The message couldn’t have been any clearer if it had been burned into the turf at FedEx Field.
The Redskins had just ended the 2018 season by getting blasted right off their home grass 24-0 by their bitter NFC East rivals, and now the fans of that rival — hordes of green-clad, E-A-G-L-E-S-chanting Philly fans — were leaving the stadium chanting and cheering. All but the hardiest — or most delusional — fans of the home team had long ago left the premises.
The Redskins may not have hit rock bottom yet — they did win seven games, and they’re right in the middle of the NFL pack, as always — but there’s no one not on the team payroll who believes they’re not on a sharp, years-long, miss-the-runway-and-hit-a-mountain trajectory. And nobody’s even trying to play nice when discussing this team.
Sunday’s turning point
Daniel Snyder bought the Washington Redskins in 1999 for $800 million. Since that time, he’s gone through eight head coaches while posting a record of 139-180-1, reaching the playoffs just five times and winning only two games. And for most of that time, he’s drawn heavy, warranted criticism. You don’t get to stomp all over three local governments, dozens of players and coaches, and a proud fan legacy without blowback.
But Sunday’s loss — and the humiliating sight of Eagles fans celebrating in FedEx Field seats — broke open a dam of criticism that’s touched every phase of this team, from players to coaches to executives. Everyone’s fed up with everyone else involved with this organization, and it’s all funneling upward to the owner’s box.
Snyder wants much out of this team — on-field success, acclaim, a few hundred million from a local government to build him a stadium — but it’s clear to all involved that the two decades under his ownership have been a disaster, scorching a once-proud franchise down to its foundations.
2018 went from decent to terrible in a hurry
The year began with such promise. The Redskins started the year 6-3. They owned the NFC East — a weak division, sure, but still one with a guaranteed playoff berth — and even though there were the typical bumps in the road, the bandwagon appeared headed in the right direction.
Naturally, the wheels came off. The team drew heat for signing Reuben Foster just hours after he’d been released from the 49ers because of domestic violence charges. Cornerback Josh Norman criticized Redskins fans for not showing up and not supporting the team. Alex Smith, pegged as the quarterback of the future, broke his leg in a gruesome tackle that left his entire NFL future in doubt. Smith’s replacement, Colt McCoy, also broke his leg, and the next men up — Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson — weren’t up to the task. (To be fair, they were asked to do the impossible. Their failure is one of very few misfires this season that goes under the heading of “bad luck” rather than “incompetence.”) The team finished 7-9, and couldn’t even manage to play spoiler to keep the Eagles out of the playoffs.
In the postmortem of the 2018 season, coaches and players alike stressed that they believe they’re “close,” that they believe this team is on the verge of a breakthrough. Which is a proper thing to say, a properly optimistic sentiment to have … except that Washington has been playing this exact same tune at the same time of year for half a decade now. As the Washington Post’s Jerry Brewer put it:
It’s easy for an NFL franchise to oversimplify its status and declare that it’s close. But Washington has been stuck on close for the better part of four seasons. The team record during that time is 31-32-1. The franchise was mediocre with Kirk Cousins at quarterback; it is mediocre without him. It was mediocre during Scot McCloughan’s stint as the general manager; it is mediocre without him. It was mediocre when most of the talent was on offense; it is mediocre now that most of the talent is on defense.
Close feels an awful lot like stuck.
“Close” won’t cut it anymore, and the fans are noticing.
The fans aren’t angry anymore, they just don’t care
There was a time when Redskins fans were the envy not just of the NFL, but of all sports. Loud, proud, defiant and steadfast, they stuck by their team, and their team respected them. But attendance dropped a staggering 24 percent this year, a stunning dive even for a league struggling with putting butts in seats.
Fans aren’t even mad anymore. They just don’t care. And for the long-term health of this franchise, that’s a far more treacherous state. Anger means there’s passion. Anger can turn back to love with some well-chosen new players and well-timed big wins. But apathy? Apathy kills. If you stop caring about the Redskins, it’s going to take something phenomenal — something that may be beyond the capacity of the current organization — to bring you back.
As ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, a longtime Washington-area sports fan, said on his show Monday night:
“I know so many fans who have moved on, so many who share wonderful memories of what the Redskins were, who have become numb to what we no longer feel at all. Is anyone at Redskins Park listening? Does anyone there even care? Or are you as indifferent as the people who used to fill your stadium as if it were their civic duty, who have been replaced by the fans of the road team who took over the joint — a team who’s going to the playoffs, the team that won the Super Bowl last year.”
If the team doesn’t care, eventually, the fans don’t either. It’s taken 20 years, but here we are.
Daniel Snyder takes heat from all sides
Snyder gets — and deserves — the most vicious criticism from the Washington faithful; he managed to snare a golden goose and yet still keeps dropping the eggs, two decades in. Snyder has systematically managed to offend, upset, fire or run off every possible ally except team president Bruce Allen. His teams have been the very definition of mediocre — 8 wins or fewer — for 15 of his 20 years.
“All Snyder has done as an NFL owner is freeload off massive revenue streams he didn’t help create,” the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins writes, “while breeding fan ill will.” The litany of abuses both small and large, from price-gouging on game day ($40 for parking?) to filing suit against season-ticket holders, has left fans disgusted and, worse, uninterested.
Snyder plays to the base by pledging never to change the team’s name, while at the same time profiting off of, overcharging and undercutting that base for his own ends. Beyond that one issue? He’s losing support on all sides.
During the contentious owners’ meetings last year on protests, Snyder repeatedly cozied up to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and attempted to take a hardline stance against the protests. But he learned that he couldn’t push around the other owners the way he could his own employees; Snyder’s assessment of popular sentiment (“96 percent of Americans are for guys standing”) was “dismissed as a grand overstatement,” and his hell-with-the-protesters demands were ignored.
Embarrassing owners aren’t a big deal; a dozen NFL teams, starting with Dallas, have owners who’ll offer up a cringeworthy quote on demand. But an embarrassing owner who can’t deliver a quality on-field product? That’s a real problem. And an embarrassing owner with a poor on-field product who’s expecting governments to help fund his dreams of a vast new stadium — as Snyder craves — ought to be laughed out of every City Hall and state capitol within a hundred miles.
Jenkins again, on how local governments ought to regard Snyder:
To give a single tax dollar to Snyder given his track record would be absolute madness, and anyone who even contemplates it should be turned out of office for malpractice. If Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and various members of the D.C. Council continue to play footsie with Snyder, they will get burned, become just another in a long line of people who came to the Redskins with good reputations and left as damaged goods.
This is a team facing huge challenges: what to do at quarterback, whether to keep the coaching staff, how to stem the steady flow of departing fans, and where to put a new stadium. What got the team into this crisis isn’t going to get them out of it.
Daniel Snyder is 54 years old. He’ll own this team for many decades to come, and he’ll make millions doing so. But unless substantial change — change that appears so unlikely as to be impossible — comes to the Washington Redskins, Snyder’s going to be reigning over a vast, desolate empire where the only joy will come from other teams celebrating.
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