Wilbon on Redskins drama

November 21, 2013

(Awesome 1998 photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Michael Wilbon made an unscheduled appearance on ESPN 980′s The Sports Fix Wednesday afternoon. Why? Because he was so captivated by the latest circus-like drama that has descended upon Redskins Park.

“Redskins Crisis Radio is unlike anything else,” Wilbon told Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro. “I listen to all of the show every day during this Redskins Crisis Time, because it’s irresistible. It’s like, okay, what’s next? It’s such a drama.”

Two of us had different reactions to Wilbon’s thoughts, so we thought we’d have a brief debate. Or back-and-forth. Or dialogue. Whatever.

Here’s Wilbon:

“It’s something I learned from George Michael a long time ago. George would look at the ratings when we would do Redskins Report, which I was on for 16 years. And the ratings would SOAR when the Redskins had some calamity. When they would lose some game or be in some crisis, or be on the way to 6-10 with Norv, the ratings were higher after losses than after wins. And George would sit around and say, ‘This is insane. This doesn’t happen anywhere else,’ and George would study every market. And I’m from a place where when the Bears go south – and they could go south in a couple weeks – people turn their attention. They just go, ‘Okay, that was nice, but we got the Bulls and Blackhawks,’ and we just go to something else. That doesn’t happen here. People don’t go to something else. They just dwell in the misery of this…It’s gripping.

Dan Steinberg: Ok, some of this is hyperbole. Our Redskins web traffic was GREAT last December, as the team started winning every game. A 10-0 record would be boffo for the media in this town. A 10-0 record would crush everything else. But given the alternatives of a 3-7 circus and a 5-5 snoozefest, I think Wilbon is correct: calamity and misery is kind of interesting. Why? Like my man Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Fans relish in success, of course. But quotes about how “everyone’s doing their job,” and “we’re just a big family,” and “we weren’t going to settle for anything but a win” start to sound the same. Quotes of potential infighting and despair, on the other hand, have a way of remaining unique. So when you mix that with a town that’s singularly obsessed with its football team, a town with multiple daily newspapers and multiple sports-talk stations and countless bloggers and a history of drama, gripping seems like an accurate word. As Tolstoy further wrote later in the same novel, “when the train had finally started, it was impossible not to listen to the noises.”

Lindsay Applebaum: But how is that unique to D.C., which is what Wilbon is suggesting? Wouldn’t calamity be more interesting than .500 in any city? Either way, I didn’t have that experience of wallowing in the misery when I was growing up and going to Redskins games with my dad. After wins he would gleefully blast SportsTalk 980 the whole ride home; after losses, we’d sit in silence, or maybe listen to Bruce Springsteen or the Eagles (ugh) or something. Then we’d get home and my mom would ask, “Did you win the football?” So maybe my perspective on this makes it hard for me to judge.

Wilbon has lived here longer than I’ve been alive, so even if he’s not a Redskins fan, they permeate his sports world. And his job included wringing his hands over the Redskins for years and years. Does he have perspective? I would argue not. I don’t know, can we get some random, unaffiliated, NFL-obsessed media hound in South Dakota or something to weigh in?

Dan: That’s a fair point, but I feel like Redskins drama is magnified, for reasons I don’t understand. SportsCenter has had RGIII drama on blast for like six months. The Jaguars and Vikings and Falcons are all worse teams, and it doesn’t happen the same way. Or maybe it does, and I just ignore it. Also, I know how old you were; your dad wasn’t listening to a lot of victory discussions when you were growing up.

Kevin Sheehan:

In so many ways this is like a college sports town, it’s like an SEC college football town. And in so many ways we’re lucky, because there are sports-talk show hosts in markets where no team in the market is passionately followed. And in this town, this team is insanely passionately followed. I personally feel like if they were to win big, it would be just as big. But you’re right, if they lose big or if there’s a lot of drama around anything, you could do it nonstop.

Dan: Just to add one more thing: as Sheehan suggested, these rules do not apply to other D.C. sports teams. If the Caps are great then people care; if they’re an imploding mess, people don’t. Same for the Wizards. Same for the Nats. Same for D.C. United and Georgetown and Maryland. For those teams, wins are like water in a desert, and internal drama is like burying a few ice cubes in a mound of sand: irrelevant.

Lindsay: I think the takeaway from this discussion is going to be that there are only two things that D.C. sports fans talk about: 1) the Redskins; and 2) Michael Wilbon’s opinions about how D.C. sports fans talk about the Redskins.

Wilbon:

“I think this is the only place where the quarterback, whoever that person is, is bigger than the coach in terms of the daily discussion….I think this is the only place where that happens in the NFL. Maybe it happened in Denver because of John Elway and then you have Manning years later, so maybe Denver now, we could group them and Washington gets some company. But I don’t know anywhere where every single thing the quarterback does, no matter who the quarterback is, is bigger than the coach. I mean, Mike Shanahan’s going to the Hall of Fame. There is no question. Absolutely. Two Super Bowls. I think Mike Shanahan goes to the Hall of Fame….And I think he deserves to go to the Hall of Fame. But in most other markets, the people would dwell on that. The number one topic would be that….[Here], it’s No. 2. It’s a clear No. 2 behind RGIII. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s an observation of where we are vs. any other place.”

Dan: Having lived in few other places, I can’t speak to this for sure. Rex Grossman was never bigger than Shanahan. Todd Collins was surely never bigger than Gibbs. So I think he’s over-simplifying. But yes, RGIII is bigger than Mike Shanahan. It’s the socks, and the hair, and the Subway ads, and the Adidas ads, and the Gatorade ads, and the ESPN documentary, and the Heisman, and the trademarks, and the Unbelievably Believable, and the No Pressure No Diamonds, and the social media explosions every time he sets foot in public, and the text messages to national TV hosts, and the books, and the smile. His personality — and his long-term importance to the franchise — dwarfs that of Shanahan. And history suggests that this isn’t a new thing. Sonny and Billy had bumper stickers. Theismann became a national media star. Sonny became a local radio star. Redskins fans remain more interested in Jason Campbell and Donovan McNabb and even Heath Shuler and Patrick Ramsey than in Jim Zorn or Steve Spurrier.

Lindsay: Again, this really isn’t unique to D.C. It may be unique to Wilbon’s Chicago, where they’ve never really had a quarterback to talk about. But in most cities, the quarterback is always bigger. Did Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips or now Jason Garrett ever overshadow Tony Romo? Whose name appears in more headlines in Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger or Mike Tomlin? Can anyone remember who Peyton Manning’s coach was after Tony Dungy? Can Peyton Manning even remember? Tim Tebow even managed to be a bigger story with the Jets than Rex Ryan. Rex Ryan!

Wilbon:

“So do I expect Robert to handle this flawlessly at 23 years old? No I don’t. I expect this stuff is gonna happen some more. Because of just what you said: it’s the nature of the position here.”

 Dan: I agree.

Lindsay: I believe it was your man Tolstoy who said, “No pain no gain / Though it hurt I won’t quit yea / And if I’m on one leg I’m a still be here all year won’t sit / Stand tall for the whole team / Work hard when its dark keep focused / See the odds keep dodgin them all if you fall go harder / Cuz you here for a purpose.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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Dan Steinberg | November 21, 2013