LANDOVER, Md. – The FedExField marquees are imploring fans in the stands at the Redskins game to MAKE SOME NOISE!!! … and the fans remain silent.
That’s all you need to know. If you’re a busy type, you can stop here, knowing that in this story, the Redskins lost both this past Sunday's game and the last of their hope for 2013. If you want to know how we got here, though, steel your heart, settle in, and read on.
When, ages hence, some poor NFL historians look back on the sad, sorry saga of the Daniel Snyder-era Washington Redskins, they can point to Sunday’s pathetic loss to the Kansas City Chiefs as the day where it all entered its death spiral. And if those unfortunate souls want to dig deeper, they can look to a play early in the second quarter to sum up everything wrong and doomed about this team.
The Chiefs, already up 17-0, are on the Redskins’ five-yard line, facing second and goal. The incredibly expensive, possibly seizure-inducing signs that ring the field burst forth with flashes of burgundy and yellow, begging the few fans in attendance to come up with any kind of NOISE, anything at all to show that they're alive and engaged.
Nothing. Not a thing. I’ve been to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sporting events. I’ve seen professional failure up close; I was raised on pre-1991 Braves games and pre-Deion Falcons games. In all that time, never once have I heard a stadium completely ignore the clap-to-save-Tinkerbell make-some-noise plea. There’s always some “come on, you guys!” superfan, some too-many-beers bros, some blissfully ignorant little kid who cheers along.
Until now. As the Chiefs settle into formation, FedExField is so silent it's as if someone has muted the entire scene on television. I'm in the second deck, and I can hear quarterback Alex Smith calling out cadences.
The Chiefs, naturally, score on the play.
This is what it’s like in Redskins Country these days: a seething cauldron of rage and envy and disgust and jealousy and pettiness among anyone drawing a paycheck, a sense of fatalism and indifference among those unfortunate enough to pay for the “privilege” of watching them.
If we were drawing the interrelationships on a sheet of notebook paper, middle-school-girl style – the appropriate level of discourse for Washington Redskins discussions these days – it would run something like this: The owner hates the coach and loves the quarterback. The coach hates the owner and benches the quarterback. The quarterback doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t love him. The son of the coach and the father of the quarterback are a part of the story, even though by all rights they shouldn’t be.
There’s no way out of this mess, and even if there was, nobody would bother looking for it. There are too many scores to settle.
I went to Sunday’s game with the noblest of intentions. My father, who just turned 70, grew up in Northern Virginia and has been a Redskins fan his entire life. He idolized Joe Gibbs, he reveled in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s era of championships.
Way leads on to way, though, and after years of disappointment, he began transferring his sporting enthusiasm to the college teams of my brothers and myself. He’d check in with the Redskins regularly, of course, but it was the way you listen to an old song when it comes on classic-rock radio, remembering the better times it summons up.
He knows all the words to “Hail to the Redskins,” but he never taught them to me. It’s one of many reasons I have to thank him.
My siblings and I decided to take the old man to a Redskins game for his birthday. Schedules being what they were, we could only make December 8 work, but back in August, it certainly seemed like an auspicious plan: the Redskins were NFC East champions, and the Chiefs had won only two games last year. It was going to be a romp! What could possibly go wrong?
Now, this is the point where my dad and siblings exit the narrative. Oh, they were with me through the rest of this descent into the NFL underworld, and I’m glad they were. But this isn’t the traditional father-and-son-reconnect-through-sport story. Mainly because if my dad and I had been on bad terms before this Sunday, the Chiefs game would have given him plenty of pretext to cut me out of the will forever.
The Chiefs score 31 points before the Redskins can even get on the board via a Robert Griffin III pass to Logan Paulsen that probably shouldn’t have counted but the refs don’t have the heart to overturn. Griffin, who will be benched midway through this game, looks erratic and uncertain in the pocket, slow and indecisive out of it, and the general mood of the stadium is a weary awareness that 2012 is over and done, and may not ever come back.
That’s a shame, because the 2012 version of Griffin was the needle-moving star that this franchise’s fans have deserved for so long. Fully half of the thousands of souvenirs for sale in the stadium bear Griffin’s name, number or face. This is a franchise absolutely starved for celebrity, from the owner on down. For a brief moment, they had exactly what they wanted, and all was right with the world.
