After a lost season, Washington Redskins can only look forward

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010; A01

SAN DIEGO -- There were pockets of Washington Redskins fans here Sunday, groups dressed in jerseys from the past, those of players such as John Riggins and Darrell Green, remembering better times. In the warmth and relative comfort of Southern California, they watched their team provide a forgettable finish to a forgettable season, a 23-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers, another game the Redskins led late and frittered away.

At the conclusion of the season, the franchise's reality is clear: Nationally, the once-prominent Redskins became something of an afterthought, and even the dismissal of Coach Jim Zorn -- expected to be finalized Monday -- won't instantly change that.

Those fans who traveled here -- and tens of thousands back in Washington -- must now put behind a season that quickly became little more than a series of indignities and embarrassments. The result: four wins in 16 games, the fewest in the last 15 years. A step back reveals a more systemic problem: In the 11 seasons of owner Daniel Snyder's stewardship, the Redskins have posted winning records just three times.

"There's gonna be change," Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "We know that."

But before the full sweep of that change begins, a review is in order, because this season caused unusual despair among fans, coaches and players alike. That it ended as it did Sunday -- with the Redskins drawing a false-start penalty when they might have scored a game-sealing touchdown, then dropping what would have been a game-sealing interception, then allowing the go-ahead score with 35 seconds to go -- was at the very least fitting.

"Interesting," Zorn called the season. "To say the least."

Others might choose different adjectives. The Redskins have long boasted about their devout fan base, a group that handed down tickets from generation to generation. That fan base, though, grew so restless by the second week of the season that it booed the team off of FedEx Field following an ugly 9-7 victory over St. Louis.

Who knew, at that point, that such a victory would be something of a high point? A week later, the Redskins lost to Detroit, which had lost 19 straight games. By that juncture, Zorn's future was tenuous at best, the subject of weekly speculation, and fan unrest only increased. The targets of most of the ire usually went beyond Zorn and directly to Snyder and his chief football lieutenant, Vinny Cerrato.

The frustration was visible at home games, even without the booing, because many fans took to making signs to express their feelings. That is, until the team developed a policy banning such signs. When fans grew furious at that development, the Redskins' front office relented. Signs reappeared, Snyder and Cerrato were frequent targets, and the team continued to struggle.

What followed, though, might have been worse than rage: disinterest. The Redskins have sold out every game in the history of FedEx Field, which opened in 1997. But with any promise for the season gone by the end of October -- the Redskins started 2-6 -- banks of empty seats appeared in the upper deck for games against Denver and New Orleans, tickets that were sold but unused. When the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys arrived for December matchups that, at points in the past, might have been key games to determine playoff berths, opposing players boasted of how their fans overtook the huge bowl. The Redskins could no longer hear their own fans boo, because the visiting fan bases cheered so loudly.

"Never been through a season like this," special teams captain Rock Cartwright said Sunday evening.

Some of that was due to what went on within the club. In early 2008, Snyder and Cerrato hired Zorn because of his offensive acumen. But early in the season, the offense looked to be one of the worst in the National Football League. What followed was the move that brought the Redskins their most attention nationally. On Oct. 6, Cerrato announced the hiring of retired assistant coach Sherman Lewis -- who most recently was calling bingo games at a Michigan retirement center -- to serve as an offensive consultant. When the offense continued to struggle in losses to Carolina and Kansas City -- neither of which had won a game at the time the Redskins played them -- Cerrato told Zorn that Lewis would take over play-calling duties.

The transfer of that job not only stripped Zorn of some of his power and authority, it created a system in which as many as three coaches were involved in selecting plays and relaying them to quarterback Jason Campbell.

"I'd never heard of anything like that," veteran defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth said.

By December, Snyder began the changes that seem sure to continue this week, and perhaps beyond, by accepting Cerrato's resignation. He immediately hired Bruce Allen, son of the legendary Redskins coach George Allen, to serve as the team's general manager. Prior to Sunday's game, Snyder stood with his newest hire on the field at Qualcomm Stadium. Zorn stood 15 yards away, watching his team go through warmups. In the past, Zorn might have chatted with Snyder at midfield, looking around an opposing stadium, fidgeting away the minutes before a game. Sunday, they did not talk.

Zorn, too, would not discuss his future, even as his own coaching staff prepared for their dismissal. In his postgame news conference, he spoke for more than 10 minutes about preparing for the offseason, about thanking his team for playing hard, about the stuff that coaches who go through normal seasons talk about.

"I'm still reeling from this loss," Zorn said. "Anything that I say about what my future might be here would just be babbling along."

An unusual way to conclude an unusual season. And as Zorn left the stadium for an overnight flight home, he too understood there was one more development to come.

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