The Washington Redskins are 10-3. Only one team in the entire NFL -- just one of 28 -- has a better record. The Washington Redskins are division champions, and have just finished beating three straight bitter rivals. In almost every other city in the country such a team would be hailed.
A peculiar combination of the skittish way the Redskins have been winning, a lingering poststrike bitterness fans still feel, and the great expectations everyone -- players included -- holds for this particular Redskins team has resulted in a creeping malaise.
Everything about the Redskins' season is being questioned:
Are they winning by big enough margins?
Are they beating anyone of consequence?
Are they starting the right quarterback?
Are they playing the right running back?
"To be honest with you, everything I hear and read about us is negative," Rich Milot said after the Redskins hung on to defeat a dispirited Dallas team. Milot seemed more depressed than angry. "In the past everyone rallied behind a 10-3 team. But this year nothing we do is right," he said. "We win, but people want to know why we aren't dominating. For weeks all anybody talked about was the quarterback controversy." Milot shrugged his shoulders. "It used to be that beating Dallas was something to celebrate. Now people say the rivalry isn't the same so it doesn't count as much. You know, since the strike everyone looks at things from a negative standpoint. I don't think we've won the fans back yet, I really don't."
There is most definitely a different feel about the Redskins this year, due in large measure to the strike. Milot's right: The fans haven't fully come back yet. Physically they're in the stands, but emotionally they're saw-toothed and mean. Comparisons continue to be made between the union and replacement teams. The further from the strike we get, the more fanciful these comparisons become. Many fans cling to the banner that the current Redskins are interlopers who owe everything to the plucky replacements.
There's a palpable sense of resentment toward the players. It's as if they are strictly gladiators now, irrevocably defined by salary and politics. Much of the human bond between fans and players is gone, replaced by a blood lust that these Redskins are not satisfying.
Charles Mann conceded, "They boo at the drop of a hat now. It's quite loud, and it's quite quick. One overthrown ball by Jay and they go nuts." Mann agreed with Milot's characterization that it has essentially been "a negative season," and suggested, "Maybe people are expecting too much from us. It seems the only way to please them is to win so decisively that it's obvious we kicked peoples' behinds." Like Milot, Mann was disturbed by the standoffish reaction to a 10-3 team. Great expectations are not woven of thin air. Questions about the team's ability persist even after victories. "The way people talk it doesn't even sound like we won," Mann said, flabbergasted. "We win. Isn't that the bottom line? Maybe our great success in 1982 and 1983 spoiled the fans. Maybe it spoiled us, too."
The Redskins haven't had to play a big game or a hot team all season. Only one of their previous opponents, the Jets, took a winning record into the game. Even so the Redskins still haven't been dominant. Toss out the strike games and the Buffalo game, which in context appears to be an anomaly, and what have you got? Can you spell "lackluster," boys and girls? They beat the Jets by one, the (2-6) Lions by seven, the (3-6) Giants, with a spectacular second half, by four, the (5-6) Cardinals, thanks to another fine close, by 17, and the (5-7) Cowboys by four -- not to mention losses to the (3-4) Eagles and (2-7) Rams.
The sense around town is that this 10-3 is as soft as goose down, that these Redskins performances are as incomplete as the repairs on I-270.
Milot and Mann both recalled seasons when it seemed the fans weren't nearly so critical. "I'm not condoning winning by a point or two, because you want to be dominant," Milot said. "But in the Super Bowl year we won by one and two points also and nobody criticized us. The enthusiasm was there. I'd like to see this whole negative atmosphere change. I don't understand it. We're winning. It's a lot better than losing. Don't people realize that?"
The other side of midnight for the Redskins, is Dallas. There, the strike fractured the team. There, fans became so complacent about winning that they now hoot the regulars -- even the strikebreakers -- and coo love songs to the replacements. There, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history is told by a man who bought the team 30 minutes ago, that his play calling is "horrifying." There, dogs howl at the moon.
Here, the strike simply drained the blood from the season. The Redskins resurfaced with a cushion too large to climb. Their alleged challengers quickly fell on their swords. Since the strike, there's been no motivation for the Redskins. No dire circumstances for what Darryl Grant proudly calls "a team of extreme urgency." Someone left the NFC East on broil all night. It's the only division with four teams under .500.
The Redskins are winning in a vacuum.
If this is progress, it's hard to judge how much.
The players are chagrined, the fans are skeptical and in this weightlessness, we tumble along together.