If you squinted real hard into the cold January rain, New Year’s Day, 2011, offered something approaching optimism for Washington sports fans. Playing their highest-profile game in years — the NHL’s first prime-time outdoor Winter Classic — the Washington Capitals earned a 3-1 victory over the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins, creating an indelible, irresistible sporting memory.
Thousands of Capitals fans, a small army drenched in red, had traveled to western Pennsylvania that weekend to celebrate the new year. And many allowed themselves to believe that maybe, just maybe, 2011 might be different.
“It’s amazing. Honestly, that’s all I can say — it’s amazing,” James McLeod of Fredericksburg said that day. “I hope so many things. I don’t want to hope too much.”
He should have trusted his instincts. We all should have.
The year that ends Saturday turned out to be the same as every year for D.C. sports fans, filled with playoff failures and coaching changes, off-field embarrassments and downtrodden fans, dashed expectations and national irrelevance.
In retrospect, the Capitals’ New Year’s Day triumph may have been the high-water mark. Indeed, by Jan. 2 — as many fans were still driving home from Pittsburgh — the Redskins were losing to the New York Giants to finish off one of the worst seasons in Coach Mike Shanahan’s NFL career. The Redskins wound up winning just five of their 16 games played during 2011.
One day later, the University of Maryland introduced Randy Edsall as its head football coach, disappointing many fans who had hoped for a flashier hire. Edsall went on to amass a 2-10 record in his first season, alienating many longtime boosters and chasing off a string of disenchanted players.
On Jan. 4, the Nationals made one of their biggest offseason moves, signing free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $16 million deal. LaRoche would play just 43 games, hitting .172 with three home runs, before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
And so it went, day after day, week after week, month after month, loss after loss. If every unhappy sports year is unhappy in its own way, 2011 was blandly but relentlessly mediocre for Washingtonians. It was 12 months of stale bread, 12 months of overcast skies, 12 months of Rex Grossman and Andray Blatche.
“Being a Washington sports fan is the worst decision a person can ever make,” D.C. sports fan Emily Garcia wrote on Twitter in May, moments after the Capitals were swept out of the Stanley Cup playoffs, virtually ensuring a 19th straight year in which no major Washington professional team would win a title.
And it wasn’t just the professional teams that disappointed in 2011. In March, the Maryland men’s basketball team was shut out of both the NCAA and NIT postseason tournaments for the first time since 1993. Georgetown made the NCAA tournament as a sixth seed, but was crushed by 11th-seeded VCU, failing to win a single NCAA tournament game for the third straight year.
George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, who had ushered the school to an improbable Final Four berth and unprecedented national attention, bolted for Miami in late April. Within two weeks, Maryland’s best player, sophomore Jordan Williams, defied conventional wisdom and left school early for the NBA. Almost immediately, the school’s legendary coach, Gary Williams, retired.
By the fall, the Maryland football team’s transformation from a nine-win bowl team to a two-win disaster had earned widespread jeers — CBS Sports columnist Bruce Feldman named the Terps the biggest dud of 2011 — and Navy’s football team failed to qualify for a bowl for the first time in nine years.
Still, those failures could hardly match the vortex that enveloped Washington’s pro teams. Shanahan matched the worst season of his career by going 6-10 in 2010; he’ll need to win Sunday’s finale just to get back to that mark. Two of the Redskins’ best young offensive players, Trent Williams and Fred Davis, were suspended four games each for violating the NFL’s drug policies, and the franchise removed 10,000 seats from its stadium while talking about “party decks,” before a top official admitted there were no definite plans to build anything.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder spent Super Bowl week talking not about football but about his libel lawsuit against the Washington City Paper and sportswriter Dave McKenna, which he later dropped after months of ridicule.
Virtually every pro coach in this city had a forgettable 12 months. The Wizards’ Flip Saunders finished the 2010-11 season with the worst winning percentage in his 15-year NBA career. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau reached 200 wins faster than any other NHL coach, and was fired soon thereafter. Nationals manager Jim Riggleman had his team playing hotter than any club in baseball before resigning in June over a contract dispute. He spent that night in a Bethesda bar, “solving the world’s problems,” he explained during a subsequent radio interview.
Forget the world’s problems; we just need somebody to fix our athletic misery. In 2011, D.C. United missed the MLS playoffs for the fourth straight year, a club record. The WNBA’s Mystics won six times in 34 games, finishing last in the Eastern Conference. Georgetown’s basketball team went to China on a goodwill mission and wound up in a brawl that received international attention.
The most highly anticipated baseball game of the year — Stephen Strasburg’s return from injury — turned into a sparsely attended affair after persistent rain kept thousands of ticket holders away. Nats outfielder Jayson Werth went so far as to tackle one of the team’s racing presidents in an effort to let perpetual loser Teddy Roosevelt win; “there’s an expectancy of losing there,” Werth later argued.
Sure, there were bright spots. Boxer Lamont Peterson won a world title in front of his hometown crowd. The Nats closed strong, finishing in third place amid a surge of optimism. The Wizards introduced attractive new uniforms. The Redskins got rid of Albert Haynesworth.
And other than that? Well, take solace in the words of Saunders, now the dean of Washington’s pro coaches.
“Don’t ever think it can’t get any worse,” he once said. “Because it can.”
That was two seasons ago, when the Wizards lost 56 games. In 2011, they made it to 59.