The masses of burgundy jerseys — John Riggins and Art Monk for the old-timers, Brian Orakpo, Chris Cooley and Santana Moss for the kids — would indicate that this is just like any other year at Redskins Park. The loyalists showed up by the thousands Saturday afternoon at the team’s Ashburn training facility for its annual fan appreciation day, and when Coach Mike Shanahan finished off his brief remarks to the crowd with the decades-old catch phrase “Hail to the Redskins!”, he was drowned out by cheers.
“I’ve always said this,” Shanahan told the crowd. “Talk is cheap. You’ve got to do it on the football field.”
The group Shanahan will try to do it with on the field is decidedly different from last season, and so many seasons in the Redskins’ past. A year ago at this time, Washington was abuzz with the arrival of new quarterback Donovan McNabb, a six-time Pro Bowler whose face adorned the sides of Metrobuses in the District. Shanahan, who twice won Super Bowls in Denver, put his stamp on his new franchise in part by engaging pricey defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth in a daily battle over the player’s physical fitness and role on the defense.
That distraction played out on the tickers at the bottom of television screens across the country. The Redskins made news, and lots of it.
Now? McNabb, benched during the season, and Haynesworth, suspended at the end of it, have both been traded away. Shanahan is settling in to what is a major rebuilding process. And that strange sound emanating from Redskins Park is relative silence.
“It’s quiet, so quiet,” said Orakpo, the star outside linebacker who is entering his third season. “We’re reloading, but we’re doing it quietly. That’s how it needs to be, man. We had so much drama in D.C. before, this method I think is going to be beneficial for us in the long run.”
The Redskins find themselves trying to reshape the way they run their operation while simultaneously retaining the fan base the club has long described as among the most loyal in the league. They have appeared in the playoffs just twice in 11 seasons, and this offseason they removed seats from FedEx Field, which club officials say is “on target” to be sold out again this year.
They are, too, in a bit of an odd spot: A franchise that has so frequently been lambasted for bringing in high-profile players only to have them fail made no such splash this offseason. So, then, how do they generate buzz around a roster that hasn’t created much?
“The Redskins, if they have some success, then that’ll help,” said Stephen Master, vice president of Nielsen Sports, which charts the marketability of athletes and sports franchises. “But if you don’t have a high-profile guy, and you haven’t had success, you don’t have much to sell.”
Mitch Gershman, the Redskins’ chief operating officer and longtime marketing guru, declined to comment for this story. Team spokesman Tony Wyllie said the club did not build a marketing strategy around particular players this offseason because of the uncertainty created by the NFL lockout, which ended late last month. The team’s season tickets were printed with images of great players from the past.
“Historically, the Redskins fan — our loyal and strong fan base — love the team,” Wyllie said. “You can’t say John Riggins without the Hogs. Our fan base loves the Redskins. That’s what we want, to market the team, the franchise, the storied history.”
Judging by Nielsen’s rankings of players’ marketability, that is the Redskins’ best bet. Master said the company uses three factors — awareness, appeal and personality attributes — to come up with “N-scores” for athletes nationwide. McNabb, long a marketing juggernaut during his career in Philadelphia, ranked fourth among football players nationally headed into last season.
With McNabb gone, the Redskins have no one who resonates nationally. The NFL said the jerseys of Orakpo and Cooley rank in the top 100 in sales since April, but neither is among the top 25 best-selling.
Nielsen also compiles regional data, and for that purpose Washington is combined with Baltimore in one market. The most recent ratings for the Baltimore-Washington area are from last fall. The top Redskin on the list: Joe Gibbs, the Super Bowl-winning coach who retired after the 2007 season. Four other retired Redskins (Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann, Darrell Green and Riggins) and three Baltimore Ravens appear on the local rankings before the first current Redskin, Cooley, the stalwart tight end.
“Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder,” said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, the MVP of last season’s Pro Bowl. “No, we don’t have Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and all these flashy Twitter people that got a million followers and all this. But that ain’t going to win us no games.”
For many of the fans who showed up Saturday, waiting through some brief rain showers for post-practice autographs and photos, the shift from popularity contest to a new way of running the team is promising.
“They’ve been very low-key,” said David Wilson, 35, who was born and raised in the District. “The attention’s more on practice and fundamentals. It’s a different feel, a different vibe, and that’s great.”
“I give it two more years,” said James C. Scott, who came from La Plata with his father, James L. Scott, and 4-year-old son A.J., all wearing Redskins jerseys. “He’s doing things slowly, building. Any one bad apple in the bunch ruins it for everybody. We didn’t need those bad apples.”
Saturday afternoon, as he signed autographs for fans, Shanahan was asked, “Who’s the quarterback going to be?” One fan looked directly at the coach and said, “If y’all beat anybody, beat Dallas. Please. Please.”
Those questions and refrains could have been from nearly any year in the past. Instead, they came during a preseason in which the Redskins are scarcely in the news, which is just fine with them.
“It just feels normal,” Hall said. “I think everybody made a big deal about all those other headlines from the past. To me it just feels like football. The storyline is the scheme, the guys, the new additions. It’s not what scandal is going on. That’s what you need. It’s welcome.”