Redskins, after 3-13 season, should avoid Snyder syndrome and temper expectations

Thomas Boswell
Columnist January 13

Every year, Daniel Snyder’s franchise inflicts the same unnecessary injury on itself during its delusion-drenched offseason. Some sell propaganda to others. The Snyderists inflict ideological obedience on themselves. As a result, month-by-month, we watch an insidious disease infect the team: The maximum plausible projection becomes the minimum acceptable outcome.

Every fan base leaps to embrace official team optimism. Quickly, the best that can be hoped somehow becomes the least that can prevent a purge.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Well-run teams try to reverse this process. Good news takes care of itself. The test comes with bad news. Snyder better prepare for a big exam.

After two years, Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn were 12-20 and gone. Mike Shanahan, who had won two Super Bowls elsewhere, was 24-40, the same .375 winning percentage, and was fired. So, two years from now, if Jay Gruden is 12-20, what will Snyder do? What will befall General Manager Bruce Allen, who handpicked Gruden?

Has Snyder chosen leaders he will stand behind, or is this just another lottery ticket, betting on the buzz, choosing the son of a Hall of Fame Washington coach and the brother of a coach who won the Super Bowl?

Keith McMillan explains what the creative play-caller will bring to Washington. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

What are the chances that, two years from now, Snyder will stare at a Spurrier- or Zorn-like record and have to decide whether to stand fast? The facts, please. All NFL teams that ever had Washington’s record last season — 3-13 — averaged a 13-19 record over the next two years. A lot like 12-20.

There were cheerful exceptions. Indy once flipped from 3-13 to 23-9 behind Peyton Manning. Allen and Gruden could be a magical combination. But in NFL history only one team in six that goes 3-13 has a winning record the next couple of years. All hands, lash to the mast.

If this tumultuous team, which sells hope and hype, produces decent but merely modest improvement, will its pattern of firings and roster demolition be repeated? We’re already seeing the first hints.

A couple of weeks ago, Washington was considered an NFL corpse, and thanks to the league’s second-worst record, a stinking corpse at that.

Then something amazing happened: In just 11 days, a time frame worthy of Genesis, this nationally mocked football farce fixed its problems.

First, they fired the bitter coach who’d spent weeks fragging the franchise quarterback. Then they promoted their general manager (career 55-73) to a new position: real general manager. “That power will be with me,” Allen said.

Next, Allen elevated the responsibilities of two talent evaluators who’d been on the premises the past several miserable seasons and had often been bypassed by Shanahan. Suddenly, they were exceptional and empowered.

Finally, they got Gruden, wouldn’t let him leave town for his next job interview — “How about a four-year contract? Five years? Stop us when we say your favorite number.” — whom they called their first choice all along. Yet, as appealing and widely praised as Gruden seems to be, he’s spent most of the past 25 years in the football minors and never ran a college or NFL team.

Now, the stage is set for a bad plot to repeat. Wait until the first post-salary-cap-penalty free agent is signed. Hallelujah!

Setting optimistic goals is great. As long as everybody knows there won’t be a massive purge if some more modest result arrives. Just once, can Washington avoid Snyder syndrome? If matching the worst D.C. record in 52 years doesn’t sober everybody up, if getting stomped by the widest margin in points since ’61 doesn’t act as a reality check, what will?

Perhaps only people who have been infected with Washington’s football virus know how this annual transformation from disappointment to fantasy takes place. As a native, I can already feel it. How do you hate hope?

Hiring Gruden was inspired in at least one way. He’s the anti-Shanny. He arrives as the indoor underdog, the Arena Football League Hall of Famer — all plucky, not Chucky. They say by 50 you get the face you deserve. Is there an opening for Shanny as the boatman on the River Styx? Gruden, 46, still looks like everyone’s kid brother. Whatever hard knocks he’s had, they haven’t bred a hard manner. Our Way Jay subbing for My Way Mike.

Yet I know that this response, to give this team a decent benefit of the doubt, is probably feeding the very disease that afflicts the whole franchise.

Excess optimism mixed with cynical merchandising optimism is a deep Snyder trait. Yet its roots are innocent. The owner is a local guy in a town that isn’t supposed to have such creatures. He grew up with a Redskins belt buckle. When rich, he bought the best object he could imagine: that team.

Snyder craves to win, and be approved, and pursues it the way he knows how: with money, wide-swaying emotion and hard demands. That’s made billions. How can it be wrong? So, he has little choice but to believe his own narrative. He cons himself. Then everybody around him has to buy in or clear out. At Redskins Park there’s usually a race to see if sycophants can chant, “We’re close!” before Snyder can say, “The talent is here, right?”

Once in a while, like the 2012 season, that best plausible outcome actually happens: an NFC East title. Instead of saying, we played well and deserved 10-6, but we were also fortunate in close games, in turnovers, whatever, the team’s stance was: We told you so. And the self-deception button hits reboot.

No team needs to think through the consequences of happiness. Good news may arrive at FedEx Field. Such things happen, especially when you have a 1,300-yard receiver, a 1,200-yard rusher, a gifted project quarterback and an energized coach with a fine offensive-theory pedigree that runs back to his dad (a Tampa Bay Bucs assistant coach) and through brother Jon, to whom he was connected by headset from the press box for seven years.

The 478-point defense, the even-worse special teams, the undersize offensive line, maybe they can jury-rig. Such things happen. But this team and its owner don’t need to foresee an easy future. The last time the team sank this low, the next two years they improved. And went 8-18-2.

The core criticism of Snyder is that he is an emotional fan who has never acquired the skill that separates good owners from bad — coping with tough times. He and his team should prepare for them, whether they arrive or not.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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