LONG BEFORE there were Super Bowls or Dallas Cowboys or instant replay, there were the Washington Redskins. They came here 75 years ago, and their ups and downs, fumbles and triumphs have been a memorable part of the city’s history and sometimes the nation’s. They won the National Football League championship in their first year in Washington, 1937. Four years later they were popular enough that on one December afternoon a fair number of the country’s military and political elite had to be summoned to their offices over the stadium loudspeaker, for reasons unknown to the rest of the fans. The Redskins beat the Philadelphia Eagles that day, 20-14, and, incidentally, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
With the passing arm of Sammy Baugh of Texas, the Redskins early established what has become a staple of NFL wisdom: The quarterback is everything. The Redskins were good in the 1940s, not so good in the ’50s and ’60s. But through the bad days, they continued to have a loyal following (though it’s true a kid could take the streetcar up to old Griffith Stadium on game day and buy a ticket at the gate for a few dollars). For a long time, the team was sadly unrepresentative of the people of Washington — the last in the league to have no black player. But with the color line finally broken in 1962, the Redskins established what may be the country’s largest and most enthusiastic African American fan base. In fact, as many have argued, they’re probably the greatest uniter in the Washington region — its most important source of pride or, in recent years, anguish.
They went to their first Super Bowl in 1973 under George Allen and won their first in 1983 under Joe Gibbs. Since the great Gibbs years, however, things have not gone well. The Redskins under Daniel Snyder — an owner seen by many as hyperactive and overinvolved in details — have been a thriving business but a loser on the field. Until now, at least. This year, with Mr. Snyder using a lighter hand and Coach Mike Shanahan making an auspicious draft choice, the Redskins are in position to win their division’s championship and head to the playoffs, if only they can beat the Cowboys Sunday night.
Mr. Shanahan’s choice, Robert Griffin III, has become an idol to thousands of Washingtonians who, roughly 13 months ago, had hardly heard of him. He seems to be the quarterback who is everything — poised, confident and effective beyond his years. He brings to mind what was said of a baseball great, Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson, when he made it to the majors: “He plays like he came down from a higher league.”
The Redskins are young and promising. Washington is more football-mad than it’s been in a long time, and Dan Snyder — often criticized, sometimes justly — can take his share of the credit. People may talk about the mess in Washington, but on Sunday night, no one here will be listening.