Usually around this time of year, I take a few moments to gawk at the insatiable optimism of certain Redskins fans. The ones who aren't sure if the team will finish 10-6 or maybe 11-5. The ones who still haven't decided which team will finish second in the NFC East. The ones who would warn you against relying on any Redskins players in fantasy football, because the team will probably be resting its starters in Weeks 16 and 17. The ones who make Larry Michael look like a beaten-down cynic.
I haven't done that this year. Because I'm not sure how many of those fans exist anymore. And I kind of miss them. Early September doesn't feel quite the same.
This is supposed to the juiciest, happiest, most completely irrational time of the year in Washington. For the first time in the 20 years I've lived here, the team is actually coming off consecutive winning seasons. And yet the temperature around town right now seems to be at "grits left overnight on the kitchen counter" levels. The buzz sounds like a dying mosquito. The electricity couldn't power a fidget spinner. Optimism? There's more optimism in the wholesome, collaborative and rejuvenating power of Congress than there is in the Redskins.
"I think there's absolutely as little buzz around the Redskins as I've probably ever experienced," said Chad Dukes, of 106.7 The Fan's afternoon show. "Everyone's just kind of resigned to walk the green mile. It's a huge shift. It's unbelievable. Even when they were terrible, even when they were awful, people still believed."
"I mean, they play in a couple days, and it feels like it's a couple months away to me, based on the excitement on the show," said Grant Paulsen of 106.7 The Fan's midday program. "If you listened to our show in previous seasons, the week leading up to Week 1, there was not only a lot more excitement and calls about the Redskins, but there was just a general energy from the fan base about the first game that you don't really feel right now. And it's pretty obvious."
"In my 21 years of doing radio, it's the least I've felt in terms of a buzz going into the season," said Eric Bickel of 106.7 The Fan's morning show. "In years past, I feel like you'd have a lot more homers, a lot more wildly optimistic fans. I think that's kind of been beaten out of us."
In fairness, it's probably worth noting that 106.7 The Fan is both the flagship station of the Nationals and a competitor to the Daniel Snyder-owned ESPN 980, although all three hosts quoted here grew up as rabid Redskins fans. And in more fairness, hosts at ESPN 980 have not sensed the same malaise discussed above.
"I really didn't feel juiced-up for this season a few weeks ago, but starting with that third preseason game, it's obvious based on loaded phone lines and many other forms of communication that this is what really seems to excite people: the start of a football season," said 980 morning host Kevin Sheehan. "Phone lines are lit before we even ask for calls during Redskins season, and that's no different than any other year. There's no doubt over the last couple weeks, once we start talking about the Redskins, they start to light up."
(This item previously suggested that I needed permission from the Redskins to speak with ESPN 980 hosts. That is apparently not correct.)
In any case, last year, I wrote a preview column suggesting that the newly normal Redskins — stable GM, stable coach, stable quarterback — were good for wins, but bad for sports radio. And I spent a day at 106.7 The Fan working on this, and we all kind of agreed: The Redskins were better, but boring.
But maybe that was a misdiagnosis. Maybe it wasn't about the Redskins being stable last offseason. Maybe something bigger is going on — at least in certain demographics. That radio station, for the record, is doing rather swell in the ratings. But its Redskins Excitement Detection Level — like mine — is spitting out straight lines.
"It's difficult to turn an observation into an actual proven fact, but it just seems to me that there is less casual interest, excitement, buzz than there has been in the past," Paulsen said this week. "It's odd to me. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's that the Nationals are very good. … But whatever motivates people to participate, that seems to be lacking, because I don't feel like people are excited."
The Redskins "always used to get phones. And now they've kind of settled into that same territory as the Nationals, Capitals and Wizards, where unless it's a major controversy, you don't get calls," Dukes said. "There were no calls for the preseason. It used to be the day before and the day after a preseason game, you could just put your feet up, because you were just gonna be able to put it on cruise control. And this year, I would go whole hours without talking about football at all. Nobody cared to contribute."
"I think we mischaracterized last year's lack of interest and apathy. We thought that was because there was no drama. Turns out fans are just losing hope, and I think the team is losing fans," Bickel said. "Usually every year, there'd be thousands of people going, 'We're going to win the division, we're going to the Super Bowl!' That factor is gone."
Look, maybe they, and I, are totally wrong. Maybe social media has replaced the sports-radio phone call as a useful metric. Maybe we are out of touch with the true fans. Maybe you, reading these words, are buzzing with electric certainty that the Redskins will finish 11-5.
For sure, there will still be tens of thousands of Skins fans in FedEx Field on Sunday, and the TV ratings will smash those of any other local team, and a deep playoff run undoubtedly would be captivating. And granted, this is totally vague, mushy, "I-get-the-feeling" mumbo-jumbo, based only on trying to remember what the past 20 Septembers have felt like, and what this one feels like, in my dumb head and in the dumb heads of my sports-radio pals.
And there are larger issues, too. Maybe this is less about the Redskins than the modern NFL, where the preseason is for setting your betting choices and making your fantasy picks. Trump certainly has detracted some attention from sports in this town, so perhaps people have used up all their burning passion on topics other than Josh Doctson.
But there are also vague team-centric theories bopping around my head. Instead of summers barren of sports, we now have one of the best teams in baseball, providing a suitable sporting obsession other than the Redskins. Instead of rosters filled with stars, we now have a Redskins team whose sexiest player apparently plans to finish his career with 17 consecutive one-year deals. I can't get over the fact that the Redskins — one of the league's glory franchises, one that has sought stars for 20 years, one that has a national fan base and all those shiny trophies — don't have a single player in the top 45 of NFL jersey sales. The jerseys of Robert Griffin III and Sean Taylor remain among the most popular on game days. It's unimaginably sad.
I think some fans still haven't recovered from the blown optimism of the Griffin and Scot McCloughan experiments. I think some fans feel like last year's disastrous season finale proves that optimism is stupid. I think the metamorphosis of the Redskins name issue into a partisan, culture-wars topic has turned off some casual corners of the fan base. I think some die-hard fans are moving out of the die-hard age bracket — or dying — and are being replaced by younger people without any vestiges of goodwill. I think some people feel icky getting passionate about a team that has received as much bad press and national mockery as this one.
Again, the situation at 980 is apparently quite different; "we could literally take calls for four straight hours on any Redskins-related topic," Sheehan said. And probably I'm in a bubble on much of this — a Northwest D.C. bubble, if nothing else, where people almost seem embarrassed about rooting for the home team. But even if it's a bubble, it's probably a big enough bubble to make an impact.
"There's 100 percent been a degradation of the fan base under Daniel Snyder; there's no question about it," Bickel said. "They're losing fans annually. They just are."
"Even in my personal life with friends, people are less engaged about when we're watching the game, where we're watching the game," Dukes said. "Now Saturday will roll around, and I won't have heard from anybody."
"I think it's a lack of excitement, generally, for the start of the season that is tangible from years past," Paulsen said.
"Is there any enthusiasm at all for the Redskins this year?" a young D.C. sports fan of my demographic asked this week. "For all the talk about them being a D.C. pillar, I haven't seen much excitement."
Ditto. So if anyone still believes — if anyone still sees 12-4 as the most likely record, and is just trying to scout potential NFC championship game opponents, and is even now counting down the seconds until Sunday at 1 — please give me a call. I miss you.