As the Redskins disintegrated in the opening seconds against the Giants last month, social media lit up with a self-hating lament: “That’s so Redskins.” And as the Eagles breezed past Washington in the third quarter on Sunday, it happened again.
You think players didn’t know that fans were reaching for the smelling salts and one-liners? They listen. They know.
“Early in the third quarter, people were probably giving up,” Terrance Knighton said after Washington’s wobble-while-ahead and then rally-from-behind win. “I just hope that the fans see that this is a different team, man.”
Maybe it is, though it’s easier to balance your drink on FedEx Field’s handy new urinal shelves than to predict what might happen next in this whiplashy season. Here’s one safe prediction: Every stumble will have at least some people thinking, and typing, “same old Redskins.”
That’s why radio callers spent last week referring to Kirk Cousins as “Rex,” and comparing Jay Gruden to Jim Zorn. It’s why after primetime losses, epic meltdowns from the past are retold like treasured portions of the Odyssey, with Dan Snyder playing the role of the coach-eating Scylla. It’s why in some particularly cynical corners, there’s still a market for blog posts about Steve Spurrier’s Redskins memories. (Yeah, sorry. That one’s on me.)
And it’s why a newcomer such as Knighton already has lost his appetite for regional history lessons.
“If I hear anybody say ‘This is what happened last year,’ I go crazy,” Knighton said Sunday, before most of his teammates had even undressed. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Damn, just like last year.’ I’m like, no. No! Guys like myself, guys like [Jason Hatcher], guys like Trent Williams, guys like Dashon Goldson, we don’t let people talk about the past in this locker room. I better not hear it.”
Do teammates agree with that edict?
“Everybody [does], because this is a new team,” Williams said. “Sometimes lessons can be learned a year later, but the majority of the time, there’s really no point in talking about it. The focus should be on what’s ahead of us.”
Indeed, 23 men who started at least one game for the listless Redskins last season didn’t play a down Sunday. There are as many members of Jim Zorn’s final roster working for ESPN 980 (Chris Cooley and Clinton Portis) as there are playing for the current team (DeAngelo Hall and Kedric Golston). You and I think about what usually happens to the Redskins when they fall behind a division rival during a second-half torrent of penalties and punts, but do players?
“That’s just ghosts from the past, man,” Hatcher said. “It’s not really us; it’s you guys. You guys constantly bring it up. … It ain’t who we are no more. It’s just not.”
Which isn’t to say that players don’t understand the references. Some said Sunday that this was a game they would have lost in 2013 or 2014, that Philadelphia’s second-half body blows would have kept them on the ground.
“I think the easy thing would have been to say, ‘You know what? They came back on us,'” Williams said. “We could have let that type of aura creep through the whole team, and we could have laid it down. But like I said, this is a different team from last year.”
Of course, those of us consumed by ghosts from the past also remember this particular monster: the “we’re different from last year’s team” one. That’s been a false promise before, good for October enthusiasm but forgotten during a December collapse. For example, remember when Washington beat the Giants at home to start the 2011 season? (Skip this part, Pot Roast.)
“I think we would’ve lost that game last year,” one player said then.
Remember when they got a second win the next week against the Cardinals, dominating the first half, falling behind in the fourth quarter, but then rallying for a go-ahead score that had fans delirious about the dawn of a new era.
“Maybe these Redskins aren’t like their predecessors,” one columnist wrote then. “They’ve certainly been telling us that since training camp. And if they keep pulling out these close ones, we might have to start believing them.”
Those Redskins finished 5-11. Belief was premature.
The players who sparked Sunday’s winning drive — Kirk Cousins, Alfred Morris and Pierre Garcon — were all key contributors to the 2012 division winner. They know what the past has been like.
“Seven wins in the last two seasons, that’s a tough pill to swallow,” Morris said. “We were tired of it, and we want to get better. So I feel like we’re all working towards that common goal of not being a laughingstock of the NFL, not getting booed in our home stadium. I mean, that stuff sucks, you know? … I’m proud of this team. I’m proud I’m part of this team. The way we fought, the way we played today, that’s who we are. That’s the Washington Redskins. Last week, that wasn’t us. But this week, this was us.”
Have they changed? How do you revamp a team’s culture in just 12 months, so that players believe their team connotes resiliency rather than imploding bundles of flammable stuffing? So that you can be without your scariest offensive weapon, play with a one-legged cornerback, get whistled for five personal fouls, and still win?
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know. I can’t tell you,” Hatcher said. “If I had the formula, I’d tell you, but I can credit it to just the right guys. … It’s just all the guys that buy into it, all the guys that have something to do with it. The frickin’ lunch-room ladies, all that. I don’t know. It’s just the right people.”
This week, Washington will indulge the “unrealistic, masochistic optimism” cited by one fan in Sports Illustrated’s recent Redskins roundtable. If the Redskins lose Sunday, the town will revert to the “that’s so Redskins” mentality reflected in ESPN the Magazine’s recent Ultimate Team Rankings, in which Washington finished 120th of 122 pro franchises. After 20 years of false starts, faith fades as quickly as the color of FedEx Field’s turf.
So if a loss to the Kyle Shanahan-led Falcons prompts some wistful ruminations on the past, that’s probably natural. Just don’t tell Terrance Knighton.