Washington sports fans are already covered with scars, and so it sometimes feels as if they should be numb to further abuse. If a heart has been broken seven or eight different times, what does another stab wound matter?
And then, with the season on the line, the home team’s quarterback will double-clutch, hesitate and fling a poor pass into the most dangerous part of the field. The ball will be intercepted, the home team will lose, the season will end in a soft poof of disappointment, the playoffs again will be a playground for 12 other cities, and tens of thousands of fans will turn silently and go home.
What did the Redskins’ 19-10 loss to the New York Giants feel like Sunday afternoon?
“The end of the world,” Cara Todd said as she walked through pockets of celebrating Giants fans at FedEx Field.
This regular season finale provided fresh torture for a franchise that hasn’t found consistent success in a quarter century. The visiting Giants had clinched their playoff seeding and had nothing at stake; they kept quarterback Eli Manning on the field for the entire game but rested other contributors and seemed indifferent for much of the second half. The Redskins — favored by more than a touchdown at home — essentially needed a win to clinch a second straight postseason appearance, something they hadn’t done in 24 years.
One team had the strongest possible motivation; the other would have been forgiven for having no motivation whatsoever.
So a Washington victory felt, to some, like a formality. The team even ran a graphic on the scoreboards during halftime about potential first-round opponents. But there should be no formalities in this town, which is hurtling toward the 25th anniversary of its last title in a major pro sport.
No one ever confused this Redskins team with a championship contender. Its weak defense was a season-long issue, its performance on national television is often subpar, and it hasn’t won a playoff game in more than a decade. But progress can be measured in smaller steps toward consistent competence, and six weeks ago the Redskins seemed safely on that path.
Then came a letdown that will infuse the next offseason with fierce debate and lingering dissatisfaction. After starting the season 6-3-1, the Redskins lost four of their final six games. They lost their final two games at FedEx Field, one to a Carolina Panthers team that was out of playoff contention, the other to this Giants team that had nothing but pride on the line.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins set a host of franchise records this season, but his two-interception dud Sunday, coupled with a poor game against the Panthers, will be among its most vivid memories. His one-year contract with the team is set to expire, and he’s seeking a long-term deal in the offseason. Whether he deserves it will remain the noisiest nonpolitical argument in town.
“This isn’t my first time dealing with this,” he said. “Tough times don’t last, tough people do, right? I sound like a broken record. But I’m going to keep saying that till I retire.”
Then there’s Coach Jay Gruden, who spent much of Sunday afternoon looking as if he had just swallowed a handful of rocks. Gruden is set to enter his fourth year with the Redskins, and no head coach has lasted beyond four years since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999. Gruden’s merits again will be questioned by some skeptics after Washington began this game with a whimper, mismanaged several in-game situations, committed cringe-worthy penalties and failed to finish off a vulnerable team.
“It’s disappointing, no question about it,” Gruden said after the loss. “It’s never, ‘Oh man, I’m proud to be 8-7-1.’ We’re very disappointed at the outcome.”
There are more questions: about a defense that seemed talent-deficient, about a 2016 draft class that rarely contributed, about whether Washington can or should keep high-profile free agent wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.
There will be questions, too, about whether this season should be seen as a step backward. This was the second year under General Manager Scot McCloughan, and there were some promising signs. Washington’s offense averaged 6.4 yards per play, one of the 12 best rates since 1970, and set several franchise records. And the Redskins managed a winning record in back-to-back years for the first time in two decades.
But the sluggish finish to the season — and especially Sunday’s anticlimax — will leave a bitter aftertaste. Former players spent much of the day launching withering critiques of the team’s effort; “We love you, but this was an embarrassing showing today,” Hall of Famer Darrell Green wrote on Twitter. “This is absolute GARBAGE!!!” beloved ex-player Brian Mitchell wrote. “This is beginning to look like a motivation issue,” ex-running back Larry Brown wrote.
And slow and steady progress — while preferable to the drudgery of past Redskins seasons — isn’t an easy sell after years of mediocrity. The Redskins haven’t won 11 games in a season since 1991, the longest such drought in the NFL. They celebrated the 25th anniversary of their last Super Bowl win this year, which casts an awful shadow on 8-7-1. That likely explained some of the blank stares in that sad crowd filing out for the last time this season.
“I hate everyone,” observed Emily Sower of the District.
“Shocked, stunned and wildly disappointed,” said Patrick Nolan of Arlington.
“They didn’t put forth any effort. Lack of effort, totally,” said Robert Jacobs of Richmond.
But Jacobs also thought of something else, something that should resonate across a town whose sports seasons are measured by scabs and scars.
“The pain is over,” he said.
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