As is customary, the victorious side in Sunday’s local NFL game paid earnest tribute to the support it received from the stands.
“Our fans were outstanding here today,” the coach said.
“The fans that showed up and were loud and stayed until the end, that was pretty awesome,” the quarterback said.
“Did you hear them? You wasn’t out there?” asked the defensive tackle. “It was pretty, pretty loud. Gave all of us some fire.”
The issue, though, is that the victorious side came from Minnesota and the game was played in Landover and the purple masses doing those Skol chants were congregating behind the visitor’s bench, although they were elsewhere too.
This is no longer a remarkable sight at FedEx Field or at many other NFL venues. Blame the efficient secondary market, the massive inventory of tickets, the wonders of the couch, the modern disconnect between geography and fandom or whatever else you’d like. We have seen it all over the country, and we have seen it here with Raiders fans and Packers fans, Steelers fans and Dolphins fans (!), Eagles fans and Giants fans. So Sunday’s great purple patches didn’t seem all that unusual. At least to us.
“When they were doing the Skol chant, it felt like it was at a home game,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said of the Icelandic war chants Vikings fans have co-opted. “That doesn’t happen all the time.”
“I remember that from last year, too,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “Vikings fans tend to travel really well — and here, especially.”
“I would say our fans travel fairly well, honestly, at every road game, but I think today it was a really good turnout,” running back Latavius Murray said. “It was cool to see.”
Every time I plod into these waters, D.C. fans react with suspicion, question my motives and generally suggest this is an unworthy topic. So let me be clear. There is not one thing wrong with Washington fans, other than their continued love of House of Pain. There is nothing embarrassing about living in a large and vibrant metropolitan area filled with residents who grew up in other lovely parts of this country — or in Philadelphia. If fans here have grown weary of paying to watch a largely mediocre product at a largely mediocre venue surrounded by largely mediocre fast-food joints (and two Taco Bells), no one would fault them.
FedEx Field still rocks, when the occasion merits it. It rocks even when visiting fans show up in strength; the home crowd was plenty loud during that rout of the Raiders earlier this year. And Redskins fans can reverse this trend as well as anyone; recent road games in L.A. and Dallas have been jammed with burgundy and gold, and the team’s visit to the Chargers later this season figures to be a massive Reston and Rockville reunion.
So what’s the point? After that shocking win in Seattle last weekend, there was an assumption that this team was now in position to capitalize at home, in what was essentially a pick ’em game against the division-leading Vikings. I’m not sure that assumption made sense. Because I’m not sure how much of a home-field advantage FedEx Field actually offers.
Since Joe Gibbs left almost a decade ago, the Redskins have 44 losses at home, nearly the same as their 47 losses on the road. They’re 15-14 at home in the Gruden era, with the league’s eighth-worst home point differential. They’re 6-7 at FedEx Field over the past two seasons, when so many of their worst performances (against the Panthers, Giants and now Vikings) have come in their own neighborhood. Since Bruce Allen was hired, the Redskins have had stretches of 2-8, 0-8, 2-6, 2-6, and now 2-5 at their own venue. (To be fair, they’ve also had three home winning streaks of at least four games.)
Maybe these are statistical blips, linked to the team’s erratic averageness and refusal to be particularly good at anything in particular. But in the worst moments of the Snyder era — under Spurrier and Zorn and Shanahan — you assumed that basic competence might be enough to resurrect some sort of built-in advantage at home. It’s fair to wonder whether that’s still true or whether all the mitigating factors — the stadium’s size and location, its unpopularity and unsavory reputation, the area’s diversity and all the newer drawbacks to game attendance, the fatigue from so many past disappointments — might have permanently zapped that place’s potential.
Remember, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, using point differential rather than won-loss record, calculated during the offseason that Washington’s “observed home-field advantage” over the past decade — based on home and away point differential rather than wins and losses — was better only than the Dolphins’.
Can FedEx Field get loud? Absolutely. Is it a place that other teams have feared or should fear or might one day fear? It might be scarier if the home team dressed as parking attendants, and tried to charge the visitors 50 bucks each to navigate around porta-potties.
“I think the advantage comes by playing well,” Kirk Cousins said Sunday evening. “I think when we played the Raiders, I remember, we shut their fans up pretty good. … I think that we’ve got to put a product on the field that people have something to cheer about, and they’re dying to cheer for us. When we have done that, it has been a great place to play, and that’s the dream. To put a product on the field that is the toughest ticket in town and the place is rocking and it’s all burgundy and gold.”
“The advantage comes by playing well” is accurate enough — the crowd does feed off the team — but it also sort of reverses the way we typically think of this equation. The team is supposed to feed off the crowd. Home field is supposed to convey an automatic advantage. If you have to play well to unlock that advantage, then the “advantage” isn’t much of an advantage in the first place.
And actually, it never has been, not in Landover. Twenty teams have a record of at least .500 at FedEx Field. The Redskins don’t happen to be one of them. Compare that to RFK Stadium, which the Redskins departed with a winning percentage of .615.
The optimism after last week’s win resulted largely from the apparently favorable second-half schedule, which still includes home games against the sub-.500 Giants, Cardinals and Broncos. You can still sort of see it, and the crowds should favor the home team. Giants fans should be more interested in booing their own team than the Redskins, the Cardinals cannot possibly have a large D.C. fan base, and there are laws in several jurisdictions against cheering for Brock Osweiler.
So maybe Sunday’s fourth-quarter scene won’t be repeated this season. But Sunday’s result felt numbingly familiar. Will the built-in benefit of being at home one day boost this team again? Or is that era as much a relic as bouncing seats, wait lists and tickets you wouldn’t struggle to give away?
“Normally we have a good bit of fans; it’s just today we actually really heard ’em,” Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph said.
“Being in another stadium when that happens is kind of crazy,” said Smith, the safety.
“I’ve never been on a team that travels like that,” said quarterback Case Keenum.
Maybe it was new to them. It wasn’t new to us.