September 20, 2004

Dawn of the Deadskins

Today's Musical Selection: "Are You Ready For Some Football?" by Hank Williams Jr.

Hello, everyone. Today I'm wearing black, to honor the memory of the Washington Redskins. Local fans here in the Fedroplex know what I'm talking about. For those who might not be aware, the Redskins suffered an ugly 20-14 loss to the New York Giants yesterday. This may not sound like a particularly troublesome defeat, except that the Skins handed the game to the Giants with an incredible seven turnovers, which is as staggering as it sounds.

I was watching the game in the company of my dad, a fellow Skins fan. Our commentary can get caustic when the Skins are struggling, and we had a lot to taunt yesterday. Highly-paid new running back Clinton Portis had a nasty case of fumble-itis, laying the ball on the ground twice under minimal pressure. Quarterback Mark Brunell had a fumble of his own, and made consistently bad decisions, looking like a raw rookie rather than a multi-year pro. Once, on the verge of a sack, he panicked and threw directly into the arms of a Giant defender. Dad and I were feeling pretty vicious. When the play-by-play man said, "The Redskins have to do more with the ball," Dad snapped, "Yeah, they could try holding on to it, for instance."

The game went from bad to worse when Brunell left with an injury and backup Patrick Ramsey entered the game. Ramsey looked clueless, hopeless and rusty, completely failing to read defenses or remember pass patterns, and throwing wobbly off-target passes, except for the passes he laser-beamed directly into the chests of the Giant secondary. Ramsey threw three interceptions, all deep in Giant territory, one in the end zone. Dad and I started openly discussing the possibility that Ramsey was tanking. With each interception or overthrown pass, we made remarks on the lines of, "Mr. Ramsey, your bookie is on line 3. Are you in for $1,000 on the Giants?" After Portis' second fumble, I suggested that Ramsey offered him a cut of the winnings. It was awful... we saw the interceptions coming even before Ramsey had released the ball. The play-by-play man said, "Ramsey clearly has some work to do," and I replied, "Yeah, he can start by learning which color jersey are his."

It was a complete and utter debacle, a costly division loss to a bumbling foe on the verge of a player revolt against martinet coach Tom Coughlin. It's a sight that Redskins fans have become accustomed to seeing on Sunday over the past few years. But this loss was so disheartening because this is exactly what the hiring of the sainted Joe Gibbs was supposed to prevent. Instead of playing the smart and cohesive ball we saw in Week 1, the Redskins reverted to form. And we all got a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs.

As linebacker Lavar Arrington said to the press after the game, "That's the worst thing about losing, you know, when you lose." Or as my dad put it, "Welcome back, Joe Gibbs. Now you know what you have to deal with.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Gibbs was supposed to be the savior who led us out of the desert we've been wandering in for a decade, underachieving and looking sloppy and selfish under grumpy Richie Petitbon, genial Norv Turner, short-timer Terry Robiskie, stiff-necked Marty Schottenheimer and overmatched Steve Spurrier. In the lost decade since Gibbs departed to spend his weekends at the race track, the Skins turned from a model franchise into an embarrassment. Patrician owner Jack Kent Cooke died, and the franchise was sold to Dan Snyder, the impulsive boy billionaire who swapped out players and coaches like trading cards and made an art out of profit-maximization. The team left downtown and RFK Stadium for arid empty Landover and bland FedEx Field, a stadium with all the modern convenience and without a soul. And the Skins went from a team that was always greater than the sum of its parts to a team that somehow never was.

Skins fans watched with growing disgust, pining for the return of the great Gibbs, but never believing it could happen. But this offseason, Snyder somehow persuaded Gibbs to return to the game and the city where he made his Hall of Fame name. Washingtonians reacted with a fervor that normal cities might reserve for the second coming of Christ. At last, here was the man who could lead us back to glory. We'd seen Bill Parcells turn the Cowboys from a 5-11 fiasco to a 10-6 playoff squad, so we figured surely Gibbs could do the same. The hype and hysteria reached incredible levels.

And Week One made all the hysteria look sensible, or nearly so. The Skins dominated Tampa Bay in all phases of the game, with a top-notch defense and a presentable offense and a kind of discipline and professionalism we haven't seen around here in years. My dad noted with approval, "It's good to see the grown-ups back in charge." Super Bowl, here we come!

Alas, the revival express hit a bit of a snag yesterday. We went from "silk purse" back to "sow's ear" in the span of a week. The me-firstism, poor communication, sloppiness and self-defeating play that characterized the Spurrier Era returned with a vengeance. Gibbs spent most of the game standing silently with a "They didn't tell me about this when they hired me" look on his face. Dad, who was so inspired by Week One that he dug out his old Redskins T-shirt for the first time in years, immediately turned the shirt inside-out when the game was over. It was that bad.

So what have we learned? Well, one man, no matter how great a coach he is, cannot single-handedly turn a franchise around overnight. I suspect the Skins are neither as good as they looked against Tampa nor as bad as they looked yesterday. What they are, I suspect, is an 8-8 team, or something like it. This is itself constitutes a marked improvement, but we haven't reached nirvana yet. There's still work to do, organizational attitudes to change, improvements to make. Yesterday's stink-bomb was a needed reality check to Skins fans. Before we have visions of the Lombardi Trophy dancing in our heads, we need to become a good team first.

That's all for me today. Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at September 20, 2004 08:39 PM
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