By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, December 3, 2005
Of the 28 teams in the NFL at the start of '93, how many have won fewer games than the Redskins the last 13 seasons?
Here's a hint. It's possible nobody in the whole Washington area will guess low enough. Although the farther you travel from this city, the more likely you are to get a realistic answer on how bad the Redskins have been and for how long.
The answer: two.
Of the teams that have been in operation for the last 13 years, only the Cincinnati Bengals (71) and Arizona Cardinals (73), two perennial joke franchises of the NFL, teams synonymous with ineptitude, have won even fewer games than the Redskins (85).
Two other clubs also have 85 wins in this period. These teams are the true comparables to the Redskins. Cover your eyes. They're the bag-over-your-head New Orleans Saints and the perennially dismal Detroit Lions, who fired another coach this week.
Let me read your mind. Since you're probably in denial (like me), your first reaction is, "But they're getting better now."
Sorry, they aren't. The Redskins have been even worse in the last four years (.390 winning percentage) than they were in the entire 13-season span (.421). If you're like me, you have to pick your jaw up off the floor after reading these numbers. I dug up this stat because I suspected the Redskins might be surprisingly bad. For the last decade, those who run the team, as well as those who root for it, have lived in a fantasyland, assuming that the team was just a new coach or a couple of players away from contending again. But I never dreamed the Redskins had fallen so far.
Almost everybody in this town, including me, has been judging this team with a warped yardstick for many years. That has ugly consequences. A bad team realizes that it will require considerable improvement just to become mediocre. To reach "good" and "very good," much less "great" is a long-term project. Yet, for at least the last 10 seasons, ever since Norv Turner's '96 team got back above .500 (9-7), Washington has expected that a return to Redskins glory was imminent.
With hindsight, it's fairly clear that the Redskins have never been more than "pretty good" at best since the 1981-92 Gibbs era. However, the team lives and works in a worshipful community that enables its delusions of grandeur. This creates unrealistically high expectations every season. No wonder we've seen years of bizarre behavior and precipitous decision-making.
As an extra twist, the Redskins' owner is perhaps the team's number one lifelong fan. No one believes the Redskins mythology, the conceit that the team is perpetually on the cusp of returning to the top, more than Daniel Snyder. His misperception of his team, viewing the franchise through love eyes like millions of others, has led him to fire coaches and (more important) blow up his entire roster several times. From Norv Turner to Marty Schottenheimer to Steve Spurrier back to Gibbs, the Redskins have never had consecutive coaches whose style of play or preference in personnel bore any resemblance to one other.
The process of seeing the Redskins more clearly and evaluating them in some sane, rather than instant gratification mode, can't start too soon. For example, the Redskins are about to play back-to-back games on the road against teams with losing records -- the St. Louis Rams (5-6) and the Cardinals (3-8). There is, as usual, plenty of misplaced optimism in Washington surrounding these imminent Redskins road adventures. Win these two games against "losers" and, who knows, Washington may be back in the playoff chase. On the fringes. If you squint and the light is just right. (Get out the Bandwagon.)
A reality check may be helpful. Since '92, Washington has played two or more consecutive games on the road 27 times. How often have the Redskins won two in a row away from home? Answer: three times. But they've lost back-to-back on 13 occasions.
Every act in the Redskins' world is measured against the three Super Bowl trophies that sit in the entrance of the team's complex. With time, they have become a curse. The Redskins have set their standards so high that you barely ever hear any reference to the '83 team that went 14-2 and scored 541 points but lost the Super Bowl. It's like they didn't quite measure up.
If few fans grasp how poorly the Redskins have played for the last 13 years, it's also likely that not many have a clear appreciation of just how abnormal the first Gibbs era was. The NFL now has 32 teams. So, on average, a franchise should win a Super Bowl every 32 years. Or roughly three times in a century. Gibbs won three Super Bowls in 12 seasons.
No wonder Redskins Mania has died so hard and done so much damage as it daunts and intimidates subsequent teams. Now, ironically, it is Gibbs himself who must coach in his own shadow and measure up to his own out-sized expectations. Those Gibbs Era memories are distorting our view again -- even of Joe.
Let's look at this '05 season with a different perspective. Under Spurrier in '03, the Redskins won five games and came within three points (or lost in overtime) in five others. They were outscored by 85 points. In other words, if they'd been really lucky, they could have gone 10-6 . Last season, under Gibbs, the Redskins won six games, came within three points in three others and were outscored by only 25 points. If they'd been really lucky, they could have gone 9-7.
This year, the Redskins have already won five games, come within three points (or lost in overtime) in four others and have been outscored by just seven points. If they'd been ridiculously lucky, they might be 9-2 now with five games to play.
This is not called failure. This is called progress.
No, it's not the kind of progress Redskins fans want. The team's 5-6 record is a reasonable measure of how they've played -- usually poorly when it has mattered most. But this season has also showed a new Redskins trait. Except for one game, the team has been competitive every week. And nine of the Redskins' 11 opponents currently have winning records. Not bad.
After narrow defeats the last three weeks, the Redskins, starting with Gibbs, have acted as if their world is a dismal place. On Sunday, they beat themselves up mercilessly with self-criticism, as I've heard them do countless times for many years. How could we lose? What's wrong with us? What'll the fans think? What'll the owner do? We're the Redskins. What a disgrace.
What a load.
Remember, excluding recent expansion franchises, only two teams in the NFL have won fewer games than the Redskins in the last 13 years. The Lions and the Saints are their peers. So, start small. Try to cope with a St. Louis team tomorrow whose starting quarterback will be a rookie from Harvard who was the 250th player picked in the draft and has played in one NFL game.
Sound easy? It won't be. Cut 'em some slack. After all, they're only the Redskins.