Washington is a city of sporting champions. Just don't tell its woeful NFL team

Dave Caldwell
<span>Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP</span>
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Just 37 miles but light years away from the stadium at which Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson put on a show for thousands of delirious fans, Washington played the New York Jets before thousands of empty red, yellow and orange seats. The Jets – a terrible team themselves – won, 34-17, and the score flattered Washington.

Washington’s record fell to 1-9, and they will continue the season with another home game Sunday against Detroit. The bookies have already made the Lions (3-6-1) a three-point favorite, and resale tickets are available on StubHub for as little as $10. Washington DC has a lousy team, but it is actually worse than that: fans are beyond angry. They don’t care.

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And why should they? Asked at a postgame news conference what message he’d given his team, Bill Callahan, who once led the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl but has been assigned the unpleasant task of serving as Washington’s interim coach, replied, “I just let them know there’s no give-up in myself.” Team motto: No Give-Up.

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That is the saddest part of all. Washington used to love its NFL team more than any other big-league team that represented the District of Columbia. But Ol’ DC has moved on. The NHL’s Capitals won their first Stanley Cup in 2018, and the Nationals last month won the city’s first World Series since 1924. The Mystics won the WNBA championship last month. The one team that can rival the city’s NFL team for incompetency are the Wizards, who missed the NBA playoffs last season and already look off pace in the early stages of the 2019-20 campaign.

Washington fans love to point out that the football team has had seven losing seasons and zero playoff victories since team president Bruce Allen, the son of the legendary former coach George Allen, joined the team as a general manager in 2010. But the fans have also never liked Dan Snyder, who has owned the team since 1999. It’s easy to see why: he refuses to change the team’s obsolete and racist nickname, maintaining that it is a tradition; has overseen several free-agent signings at what were considered to be exorbitant salaries, only to see those players fail to produce; and hired, then promoted, the widely reviled Allen. To cap it all, he once infamously sued season-ticket holders who asked to be released from multi-year contracts.

Add a medical mess that is a public-relations disaster. Trent Williams, the much-admired veteran offensive tackle, ended a long holdout in October but said he would never play for the team again because team doctors had ignored a growth on his head that turned out to be cancerous. “There’s no trust there,” said Williams, who has pointed most of his anger at Allen.

“Washington has discovered that champions can live here. So why tolerate, let alone support, an atrociously run and constantly embarrassing franchise with a moral compass that is as twisted as a corkscrew?” Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post’s veteran sports columnist and Washington native, wrote in Monday’s paper.

And it won’t get better soon. The team fired coach Jay Gruden, and the rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins has been given the rest of the season to work on his game. He has promise, but he also has a long way to go. Haskins threw for 214 yards Sunday, but all but 81 of those yards and both of his touchdowns came after the Jets took a 34-3 lead. “Life is hard. I have to work harder,” Haskins said in a postgame news conference.

The only team with a worse record than Washington in the NFL are the 0-10 Cincinnati Bengals, whose best chance to win a game appears to be a 22 December game in Miami against the Dolphins, who have overcome an 0-7 start to win two of their last three. So Washington may not even get the No1 overall draft pick by tanking – and they have their future QB, anyway.

Washington thought they had a solid quarterback for the long haul when they acquired Alex Smith after the 2017 season in a trade with Kansas City. But Smith suffered a horrific leg injury last November after leading Washington to six victories in their first nine games. Washington have won two of 17 games since.

<span class="element-image__caption">Empty seats have been a reliable feature of Washington home games this season.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports</span>
Empty seats have been a reliable feature of Washington home games this season. Photograph: Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports

Smith hopes to return, but his career may be over, and Washington moved on accordingly by selecting Haskins in the first-round of this year’s draft. Football is cruel that way. But Washington added little in free agency other than safety Landon Collins, who could be seen slamming his hands against his helmet in disgust after the Jets took a 20-3 lead on Sunday.

“We had a fighting chance against the Jets, a team that’s trying to do the same thing we’re doing, trying to get a win,” Collins, a former Giants player, said after the game. “From that standpoint, [I’m] just kind of down because they’re a beatable team, and we didn’t come here with our A game and put our effort out on the field.”

Washington were cooked by the middle of the second quarter on Sunday. A roughing-the-kicker penalty on a Jets field-goal led to a New York touchdown, and a holding penalty and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty wiped out a 67-yard completion on the next possession. Washington converted an interception and a fumble into just one field goal.

Later in the quarter, the rookie wide receiver Kelvin Harmon killed a drive by retreating one yard behind the first-down marker to catch a pass from Haskins. Washington punted, and the Jets covered 82 yards in three completions to make it 20-3. Only a week earlier, the Jets had beaten the New York Giants (2-7) in a game that fans had billed as the Toilet Bowl.

As the Jets rolled it up, scoring their final touchdown two plays after Haskins threw an interception that was returned to the Washington five-yard line, the New York fans who were in the stands loudly did the “J-E-T-S!” chant. When Washington finally scored their first touchdown in 16 quarters, there was hardly anyone left in a stadium that was only half-filled to begin with.

Haskins will continue to be examined more closely than any of his teammates, but the Washington defense, thought to be a team strong point, is atrocious. Even after amassing 400 total yards in Sunday’s rout, the Jets are still the only NFL team with fewer yards gained than Washington this season. Washington are 22nd among 32 NFL teams in total defense.

Gruden, the younger brother of Oakland coach Jay Gruden, lasted for just over five years in Washington, longer than any head coach hired by Snyder – a group that includes Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, the beloved Joe Gibbs (who made an encore), Jim Zorn and Mike Shanahan. Now Snyder will have to do it all over again. But who would want the job now?

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