Every defeat for the Washington Redskins has been doubly bitter because the return of Joe Gibbs as head coach was so splendidly unexpected and, inevitably, raised such enormous and apparently unrealistic hopes.
However, Washington's 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last night at FedEx Field was especially demoralizing because the Ravens have, in recent years, come to represent so many attractive qualities that the Redskins conspicuously lacked.
Like so many things, that was supposed to change with Gibbs's arrival. But it hasn't. Add another disappointment to what has already become an extremely long early-season list of travails. Both teams entered this night with deep doubts about the direction of their seasons. Now, the two have clearly diverged -- the Ravens headed up, the Redskins spiraling down.
The Ravens (3-2) have all their hopes intact after coming back from a 10-0 deficit. The Redskins, with all of their hardest opponents still ahead of them, are painfully close to losing any realistic playoff chance.
How long will it be before the Redskins, despite their enormous payroll, famous coaches and obvious talent, are reduced to merely hoping to improve on last season's 5-11 record? The hard truth is that the Redskins have won only three of their past 17 games.
"It's a miserable situation," Gibbs said after the game. "I think we're a good football team . . . I believe it. But we'll see. You've got to make it happen . . . I feel bad for the guys."
Gibbs's history, as well as the Redskins' narrow margins of defeat, give some weight to his optimism. But it is also true that a bad team finds new ways to lose each week. And that is a pattern that haunted the Redskins for most of the 11 years that Gibbs was gone. He may not yet sense how deeply ingrained the habits of defeat have become. On this night, the Redskins faced a team that sometimes seems capable of scoring only with its defense or its special teams. So, how did the Ravens score? On a 78-yard punt return and a 22-yard fumble recovery.
For the Ravens, a team virtually bereft of an NFL quality quarterback, to administer this blow is particularly galling. To much of America, and especially to those within the NFL, the Ravens are paid the compliment of being the anti-Redskins. Every regional NFL rivalry offers contrasts between the teams. But the Redskins and Ravens, based just 40 miles apart, provide juxtaposition so stark as to be positively startling.
Gibbs's return as coach offered hope that the Redskins could reclaim some of the dignity in the standings, as well as class off the field, that characterized his previous Hall of Fame era as coach. In those days, no one would have dared to claim that the Redskins were the slightest embarrassment to their city when compared to any other franchise. Why, the Redskins and their followers felt free to look down their noses even at "America's Team" in Dallas.
Yet, in recent seasons, the Redskins have bordered on being a national NFL punch line to endless jokes about meddling ownership, overpaid but under-motivated players and perennially exaggerated preseason hype. To make the wisecracks all the more painful, many in the NFL pointed up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the Ravens as an example of a team that didn't need to fire a coach per season or sign free agents as though the NFL were a fantasy league to win a Super Bowl.
Yet, with Gibbs's return and the Ravens enduring a rebuilding period, Washington entered this game as a minuscule favorite. If the Ravens craved a victory, the Redskins wanted it desperately, especially owner Daniel Snyder.
No two young owners could be more different than the dapper, ever-formal suit-and-tie Snyder, 39, and the Ravens' informal burly Steve Bisciotti, 44, who may not own a tie and wears sandals to practice. Snyder grew up in suburban Washington, his knack for making money appearing in his teenage years. At that age, Bisciotti was more likely to be using a sledgehammer as a lowly assistant helping to build piers and docks in Annapolis for his summer spending money.
Both are self-made Marylanders who came from the middle class and have strong family values. Both are charitable, passionate about their hometown teams, and are as interested in winning games for their fans as in making a profit. However, Bisciotti's style plays directly to the country's populist taste.
From the moment he bought into the Ravens the understated Bisciotti said that, even though he played high school football, he knew nothing about the NFL game. So, he assigned himself a four-year education to learn the sport under former Ravens owner Art Modell. When Bisciotti finally took active control of the Ravens this season, the transition was so quiet many didn't know it happened.
During the same four-season period that Bisciotti was learning, Snyder took control and -- to his misfortune -- began making decisions immediately. He had advisers. But he made the major calls. In retrospect, he made such a mess of the team that by the end of '03 (5-11), it was in internal disarray. Coach Steve Spurrier quit, perplexed by the NFL but also flummoxed by the pressures and Byzantine machinations of Snyder World at Redskins Park.
The contrasts between the franchises started at the top but run through every aspect of the organizations. Management and front-office turnover with the Ravens is minimal and a family atmosphere prevails. Failure is more likely to be analyzed than assigned; finding scapegoats is avoided. To visit Redskins Park is to discover that yet another public relations director has just left or that Bobby Mitchell has retired amid bad feelings.
As for young players, the Ravens draft many with the idea of giving them a couple of years to develop. The Ravens try to amass a nucleus of stars. But they would prefer to develop their role players from within their system. As a result, their special teams tend to be deep and strong, as was evidenced again last night on the game's winning touchdown.
However, the Ravens have flaws, especially in quarterback Kyle Boller, who threw three interceptions that led directly to all 10 Redskins points.
While the Ravens have their limits, the defense led by Ray Lewis is never one of them. While the Redskins change their personnel and philosophy from season to season -- with enormous turnover and confusion -- Baltimore sticks to what it knows. For example, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is in his third season. Yes, he's the same Nolan who was one of the many revolving-door Redskins defensive coordinators.
The turning point of this game came when, with the Redskins ahead 10-0, safety Ed Reed blitzed quarterback Mark Brunell, stripped him of the ball, then recovered the fumble and raced 22 yards for Baltimore's first touchdown. The Redskins' offense, still learning its umpteenth new system in the last few seasons, led by personnel that has been revamped yet again, was left naked by a sophisticated defense that has polished its skills and stuck with its same fundamental football ideas year after year.
That moment of embarrassment was merely a microcosm of an entire evening of Redskins-Ravens contrasts that the home team would love to forget.