But the entire franchise still bears the scars from Griffin’s injury in last year’s playoffs. This is a team that trades on the past like few others in the NFL. The gift store sells dozens of variants of banners trumpeting the three Super Bowl years, many with optimistically large swathes of burgundy below 1991, the most recent. Legends like Joe Theismann and John Riggins appear on the stadium’s video screens to shill for Papa John’s Pizza. The Redskins thought they had a worthy heir to that tradition in Griffin. Now they’re wondering if the entire season was a fever dream.
Coach Mike Shanahan took much of the blame for Griffin’s injury, the implication being that he left his star quarterback in the game against Seattle for too long. The Seahawks defense pounded Griffin’s knee into overcooked pasta against the rutted FedExField surface. Clearly, Shanahan carries his own scars from that night, because as this Sunday begins, “news” breaks that Shanahan was so fed up with Snyder’s close relationship with Griffin that Shanahan had cleaned out his office.
It seems a bit of revisionist history; had Griffin stayed uninjured and the Redskins lost with their centerpiece intact, this wouldn’t even be a point of contention. But with the season a total disaster, Shanahan appears to have flipped the switch on Operation Fire Me, doing everything he can to provoke the ire of his famously short-tempered owner. The Texans job is open, after all, and regardless of how he’s performed lately, Shanahan knows the cardinal rule of NFL coaching: two-time Super Bowl winners never have to look for work.
Let’s take just a brief moment to discuss that owner. From the moment that he bought the team and began building it like he was playing fantasy football – name value over all, production be damned – he’s clashed with everyone who’s dared oppose him. In Snyder’s 14 years, Redskins fans have seen seven head coaches come and go. Norv Turner, Steve Spurrier, Marty Schottenheimer, Jim Zorn ... these are names that keep fans up at night.
One of the few former coaches who will go on the record with a kind word about Snyder is Joe Gibbs. (The fact that Gibbs managed to coach for four middling seasons in the mid-2000s yet somehow dodged blame is among his most impressive achievements.) Back in September, Gibbs told me “I love Dan Snyder, I love what he’s doing with the team. They’ll get back on track.” It’s worth noting, though, that Gibbs remains a “special advisor” to Snyder. It’s also worth noting that Gibbs spends the majority of his time in Charlotte, 400 miles away from Washington.
Shanahan will almost surely be gone at the end of this season, if not before, and Snyder will recycle a recognizable name to replace him, and that name will promise a return to the glory days of Redskins yore, and the cycle will begin anew.
The Redskins, as an organization, will be just fine. They remain one of the most valuable in sports, and Snyder has shown he’ll throw around plenty of money to get what he wants. Snyder, Griffin, Shanahan … they’ll all survive this era with, at best, gently bruised egos.
The real losers in all this are the fans, my dad and all the others who have invested so much of their hope and energy into this team. Yes, the NFL is a business and always has been. But a single meal at FedExField costs north of $20. Parking runs in the neighborhood of $40. How much longer can Snyder and the Redskins keep expecting fans to underwrite and stand behind an organization that clearly has no idea what to do to solve its many problems?
Whether by accident or design, Snyder has managed to win over an important segment of the fan base that otherwise would have turned on him: the traditionalists. By opposing, in no uncertain terms, the growing calls for him to change the name of the Redskins, Snyder has rallied the troops behind a single from-our-cold-dead-hands flag. They may not like what Snyder’s done with their Redskins, but they’ll be damned if they let anyone change the name.
If it’s possible to look even less impressive than a 45-10 score indicates, the Redskins do just that on this Sunday. Weak tackling, indifferent defense, tentative offense … it's all on display, and by the time of the two-minute warning, you can nearly hear conversations going on across the stadium. The Chiefs fans in attendance have gathered behind the Kansas City bench – who’s going to stop them? – and begun an impromptu, out-of-sync Tomahawk Chop.
We begin the slog through spitting snow from the stadium to the parking lot, and the lot’s so empty we can see our car from a hundred yards away. As we walk, one lone tailgater tosses a football from hand to hand, trying to rally the troops.
“Anybody want to catch?” he calls to the few people passing by. “Nobody?” Seriously, dude. These are Redskins fans. If you toss the ball to them, chances are a Chief will intercept it.
We clamber back into the car, cranking the heat and trying to warm ourselves against a cold that goes all the way to the bone. A few minutes later, we pull out of the parking lot and merge into the traffic leaving the stadium. It’s the only line we wait in all day.