anxious to add talent to a team that had just went back to the playoffs, adding players like Adam Archuleta, Antwan Randle-El, and Brandon Lloyd. These players and the team in general disappointed finishing 5-11.
-2009: In the early hours of the morning while free agency was still in its infancy, Albert Haynesworth was given 100 million dollars to wear the burgundy and gold. Adding a dynamic play-maker to an already solid defense was supposed to take us to the next step, but the team went just 4-12.
-2010: Last year, the Redskins added coach Mike Shanahan, general manager Bruce Allen and quarterback Donovan McNabb. Finally, we had a legitimate front office, coach and quarterback. Expectations were high again, but the team finished 6-10.
The general pattern is as follows: We get super excited about the team because of the moves they’ve made in the off-season. As the season progresses, our enthusiasm turns to frustration, then to melancholy, then to cynicism. We are left at the end of the season feeling cheated, crushed, and disillusioned. We call for changes. We call for Danny Boy’s head. We call for them to build through the draft and stop throwing money and draft picks at anyone available. Then, as the new season gets closer and closer, we are bombarded by the local TV and radio with the hype of why this year’s team is different and our allegiance is bought back by the haul of the most recent splurge.
This is the unfortunate cycle of pain that is the experience of anyone who has been a Redskins fan for the last decade. So, why do we buy in? Why do we keep setting ourselves up to be let down again? I think there are two major reasons. The first is that we want them to be good so bad. We want to buy in to the hype. We need to believe that this season things will be different. The second is that Daniel Snyder is a very smart man. He knows all of this and is a very good salesman. In the past, he has made his money on just the image of the team because he knows he can sell us on the big names and the promise of excellence rather than delivering a solid, consistent, on-field product. Just imagine all the money made on the jersey sales of players like McNabb, Haynesworth, Lloyd, Archuleta, or Deion. Then imagine the same fans two years later when all those players were gone from the team.
This August, the fans have replaced the bandwagon bonanza with the apathy that comes with rooting for a team that you know will lose more often than not. Another season in the cellar of the NFC East seems inevitable, and for another year will we be the laughing stock of all of our hated rivals. With this season lacking the usual sales pitch of great things to come, the question becomes have the Redskins actually changed the way they do business? Have Shanahan and Allen really kicked Snyder out of the decision-making room? If they have, there could be some positive in the dire outlook of this season and the strengthening Suck4Luck campaign. Perhaps, they are really abandoning the win now mantra of the past and are trying to build a team in the right way.
There is some evidence this is true. In the draft, the Redskins did not trade up to draft a high profile quarterback, as they so often have mortgaged the future to make a such move. In fact, they traded back, multiple times, eventually ending up with twelve new draftees. And while being quiet in free agency, at least Redskins quiet, they have added several players that fill definite needs and many of them have their best football in front of them. This off season the ‘Skins did not add much flash or instant name recognition. What they did add to the team was depth, youth, and players who fit in to the scheme.
Even if there is a change of direction in the cards down the line, the rampant pessimism about this year’s prospects is not without good reason. Our quarterback situation consists of two guys nobody else would touch competing to be the butt of jokes around the league and an obscure answer to a future trivia question. The skill positions are extremely lacking in game breakers. The offensive line was a joke last year. The defense, the one consistent strength of our team in recent years, finished near the bottom of the league statistically. And yet, there are reasons to believe that this year’s team can and will be better than last year’s.
The promise of an improved defense is the first one. Last season, the Redskins’ defense finished second to last in yardage allowed and 23rd in scoring. The D struggled to adjust to the 3-4 formation and many fans questioned why it was necessary to give up the 4-3 that seemed so much better suited for our personnel. This year they will probably have a brand new starting D-line in rookie Jarvis Jenkins and free agent signings Barry Cofield and Steven Bowen, who are both 27 years old and stolen from division rivals. Other notable acquisitions include first round pick Ryan Kerrigan, who should start opposite dynamo outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Acquisition Josh Wilson is younger and should be an upgrade over departed notorious pick-dropper, Carlos Rodgers, and free safety O.J. Atogww should finally give us the umbrella over the top which allows Laron Landry to be aggressive in the box. The players that were on the defense last year should be better adjusted to their roles in the new defense and the pieces added should fit in to the role imagined for them nicely.
Another promising sign for the Redskins is their cohesion. This is not a usual advantage for us as the Snyder era has mostly been a tumultuous whirlwind of coaching and quarterback changes. However, this post-lockout year has condensed the entire off-season to a handful of weeks, so the teams who hired new coaches or had dramatic player turnover will be behind from the beginning. On the other hand, teams with greater continuity from year to year, such as the Colts, Patriots, Steelers, etc. will have an even bigger head start on the rest of the league than usual. Although this is just Shanahan’s second year, most of the players already know the playbook and, with some of the best player organized workouts during the lockout, appear to be ahead of the league curve in preparation.
The big question, for the NFL is general and for the Redskins specifically, is of, course, who is the quarterback? Most experts and fans have already decided that neither Rex Grossman nor John Beck can ever be a successful NFL signal caller. Improving on the performance of McNabb last year is no tall order, but it remains to be seen if either of them can provide even a hint of adequacy. Rex has been in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense for a few seasons now and last year matched if not exceeded the play of Campbell Soup’s poster child in his few games. But I’m more excited about John Beck.
I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking, “Sam, can you really be so naïve and deluded as to think that John Beck could become a franchise quarterback?” My answer is: Yes. Yes I am. Finding a top-flight quarterback is as rare as it is unpredictable. Joe Montana, Kurt Warner, and Tom Brady are at the top of a long list of qb’s that succeeded despite the odds being stacked against them, while innumerable first round picks have faded to oblivion. Do I really believe that John Beck will get to this level? Of course not. All I’m saying is that you can’t count out the possibility. Until we see him in a real game situation, you never know.
Plus, he’s Mormon. I’d never bet against a Mormon. They believe some crazy stuff but they must focus all those inherent frustrations of Mormon life into athletics. Mormons number about 5 million in the US out of the approximately 300 million in total population. And yet, they have given us such athletes as Danny Ainge, Jimmer Ferdette, Steve Young (Brigham Young’s great-great-great grandson), Tommy Chambers, Stewart Bradley, Ty Detmer, Austin Collie… I could keep going. Analyzing this seemingly disproportionate explosion of Mormon athletes may warrant a later piece of its own.
My last point is that the NFL has by far the most parity year to year of any of the major sports leagues. There will always be surprises. The very best teams and the very worst teams will usually finish at about the same position, but there is opportunity each year for any given team to make the jump. Who was predicting this time last year that the Chiefs and the Buccaneers would both finish with winning records? No one was, and if you say you did, you’re a liar. It would only be fitting that in a season when us Redskins fans have no apparent hope for a successful season, that they surprise us. After losing 7 games last year by less than a touchdown, and beating the Super Bowl champions to boot, it would be fair to say that that result was a worst case scenario. The needle of perception of this team may have swung too far toward the doom and gloom, and, as crazy as it might seem, our expectations for this team may be too small this year rather than too big!
Even if the assumptions that a best case scenario is a 8-8 season, and worst case we get Andrew Luck are accurate and there is no improbable run in store this year, we do have a future to look forward to. The Redskins are finally running the team like a successful NFL franchise. They have become a much younger team. They have added players that provide veteran depth and fill a specific role. They have not traded future draft picks to go all in for the present. No matter how the next sixteen games go for the ‘Skins, they will still have a solid nucleus of young talent going into 2012. And that is something I can get hyped for. But then again, I’m just your typical, naïve, delusional, and utterly faithful, Redskins fan.