The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unhappy days are here again for D.C. pro sports

It's been a rough year for Washington professional sports. (Jess Rapfogel for The Washington Post; John McDonnell/The Washington Post; Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

It wasn’t that long ago that Washington’s professional sports teams experienced the best of times.

The Capitals won the Stanley Cup. The Nationals won the World Series. The Mystics won the WNBA title. The Spirit won the NWSL championship. Heck, even the pathetic NFL team won a division title — albeit with a 7-9 record.

There was hope, and there was joy. There were parades.

And now, only a few years later, it feels like the worst of times.

The Caps still look like a solid, contending team — but they haven’t won a playoff series since that magical run five seasons ago, and they are aging by the minute.

The Wizards? Since they went to back-to-back Finals in 1978 and 1979, they haven’t won 50 games in a season or reached the conference finals. They finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season and might — might — make the 10-teams-per-conference playoffs this season.

Even the soccer teams have fallen off dramatically. D.C. United, which won three titles in the first four seasons of Major League Soccer, last won a playoff game in 2015. This season, it bottomed out and will finish with the worst record in the league after its final game Sunday. The Spirit, which has had all sorts of coaching, ownership and front-office issues, finished 11th in a 12-team league.

But the disappointments — to put it mildly — that most people talk about are the Commanders and the Nationals.

Barry Svrluga: The Nationals and their fans know the bottom. This isn’t it.

The Nats established themselves during an eight-year stretch when they made the postseason five times, climaxing with the 2019 World Series win. Since then, they’ve plummeted. Even if you give them a pass for going 26-34 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, you can’t give them a pass for 97 losses a year ago and a Washington club record 107 losses this season.

General Manager Mike Rizzo’s pledge for a quick reboot now sounds more like a punchline.

Rizzo certainly deserves credit for the World Series victory, but he also deserves blame for the collapse. Trading Max Scherzer might have made sense because the Lerner family didn’t want to pay him after last season, but trading Trea Turner? No way.

The same can be said for the Juan Soto trade this summer. Yes, Rizzo was cornered by his alleged pal Scott Boras, baseball’s biggest villain, but it still says here you don’t trade a 23-year-old superstar who doesn’t become a free agent until 2024. Especially when new ownership might be willing to pay to keep him.

Some happy-talk media members in this town act as if it is a lock that the prospects acquired in those salary dumps will become stars. In the meantime, the fan base has suffered through two truly awful seasons with the turnaround not yet in sight. Joey Meneses has been a joy to watch. That’s about it.

Credit Manager Dave Martinez for finding something good to say night after night. Martinez is one of those guys who would look at a hurricane and say, “but I hear the weather will be great once it passes.” He managed the team to a World Series title, but the notion that it will all be better tomorrow can get a little tedious, especially when 100 losses are in the rearview mirror.

What’s more, there is potential turmoil ahead with the Lerners still exploring cashing in on their $1.5 billion to $2 billion profit since they bought the team by selling the franchise. If they sell, no one knows who the new owner will be and what decisions he or she will make. It could be great — or it could be Daniel Snyder.

Which brings us to the area’s biggest embarrassment: Snyder’s team, regardless of name or uniform color.

Ron Rivera says change won’t happen overnight. He’s 1,006 nights in.

Since Joe Gibbs retired for the first time in 1993, the team has been to the playoffs six times in 29 seasons and has won two postseason games — once after the 1999 season with a team put together by Charley Casserly and Norv Turner before Snyder plundered it during his first offseason as owner, and the other after the 2005 season during Gibbs 2.0. Over the past 16 seasons, the team has won 10 games once — during Robert Griffin III’s electric rookie year a decade ago.

A day after his team dropped to 1-3 with a loss at Dallas, Coach Ron Rivera said, “I understand everybody’s frustration, especially how proud this organization is.”

Proud? Once upon a time it was very proud. But the last championship was more than 30 years ago, and the 21st century has been a disaster on and off the field.

All of that starts — and ends — with the owner, who spent much of this year hiding out from Congress on his yacht. It isn’t just that Snyder has hired and fired coaches the way most of us change our socks, or that he had a reputation as a mean, smarmy person before the various investigations of his organizational culture began.

It’s more than that. He’s never sorry, and he never admits guilt. Oh, he put out a statement admitting mistakes had been made after the NFL wrist-slapped him with a $10 million fine while suggesting his wife, Tanya, would run the team for a while.

Tanya Snyder has given one real interview since being pushed front-and-center by her husband and the NFL. Even facing softball questions, she somehow tried to blame the media for all that has gone wrong with the franchise.

The NFL is culpable in all of this. It pointedly protected Snyder after the first investigation by refusing to allow a written report — this is what’s called a coverup, folks — and now is in the midst of a drawn-out second investigation with no promise it will produce anything other than more hand-wringing. Meanwhile, Commissioner Roger Goodell keeps insisting that the franchise is all better now. Huh?

The NFL is a monolith, and its massive TV contracts make the owners financially invulnerable. If not for visiting fans, the Commanders wouldn’t come close to filling half of their swamp of a stadium. But that doesn’t matter to Snyder and his cronies.

In 2014, after a 4-12 season, then-team president Bruce Allen claimed the team was “winning off the field.” Eight years later, little — other than the team’s racist former name — has changed.

This franchise hasn’t won on or off the field since Snyder bought it. And there’s no end in sight — for the Commanders or for the rest of Washington’s struggling professional teams.