2012 in D.C. pro sports: For all its thrills and heartbreak, a tough year to top
By Mike Wise,
There is no one to skewer today — no coach, player or team to fillet. Even the woeful Wizards feel like less of a target and more like the relative in recovery that you pray for but don’t yet allow back to holiday gatherings until they sober up.
With 2013 closing in, with days before a win-or-go home, NBC-In-Da-House, Redskins-Cowboys game at FedEx Field, let’s pause for a moment to commemorate the thrill ride experienced the past 12 months.
Okay, great. Now back to all RGIII, all the time.
There is, of course, no renaissance to speak of among District-represented pro teams if not for the late-night deal brokered in March by Mike “I Told You My Way Was the Right Way” Shanahan for the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft that became Robert Griffin III — who, in just 14 dizzying games, has become the primary answer to Washington’s legitimacy as a bona fide sports town.
But for all the Merry Griffmas mania, the Bryce-is-Naughty-and-Nice hyperbole and the debate over one golden, if surgically repaired, young arm, the guy who got 2012 rolling in earnest was the furthest thing from a kid.
A codger named Davey, pushing 70, kick-started the whole thing in February.
Remember Davey Johnson, answering a Comcast SportsNet question by saying he would in fact be disappointed if the Nationals didn’t make the playoffs in 2012? And that if a team that had lost a combined 205 games in 2008 and 2009 and had never been to the postseason didn’t make it,“you know, and they can fire me.”
After a jolting ride that came within a strike of the National League Championship Series, the Nationals re-upped their soon-to-be-70-year-old manager for one year. Davey promptly raised the bar again this month, telling audience members as he accepted an award from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, “Next year is going to be my last year and I’m going to go out with my fourth World Series ring.”
What drama, no? For the first time in forever it seems every big-revenue sports team in this town but the Wizards will enter next season as a genuine championship contender. The worry is no longer when the Nats and Redskins will get it together but instead whether they can beat the Caps to the city’s first major pro team championship since 1992.
Most people who witnessed the Redskins’ last Super Bowl would discount any year ending in a loss as coming up short on the all-time list. The logic being that no matter how special the Nats were in their breakout season, no matter how scintillating RGIII’s high-stepping down the sidelines looked in slow motion against the Vikings, no one raised the grail.
Fine, but finding a year with more headlines, finding a 12-month journey with just as much euphoria as mind-numbing pain, will be tough.
From incredible high to gut-wrenching low, at the least 2012 has tested the nerves of the Washington sports fan.
After Davey’s dare in February, March 9 goes down in history — the night that mock drafts featuring Ryan Tannehill or Justin Blackmon going to Washington at No. 6 didn’t matter anymore. Shanahan bet the house on Griffin, moving up to secure the No. 2 pick in a deal that featured three first-round picks shipped to St. Louis.
Then came the Capitals battling themselves and Dale Hunter’s defensive-oriented system for months, finally getting their act together in the final weeks of the NHL season to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Joel Ward’s Game 7 overtime goal against the Bruins was pure bedlam. It silenced Boston and improbably sent the Caps to the second round against the Rangers, where . . .
They suffered an unthinkable loss at Madison Square Garden in Game 5, a poke-through-the-pads goal allowed in the final second. They rallied in Game 6 at home only to lose another pulsating finale on the road.
Then, of course, Hunter quit after less than a year, Adam Oates was hired, and the moment hockey reeled in everyone again it got in its own way with another labor war that threatens a full season for the second time in just eight years.
The Nationals’ very special season featured Bryce Harper coming up from the minors early, sprinting out foul pop-ups as if he were bolting from first base on a two-out, two-strike pitch, and comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle and the greatest teens to play Major League Baseball. There was an argument for the ages of whether the brightest young arm in the game should be shut down before the postseason a year after his elbow ligament in his throwing arm was reconstructed — a debate that conveniently left out Stephen Strasburg’s opinion.
And, finally, just about the most emotionally grueling 30 hours in October any pacemaker could take.
One night, ecstasy: Jayson Werth depositing a walk-off home run beyond the left-field fence, extending the season to a decisive Game 5 against the Cardinals.
The next night: agony — oh, the agony. The Cardinals were left for dead, buried at 6-0, Nationals Park agog with noise. Bruce Bochy, the manager of the San Francisco Giants, confessed later that his team had their itineraries set for Washington and their scouting reports on the Nats’ finished and filed.
But then the ninth inning happened. Drew Storen, armed with a 7-5 lead, could not close. In 13 pitches, he held a two-strike, two-out count but somehow gave up four runs and the season in easily the most emotionally crushing ending anyone could remember.
Whatever rite of passage baseball had to go through to once again embed itself in Washington’s heart, it did so that night.
Lastly, the Redskins and RGIII did their part, taking the baton and sailing around the backstretch of the year.
The impossibly high expectations for Griffin were actually realized — in his first game! Carving up the Saints in a playoff atmosphere in New Orleans, the kid arrived with a bang.
But that debut and more highlights would be followed by defensive misery, more galling losses and the three faces of Shanahan: good Shanny, bad Shanny and beet-red, evaluation-mode Shanny.
Yet with the season’s relevancy in doubt, the coach and his option-read quarterback faked out their NFC East rivals with a deceptive shell game, one that amounted to 69 points in back-to-back wins over the Eagles and Cowboys and, more important, a renewed sense of purpose in the team’s final seven games.
If they pull this surreal run off, beat Dallas, win their final seven games and the division and host just the second playoff game of the Daniel Snyder ownership era, RGIII and friends might just make this the most memorable sports year ever in Washington.
As a massive “Sunday Night Football” telecast nears, it has to be asked:
Can Griffin and the Redskins cleanse the wounds of all those psychologically scarring losses of years past this holiday season? In the month that celebrates Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the birth of the baby Jesus, can we be delivered by Touchdown Threesus?
Bigger question yet: Is this all a tremendously corny reach? Most certainly.
But, hey, if the kid somehow does perform another on-field miracle, doesn’t this at the least all have to go down as Shanahan’s Immaculate Perception?
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.