Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly says that a 73-0 loss by the Washington Redskins, in a 1940 game that remains the most one-sided contest in National Football League history, was to the New York Giants. The Chicago Bears defeated the Redskins in that game.

Once Solid, Redskins Fans' Affection Slips

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By Robert McCartney
Sunday, October 4, 2009

You'd hardly know it from all the moaning and hand-wringing triggered by the Redskins' loss last Sunday to the formerly hapless Detroit Lions, but it wasn't the worst defeat or lowest point in the Washington team's history.

The season is still young. It was an away game, where the opponent has an advantage. The Lions aren't a traditional rival in the Redskins' division, like the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles.

Nevertheless, the gloom and bitterness gripping Redskins partisans is the latest sign of a discouraging trend that has been underway for some time: a gradual erosion of the core of goodwill that has sustained the team's supporters through bad stretches.

Our region has long taken pride in the notion that Redskins fans are the most loyal and spirited in the National Football League, but that's just not credible anymore. Visiting adherents of the Pittsburgh Steelers showed more ardor than the Redskins crowd when the teams met at FedEx Field in Landover last season. Most telling, the hometown crowd booed the Redskins two weeks ago at the end of a victory over the St. Louis Rams.

You've got to be really annoyed to boo when you win.

Why has this happened? Too many years of mediocre records, compounded by unhappiness with owner Dan Snyder's management, have weakened the affection even of the most fervent supporters -- the kind whose enthusiasm for the Burgundy and Gold is based less on rational analysis than animal spirits.

It could all turn around if the team recovers and has a winning record this year, starting with a victory over the 0-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at FedEx Field. Right now, though, signs point to another disappointing season.

"They are losing my attention very quickly," fan Daniel Hendricks, 21, said Thursday at Blackfinn sports bar in Bethesda. Snyder "is alienating his fan base" by fielding a disappointing team and charging high prices for tickets, parking, beer and food, Hendricks said.

More than a dozen other Redskins supporters at the saloon echoed that view. Johanna Merryman, 37, of Germantown was one of several who said the change began in the late 1990s, when the Redskins left RFK Stadium and Snyder bought control of the team.

"We've been so bad since then, and everything costs so much," Merryman said. She and her family had season tickets at RFK but gave them up soon after the move to Landover.

The Redskins are "a subprime product at premium prices," Russell Chism, 30, of Silver Spring said.

Several people connected the decline in passion to what they described as a gentrification of the fan base. In this view, working-class people once took special pride in the team and its ethic when it featured a strong running game led by the linemen known as the "The Hogs." Now, however, high prices mean too many go to the game to talk business rather than cheer.

The Hogs "were down and dirty. That fit in perfectly with D.C.," said Hendricks, who works three jobs -- as a hotel valet, video store clerk and recreational baseball umpire. "The people who really make up D.C. are not the politicians and the lawyers, but the lower middle class. They're the ones who gave the Redskins a home-field advantage."

Gregg Tabachow, 32, of Silver Spring said the team is suffering because of high population turnover. "D.C. is an area of transients. You've got a lot of people who haven't been around for the RFK years, for the Super Bowls," he said.

The disaffection is evident on the Redskins' own official fan message board, http://extremeskins.com. When a participant appealed to others not to be so negative -- "Let's post some positives about this franchise" -- the responses were overwhelmingly sarcastic:

"They wear the same uniform as the team that won 3 Superbowls playing in RFK. They have a great band."

"Last year of [quarterback Jason] Campbell's contract."

"I can't think of anything. . . . . . i really tried, too."

Sports fans habitually grouse, and it's hard to tell how much the distress is hurting the Redskins' bottom line. The team says it sells out every game and still has a long waiting list for tickets. But my Post colleague James Grimaldi broke the story a month ago that the team has been selling some of those tickets to brokers for resale. (The Redskins say this violated team policy and has been halted.)

For all the grumbling, most fans I interviewed didn't think the loss to the Lions was the low point of their careers rooting for the Redskins. They nominated a number of alternatives, including a 27-0 shutout at home by the archrival Cowboys in 2003 and the 2007 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the first game following the tragic slaying of star safety Sean Taylor. Several offered some version of "any game when Steve Spurrier was coach."

None was old enough to remember the 73-0 drubbing by the Chicago Bears in 1940, which still holds the record as the most one-sided loss in the history of the entire league.

My own pick, influenced in part by the weather, was a 1997 loss in the team's first meeting with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens won 20-17 in the Redskins' first defeat at what is now FedEx Field (then called Jack Kent Cooke Stadium). I endured both heavy rain and the equally steady jeers of numerous, nearby Baltimore fans. Looking back, I see it was an omen.

Thank You, Mr. Snyder

Redskins Communications Director Zack Bolno confirmed my impression from the Rams game that the team was showing more replays on the JumboTron at games. "Fans asked, and we have added more replays," Bolno said. I can't help but note that my Aug. 2 column about the opening of Redskins training camp ended with an item about fans' desire for this change.

E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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