Eagles fans took over FedEx Field on Sunday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Daniel Snyder’s first 20 years as owner of the Washington Redskins concluded in brutally symbolic fashion Sunday with a sickly, shorthanded 24-0 loss to Philadelphia at FedEx Field. The place was swamped with visiting Eagles fans, their green jerseys outnumbering those fans in burgundy and gold by three to one, according to unofficial estimates.

This was an afternoon when D.C., and the rest of the football-watching nation, could see a once-beloved franchise in full fan-base free fall.

After the sights and sounds of this dismal contest, when Washington gained 89 yards and Philadelphia fans chanted ­“E-A-G-L-E-S” as they left the stadium, what on earth will the next 20 years bring if Snyder, just 54, continues to control the team’s reins and use them as a noose to strangle its future?

This game, and the scenes that filled it, marked the culmination of a team deterioration and fan alienation that have required years. Often, the Redskins’ loss of stature has more to do with their perceived bad character as an organization than merely a poor record.

Now, it appears to be a combination of both, and the result Sunday was a less-than-capacity FedEx Field that felt as if the Eagles’ home stadium had moved a few hours south. The shrinkage of the fan base has become shocking.

The Redskins’ attendance has fallen from an NFL-best 89,625 in 2005 to 75,175 last season to 60,719 this year — a drop in just one year of 24 percent to 29th among 32 teams. This latest plummet, it should be noted, has happened when the team was still in contention for a playoff spot until just a week ago. But more than on-field performance is driving this exodus.

Sunday’s loss left the Redskins with a 7-9 record, a winning percentage roughly equal to that of the entire Snyder era — and the game began and ended with images that will be hard to forget.

Washington won the coin toss (the high point of its day) and elected to receive the opening kickoff even though this contradicts current NFL theory. Prevailing wisdom holds that you should kick off, then get the ball to start the second half.

However, by grabbing the ball immediately, Washington had a chance to keep a loud Eagles crowd out of the game for at least one series.

This plan, if the plan it was, failed instantly. Josh Johnson, Washington’s fourth-string quarterback, threw an interception on the game’s very first snap. FedEx Field erupted with the Eagles fans’ cheers, and they seldom abated. Home fans, such as they were, departed in droves by the end of the third quarter as the Eagles took a 17-0 lead.

By the fourth quarter — after Eagles quarterback Nick Foles had tied an NFL record with 25 consecutive completions before leaving with injured ribs, and after former Redskins backup Nate Sudfeld threw a salt-in-the-wound touchdown pass — the entire crowd appeared to be from Philadelphia.

They flapped their wings and crowed as the scoreboard showed Chicago beating Minnesota, a result that would send the Eagles back to the playoffs.

If this division rivalry game had been played for identical stakes in any previous decade, such massive Washington indifference to its (formerly) favorite team would have been unthinkable. My late father could probably attest that the same would have been true in 1938 and 1948.

The Redskins had a shot to knock the only Super Bowl winner in Philadelphia history out of the playoffs. Sweet indeed. The saga of journeyman quarterback Johnson, who narrowly won and narrowly lost the past two exciting games against playoff contenders, would have been enough of a feel-good factor to create HTTR fervor.

Yet there was nothing. A Washington team that heard boos at home earlier this month in a loss to the New York Giants in which it trailed 40-0 was met with something much worse — indifference. In its own stadium.

No fights were detected in the stands. If the home team didn’t care to put up more than a perfunctory fight, then why should its fans? The whole evening was an orderly autopsy.

“It’s disappointing for sure,” Coach Jay Gruden said of the scene. “It’s my job to make sure the fans come here [by putting] a product on the field. Hopefully, we’ll regain that support sometime soon — very, very soon. Until then, we have a lot of work to do.”

In what seem like endless installments in a stream of embarrassments for the team’s fans, Washington released one of its better players just days before the game. D.J. Swearinger Sr., a Pro Bowl alternate at safety, was sent away Monday after he ripped the defensive coordinator repeatedly to reporters after a loss to Tennessee last week. Yet this is the same team that, just a few weeks earlier, to national mockery, picked up a player no other team would touch — after he had been arrested for the third time this year.

The day after Christmas, the team’s chief operating officer, Brian Lafemina, Snyder’s handpicked executive brought to bring a more open, fan-friendly tone to the team, was fired. Three executives who came with him departed, too. So much for a change in tone and tenor.

Now a grim offseason awaits. Not that the team itself is likely to acknowledge it. That has long been part of the problem in the Redskins Park bubble — a lack of self-knowledge and criticism. Gruden and several players spent their time after the game talking about how “close” they were to being a good team.

Gruden said that, when in decent health, “we can play with anybody that we’ve faced this season.” Tackle Morgan Moses said, “The talent is here.”

How long will Snyder keep President Bruce Allen, whose nine years as team president (59-84-1) have defined futility? And if he pushes Allen, his close confidante, to the business side of the franchise, as seems likely, what recognized personnel expert will come to a front office that has become synonymous with dysfunction?

Will Gruden, a decent but undistinguished coach in Washington, return next season after compiling a 35-44-1 mark over five seasons? If he is replaced, does Snyder really want to begin a search for his ninth coach — and the accompanying roster explosions and rebuilding that would come with the new hire?

Finally, at the game’s central position — quarterback — where are the Redskins headed, not just for next season but beyond that? For at least the next couple of seasons, quarterback hopes may be slim and none. Johnson and Colt McCoy, out with a broken leg, are either backups or bottom-tier starters in a passer-driven league.

The entire sport wishes for a healthy return to normal life for Alex Smith after his gruesome compound fracture of his right leg last month. But a normal life and survival in an NFL pocket are utterly different. No one, yet, has the slightest indication that Smith will play effectively again.

Count on Snyder to be attracted to flashy, distracting objects. Before Sunday’s game, beloved former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was on the field. Sad to say, the only way that the Hall of Famer could help the franchise that he loves would be to put together a group of billionaires to buy out Snyder, fire Allen and start over.

That’s not happening.

This long process, this fan-fidelity plummet, this annual agony that has increasingly turned to indifference, is not over yet. Who knows where it ends?

But we know exactly what depths we’ve reached. The echoes for this season at FedEx have died out now. But the last ones heard were bitter indeed.

“E-A-G-L-E-S.”

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.