Tom Garrett could count on one hand the number of Redskins games he has missed during his adult life. Garrett, 39, followed a few games electronically when he was out of town with family. He once missed the first three quarters of a game during a flight, but caught the fourth quarter in the airport when he landed. When the Redskins got thrashed by the Chiefs in a near-empty stadium late in the 2013 season, Garrett remembers hanging around the broadcast until late in the third quarter.
Sunday, he watched about a half-dozen series in the Redskins-Chargers game. Washington was not competitive. The outcome seemed clear. There were several compelling football alternatives. And so Garrett did the unthinkable: He bailed on the Redskins game way before halftime, and he didn’t come back.
“It was like, okay, there’s this vial of poison I have to drink every week, but I’d rather just take a couple eye droppers’ full as opposed to sitting there for three hours and drinking the whole thing,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “I did not feel the compulsion to watch every play. I’ve seen this movie before. I know how it ends. I can spend my time better elsewhere. I still love the team, but I don’t want to sit through that for three hours, just the inevitable defeat. If I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that I know what’s going to happen, I’d rather just watch a few series and kind of spare myself the pain.”
He wasn’t alone. The local television ratings for Washington’s blowout loss to the Chargers on Sunday afternoon were shockingly low, certainly among the lowest for any game in the Daniel Snyder era. Washington’s 30-13 defeat earned an 11.8 household rating in the D.C. market. That put it barely ahead of the 11.5 rating earned by the simultaneous Rams-Eagles game, a thrilling barn burner between two appealing teams.
That isn’t the worst of it. During Sunday’s 1 p.m. window, the Giants-Cowboys game on Fox earned a 14.4 rating in the D.C. market. Later that night, the Steelers-Ravens game on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” earned a 16.2 rating in the D.C. market. And Monday night, the Patriots-Dolphins game earned an 11.1 rating in the D.C. market.
Forget all the anecdotes of declining interest; these numbers were as dramatic as a field of brown grass. The Redskins were the third-most watched NFL game in their home market last weekend, behind games featuring their biggest national rival and their biggest local rival. And they came rather close to being the fifth-most watched NFL game in their home market last weekend. That’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen in L.A. That is not the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen here.
“We’ve had bad seasons, right? And I can’t remember a time that I’ve chosen a different game when the Redskins were on, even when they were playing through those 5-11 seasons,” said 40-year-old Ryan Ferrario, who barely watched the second half of Sunday’s game, instead tuning into Eagles-Rams. “I can’t really put my finger on what was different [Sunday]. It’s just the accumulation of going through this cycle every three or four years. Maybe the eighth cycle of this was enough to finally make me feel more apathetic than I have previously.”
Now for all the caveats, which you’ve already been ticking off. Last weekend offered nearly one-of-a-kind circumstances. The Redskins almost immediately were getting swamped by a West Coast team with virtually no local following, so any possible intrigue vanished well before halftime. And that game was going head-to-head against a matchup featuring two of the league’s best teams, one with a huge local following.
There’s more. The other three games that ran on local TV featured five teams with large local fan bases: the Cowboys, Giants, Ravens, Steelers and Patriots. Add the Eagles, and those are probably the six most popular teams in Washington other than the Redskins. The Patriots game was undecided until the very end. So was the Steelers-Ravens game. So was the Eagles-Rams game. And the Cowboys-Giants game remained close well into the third quarter. So these are enjoyable games with enjoyable teams, compared with that ridiculously one-sided Redskins contest against a vagabond Chargers franchise.
Then add in all the other factors driving down TV ratings, from modern viewing habits to whichever-flavored fan disgust you prefer to explain dipping interest in football.
Still. As recently as 2013 — a bad, bad season — the Redskins averaged a 26.6 rating locally, according to Sports Business Journal. In 2014, Jay Gruden’s disappointing first season, they averaged a 22.7 rating locally. That home disaster against the Chiefs in 2013 still earned a 20.7 rating. A depressing December trip to the Giants in 2014 — a bad team losing by double digits against another bad team — still earned a 20.3 rating. The 24-0 December shutout against the Rams that season still earned a 16.2 rating, which is the lowest local TV number I can recall from the recent past.
And last week’s dip fits in with other Redskins data points we’ve all observed. The hundreds of $6 tickets available for Sunday’s home game against the Cardinals. The sports-radio host who told me this summer that it was the least buzz he could remember for a Redskins season in 21 years. The friends who have given up family seats, or turned down free tickets to home games, or skipped an entire Skins game on TV, or just stopped following the team entirely.
It’s impossible to know how much of this is permanent, and how much just represents disinterest with the particular product offered last week, or this month, or this season. The fan base can still be jolted back to life (see: the 2015 playoff run, or the 2012 playoff run). Even in poor seasons, there are terrific home crowds, and the outpouring of support at the two L.A. games this season was remarkable. The Redskins remain the most popular team in town, and it isn’t close.
But each time the thing gets jolted back to life, it seems a tiny bit less alive than it was before. The ceiling is lower, and so is the floor. And each misstep — the Shanahan departure, the RGIII departure, the McCloughan departure, the Cousins uncertainty — seems to drain a tiny bit more life from the body. Thus, when the perfect storm of bad circumstances arrive, the Redskins can find themselves where they were last weekend: fighting to draw more local viewers than the Ravens and Cowboys and Patriots and Eagles, and not finishing first in that fight. Even Chris Cooley said he would have switched over to the Rams-Eagles game in the fourth quarter, had he not been calling Washington’s game for the Redskins Radio Network.
And so when Tim O’Meara’s three-year old daughter asked him if she could watch “Frozen” during the first quarter Sunday, he did something he had never done in his 36 years: He turned off a Redskins game before halftime.
“I just kind of let it go,” he said. (Honestly.) Then he wondered what to do next.
“I started looking at work e-mails,” he said. “I was like, ‘I wish I cared about the game right now. But honestly, I kind of don’t.'”
That — more than any stats about scoring defense or injured players or yards-per-attempt or even winning percentage — might be the scariest thing for this Redskins regime.