By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 25, 2006
Here in the shadow of the Arch, the Rams' home game Sunday was blacked out on local TV because it wasn't a sellout. At kickoff, barely half of the stands at Edward Jones Dome were filled. Nobody protested. Few cared, even though the Rams were still in the playoff picture. Thus, the Redskins got a perfect view on Christmas Eve of the best gift their franchise receives every year -- the undiluted, and perhaps to some degree undiscriminating, support of their enormous fan base.
The reason Washington remains an NFL economic powerhouse and a perennial threat to (someday) field a team worthy of its elephantine payroll is the rare combination of patience and enthusiasm shown by its supporters. Time magazine recently named "You" its person of the year, with a mirror on its cover. Now there's an idea for the '07 Redskins program -- especially after yet another brutal defeat, this time 37-31 in overtime.
In a season full of agonizing and often unnecessary defeats, including five losses by three points or less or in overtime, this game was as galling as any. The Redskins' secondary, hampered by injuries, now officially qualifies as pathetic after 388 passing yards by Mark Bulger on a day when the Rams had an avalanche of 579 total yards on offense. The reputation of Sean Taylor, in particular, as an efficient rather than merely violent tackler continues to erode. Two Rams scores, including the game-winning, 21-yard run by Steven Jackson, came after open-field whiffs by the dubious Pro Bowl alternate.
As unfairness would have it, the best surprise of the Redskins' season -- running back Ladell Betts -- was the game's goat on the same day he ran for 129 yards, tying a Redskins record by rushing for 100 yards for the fifth consecutive game and surpassing 1,000 yards (1,062) even though he has started only eight games while Clinton Portis has been injured. With 2 minutes 2 seconds to play in regulation, Betts broke a 25-yard run only to fumble when stripped by Oshiomogho Atogwe at the Rams 25-yard line.
But then, that's been the story of the Redskins' season: Just when they're on the verge of setting up a game-winning field goal, some kind of Oshiomogho happens.
The irony of this day was that Washington still cares far more about a team with no playoff chance and no Super Bowl win in 15 years than St. Louis does about a team that won the Super Bowl not quite seven years ago and started this game with its playoff hopes still alive. "We've had a tough year all the way across the board," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who seemed deflated, perhaps even dispirited for the first time in this 5-10 season. "I hate it for all of us, particularly our fans. They've done everything they can for us."
What a Christmas bummer for those on the Gibbs watch. A loss Saturday to the Giants would mean that, after three years of "rebuilding," he'd match Steve Spurrier's record in his final season.
"It's sad. We've got such faithful fans. They'll get on you a little after you lose, like they should. But they're right back with you the next week," fullback Mike Sellers said. "Here [in St. Louis] they got spoiled by 'The Greatest Show on Turf.' "
Hard as it seems to believe, St. Louis doesn't even yawn at the permutations that might still get the Rams into the playoffs. In front of The Ed, one lone fan handed out leaflets: "Rams Fans Stick By Their Team To The End." Out of pity, I took one, since nobody else would. In D.C., if the situation had been reversed, the Post might've had a special section: "Skins Still Alive: Exclusive Coverage Of 10-Game Parlay That Gets 'Em In."
At least Washington got to watch this game on TV, for what that's worth. None of the "g's" in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams's name will be mistaken for "genius" after this hideous track meet. He's chosen a high-risk, high-pressure scheme with personnel -- picked by him -- that produces little pressure and needs three takeaways next week to avoid having the lowest total (currently 12) in NFL history. He built the defense. Now it's broken.
The Redskins' 31 points will inspire optimism about quarterback Jason Campbell, some of it justified. His 13-for-26, 160-yard day with one touchdown and no interceptions wasn't bad. But aside from Chris Cooley (seven catches for 77 yards and a score), he hasn't gotten on a wavelength with any receiver. Of some concern, Campbell has only completed 50.6 percent of his 176 passes and his 73.0 passer rating trails that of Mark Brunell (86.5).
What's perhaps most remarkable about the Redskins is that, even at 5-10 with a project at quarterback, they'll still command attention in their final week of a dismal season. Most franchises can't imagine retaining rabid fan support after 14 years of mediocre football. Just look at the Rams. After a mere fraction of the disappointment Washington has endured in recent years, St. Louis has abandoned a franchise that only arrived here 12 seasons ago.
From '99 through '03, St. Louis averaged nearly 30 points a game for five years, went 56-24, won a Super Bowl and lost another. Yet St. Louis has turned its back on the Rams despite winning nearly the same number of regular season games in the last three full seasons as Gibbs -- 20 to 21. This game merely underlined that the Redskins' greatest asset in trying to rebuild a contender is not their offensive line or running backs. It's certainly not the club's ad hoc front office, dysfunctional without a general manager since 1999. And it's not even the genial grandfatherly coach on the sideline, presiding ever so gently over his astronomically paid college of coaches.
The key to the Redskins' future, as Gibbs often mentions, is the fanatical fidelity of their fans. They can criticize and scapegoat, of course. But that's their job. They foot the bills for payrolls that annually paper over the previous season's personnel gaffes. However, Washington's chorus of wailing comes without the undercurrent of destructiveness often found in other sports-addled towns on the East Coast.
In the spirit of the season -- Redskins season, that is -- fans will almost certainly overcome their irritation and forgive. This special dispensation has been in place since the '50s, when any peccadillo of quarterback Eddie LeBaron was endured because he was only 5 feet 7, right down to the seven seasons of public tolerance -- Lord, seven seasons -- for Norv Turner.
At times, this forbearance may undermine the Redskins. When this franchise fields under-motivated teams, Washington's football culture may not provide the swift kick the team needs. Nag, yes. Demand mass firings at dawn, seldom. Over the long haul, such patience is probably a civic virtue. No franchise, not even the Yankees, always wins. However, once a town, like Philadelphia, develops a generation-to-generation pattern of baiting and mocking its team, that tone of defeatism becomes a permanent anchor.
The Redskins never have to carry that extra dead weight. Since Sammy Baugh excited my dad in the '30s, right through George Allen to Gibbs, the Redskins have given Washington enormous satisfaction. Dry periods, like the current desert, have been worth enduring.
Even on days like this when the Redskins continue their season-long pattern of following every sign of progress with a setback, the team should give thanks that, whether it's been naughty or nice, that most of its loyal fans will show up at FedEx Field to hate the Giants.
As for the rest of you burgundy-and-gold followers who comprise the Redskins' 714-year season-ticket waiting list, you can watch Saturday night's sellout on that new TV from Santa you're probably unwrapping right now.