Ex-Redskins Make Waves on Airwaves
Criticism From Former Players Cuts Deep
Sunday, November 16, 2008; Page D01
Rain fell on the Washington Redskins during practice Thursday afternoon, when players trudged through the least glamorous portion of a week that culminates with tonight's game against the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL's featured matchup. During those hours the Redskins toiled, a voice thundered through the radios in the cars of sports fans throughout the region.
"This is a pivotal week," Rick "Doc" Walker said into the microphone. "For all that we've invested in, they've invested in, it comes down to the next three weeks. For all that pressure, someone's got to have the game of their life."
The game of Walker's life, whatever it was, came at least two decades ago, back when he actually was a member of the Redskins and not a radio host offering commentary on his old team on ESPN 980, an outlet purchased by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder in June. In the hours that followed Walker, former Redskin Brian Mitchell appeared in his own regular slot, alongside former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, helping interview former Cowboys star Tony Dorsett. Mitchell's last year as a Redskin was 1999, his last in pro football 2003.
"When I first got to the Redskins," Mitchell said during his conversation with Dorsett, speaking about team leaders, "it was the guys who had been here, the guys who had done it."
The list of former Redskins whose voices float through the airwaves or into TV sets during a typical week of the football season -- recalling the good ol' days while critiquing the current team -- includes Hall of Famers (Sam Huff, Sonny Jurgensen, John Riggins), kick returners (Mitchell), first-round draft picks (LaVar Arrington), general managers (Charley Casserly) and, of all things, long snappers (Trevor Matich).
Toss in a stray appearance from Joe Theismann or Dexter Manley or Ken Harvey or Charles Mann, and the current players have almost no escape from the analysis of the guys who used to wear burgundy and gold.
"It's kind of weird, especially if it's a guy you played against or with," Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said. "You expect most of the time for them to kind of have a better understanding of what you're going through, maybe give you a little more sympathy than somebody that never played the game.
"You start wondering, 'Was he made to say that, or did he just say it himself?' . . . That can start bitter relationships."
It is hardly unusual for former players to transition into post-retirement roles as analysts. Indeed, the current Cowboys are scrutinized each week by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, who hosts a radio show in Dallas, and their games are called on the radio by Babe Laufenburg, a former quarterback. But the environment in Washington, the nation's ninth-largest media market, is particularly intense for a variety of reasons, ranging from the number of voices to the popularity of the team, which is unrivaled among local franchises. And at any Redskins game, amid the jerseys fans wear to support the current players, there are a few No. 44s for Riggins, a few No. 9s for Jurgensen. The past colors the present each Sunday at the stadium, and each week over the airwaves.
"Their criticism is somewhat based in the fact that they still have a fondness for that uniform and that team," said Bruce Gilbert, the chief executive of Red Zebra Broadcasting, Snyder's media arm. "They really want them to win. They're harder on the player than that average Joe would be.
"To me, there's value in that. It creates -- at all times, 24/7 -- factual-based opinions that are polarizing. That is, after all, what we're trying to be: polarizing."
That, then, matches the results in the NFL. In no American pro sport does each game mean as much. Win, and the chatter for a full week is generally positive. Lose, and the next game becomes Armageddon.