Among most of Washington's pro sports teams, misery loves company

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; D01

Bad times bring the truth to the surface. And that's good. The truth may not set you free, but if you are the Redskins, Wizards or Nationals, at least it might get you out of last place. No team wants to admit that it is a mess. No owner wants to confess that he has meddled too much or spent too little or trusted the wrong executives. No franchise wants to face that it's built a losing culture or pampered its big stars or that it simply has no identity. Nobody wants to say, "We failed."

However, in the past year, the Redskins, Nats and now the Wiz have all fallen so low, both in the standings and in their public misadventures, that they have become national jokes. Their hideous won-lost records -- 4-12, 59-103 and 12-23 -- have been surpassed by their off-field embarrassment.

As a result, cataclysmic changes, almost certainly for the better, have already shaken the Nats and Redskins. Vinny Cerrato and Jim Zorn are gone, replaced by Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan. Jim Bowden and Manny Acta have departed, too, replaced by Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman. In the glow of Shanahan's arrival and the busy offseason of Rizzo, it's hard to find a fan who doesn't think both shakeups are improvements.

Just as vital, both team's owners give hints that they may alter their ways. Like the billionaires they are, they never quite say, "I was wrong," but it looks like Dan Snyder may want to meddle less and Ted Lerner is willing to spend more. Keep it up, guys. It's a start.

The team that may already have changed its culture is the one that crashed first: the Nats. On Monday, President Stan Kasten said, "We were in it to the end" in the battle to land Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, who signed with the Reds for $30 million. The Nats offered more than $20 million for the 22-year-old southpaw.

"Too bad," one executive said. "Everybody here was excited about an '11 rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Chapman, Jordan Zimmermann, Jason Marquis and John Lannan."

Now, at least, the money allotted to Chapman can be used elsewhere.

A year ago, the Nats seemed moribund, almost disinterested in competing for talent. Now, though thwarted in last offseason's Mark Teixeira derby, they have signed free agents Adam Dunn, Marquis, Pudge Rodríguez and Matt Capps and gave Strasburg a record deal.

"This has been a good year for the franchise -- all of it coming out of bad things," Kasten said. "The Dominican [bonus kickback] scandal led to a whole new front office."

Few would prescribe scandal as medication for a bad team. Yet sometimes it works. With the suspension of Gilbert Arenas, who might never play here again, the Wizards and their (presumed) new owner Ted Leonsis face a similar top-to-bottom review.

Like Cerrato and Bowden, GM Ernie Grunfeld is now under heavy scrutiny. Two weeks ago, new Coach Flip Saunders said that nobody on his team could "guard anybody," not even the 54-year-old coach himself. Who assembled that roster? Ernie.

As The Post reported Sunday, in recent years the Wizards' top management, especially Grunfeld, tolerated outrageously inappropriate behavior by Arenas, including accounts that he defecated in a teammate's shoe as a "joke."

But the superstar indulgence went further. Just as Cerrato undermined Zorn's authority, just as Bowden injected bad actors with "tools" into Acta's clubhouse, so Grunfeld sided with Arenas, not coach Eddie Jordan, on matters of team discipline, leadership and Arenas's commitment to defense.

Sound familiar? The Redskins' highest-paid offensive and defensive players, Clinton Portis and Albert Haynesworth, were given special treatment, had access to the owner and knew that Cerrato had their backs.

Only when Portis's season was cut short by a concussion -- he rarely even interacted with the team after that -- did the Redskins play crisply and passionately for five weeks.

The Wizards might be the next team to get a boost to team chemistry by losing a coddled star. Without Arenas, they have split their past two games and discovered they have a natural eight-man rotation with a lineup of Brendan Haywood, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Mike Miller and Randy Foye, with Andray Blatche, Earl Boykins and Nick Young off the bench.

Based on their career stats, some with other teams, this group can probably score as much or more than the 102.6 points the Wizards averaged with Arenas. And they can't possibly play worse defense. The trade value of every Wizard is low because the team appears desperate. However, by the trade deadline in six weeks, the Wizards might be a .500 team without Arenas. So, don't rush. Find out what you're holding. Then make a deal if you want.

The Wizards will be fortunate if they make as much progress as the Redskins and Nats probably already have. In Shanahan, for sure, and in Rizzo, perhaps, those teams have found leaders who appear to have the two qualities most essential to a team builder. First, each has a simple idea of how the sport should be played, paving the way for his team to develop a clear identity. Second, each understands the role of individual character and group discipline.

Shanahan's 14 stellar offensive years in Denver are a testament to his belief that Job One is to build a fine offensive line. Then, you don't have to over-invest in a running back because he has proved he knows how to unearth 1,300-yard rushers later in the draft. Could any approach be a better fit for the current Redskins?

As for getting a franchise quarterback, just when the Redskins needed it most, they staggered into the No. 4 overall pick in a draft with four hot quarterback prospects. While they develop whomever Shanahan picks, they can keep restricted free agent Jason Campbell. If Campbell blossoms in 2010, fine. If not, you'll live.

The Redskins have tormented fans for most of the last 17 years; the Wizards, for 30. The Nats? In their fourth and fifth years in town, got worse when they should have been getting better.

Don't get excited too soon. Remember it took four years for the Capitals to rebuild with youth after blowing up Jaromir Jagr and the Underachievers. It's slow work, even with a good plan and the good fortune to have the top pick the year an Alex Ovechkin turns pro.

The bad times don't have to end. But they could. The uglier things get, the more radical the changes that are possible. When a franchise has gone past being merely "bad" into the twilight zone of national outrage or late-night farce, there's often light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, this time, for three miserable Washington teams, it won't turn out to be the traditional train.

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